Wednesday, February 01, 2012


I feel like Hansel and Gretel (being both at once would be an apt ontology for this post), following a trail of breadcrumbs as I wind my way through a forest.

In each of the three meetings we've had so far, the students in my MLA course have raised some interesting (and as yet unanswerable) questions. Many of these concern the classic "nature vs. nurture" matter that infects every conversation involving human abilities and achievements. For instance, is it nature or nurture that leads to mathematical (and otherwise) savantism? That is, do "human calculators" owe their skills to some advantageous neural network structure in their brains...or do they develop those skills through hard work and constant application of ordinary neurological machinery?

Opinions were definitely divided on this matter during our last meeting: some accepted Dehaene's explanation that practice makes perfect, and that those who have plenty of time to practice are liable to more closely approach perfection; others weren't convinced. "Maybe none of us are born geniuses," one student said, "but some of us are born with better propensity to achieve genius than others are. Just like most of us will never be professional basketball players, as we lack the physique it would require."

This analogy might remind us that after all the brain is as much a piece of our anatomy as are our arms and legs, and our interpersonal differences in overall anatomy carry over to interpersonal differences in our brains as well. No doubt some of those differences predispose us well to certain kinds of genius inaccessible to others? It's up to each individual to nurture latent talent in the most efficacious way from that point on.

The risk we run in arguing like this is making dangerous generalizations along the following lines: "brain difference X translates into ability difference Y" and so forth. As I quipped mysteriously on Facebook the other day, brain does not equal mind anymore than map equals territory, and if we pretend that we can extrapolate everything we need to know about a person from the structure of their braincase, we anachronize and become phrenologists, feeling for bumps, risking claims about racial or sexual superiority. Remember that it was held for a long, long time that women were less bright than men because their brains were less massive...and that when this point of view was assailed from all sides, its adherents did all they could to rescue it, falling back on more and more convoluted sophistry to save their theory: "well, it's not brain volume per se, but volume of gray matter...or at least the ratio of gray to white matter...well, maybe the degree to which it's all convoluted..." (See Stephen Jay Gould's marvelous The mismeasure of man for a blow-by-blow debunking of such arguments.)

About sexual superiority (and getting back to our trail of breadcrumbs): one of my students turned me onto Cordelia Fine's Delusions of gender: How our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2010), a thorough discussion of modern attempts to pin gender differences in intellect on neurochemistry. Phrenology's not dead, it just looks a lot different than it did 150 years ago: now we don't look for protrusions in the skull, just higher-than-normal levels of fetal testosterone, and we don't come right out and suggest that women aren't as smart as men, we just say they have a greater propensity to empathize than they do to systematize. Fine spends much of her time pointing out flaws in modern phrenologists' methodologies, though not as many she might; I've noted a few flaws she could have mentioned but didn't.

It's a stimulating read, and I plan on sharing a few chapters with the MLA students. It's also leading me to other sources. Some of these are general in scope, like Jan Morris's Conundrum (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1974), a first-person account of the author's transition from male to female and the worlds she lost and gained in the process. Others are more specific, like Nash and Grossi's analysis ("Picking Barbie's brain: Inherent sex differences in scientific ability?" Journal of Interdisciplinary Feminist Thought 2(1), Article 5) of Simon Baron-Cohen's methodologies...which analysis might doom some of the infant studies which Dehaene cites, as well (O, circularity!).

I also plan on offering up a few excerpts from Richard E. Cytowic's The man who tasted shapes (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), an odd novel/memoir/neuropsychology text dealing with the phenomenon of synesthesia. Though not directly related to our course, I think certain passages bear tangentially on our discussions of brain function and will lead to interesting discussions.

More fun to come! Exciting. I hope the students are getting as much out of the class as I am. I may have to offer this course again soon in the Honors Program. Something to think about for next year...


Matt S said...

In the interests of adding to the conversation. I've always found nature vs. nurture to be a interesting argument. Particularly interesting having gone through flight training with our aviators. They're a very diverse group, and made for some very interesting observations.

If I might throw my two cents in here, I tend to agree with your students in the practice makes perfect group rather than those positing a significant difference due to genetics. I tend to think that personal drive factors in greatly, along with environment, and opportunity.

As an example, we have people with various liberal arts degrees come through aviation training, along with the expected technical degrees.

Does a person with a theater degree have to work a little harder than an engineer? Yes. Can both become s**t hot aviators? Yes, so long as both take advantage of the opportunity. We give them the tools and the environment to succeed, but the drive is up to them. They have to want it.

My point is that given the right opportunity anyone can acquire the skills to be a "genius" at something. In that sense, practice does make perfect, if you have the right tools. For example, Mozart would not have been Mozart without his father who was the finest music teacher in Europe. The key is the desire to succeed, to use those tools, and make the most of an opportunity.

True there are personality traits that might favor success in a particular area, and those could be genetically influenced. But they're no guarantee. Just like having a genetic predisposition to alcoholism doesn't mean you'll become an alcoholic.

DocTurtle said...

I agree completely! I often feel that the search for a purely biological basis for genius of any kind is an often-unveiled attempt to justify longstanding elitisms and prejudices of various sorts.

To me, the issue is very much one of brain vs. mind...we may be sure about various causations and correlations in the brain: excess of this chemical causes deficit in this one, and so forth...and we may be sure about various causations and correlations in the mind: passion about a particular activity generally drives one to practice that activity more frequently than one might otherwise, and that practice leads to more's at the brain-mind transition that things become blurred: we simply cannot state with certainty just what it is about the brain that gives rise to phenomena in the mind.

I wonder in horrible awe at people who assert that "oh, it's all about fetal testosterone" when it comes time to find a root cause for autism, savantry, or male superiority in one or another domain. Leaving aside the bad science, these sorts of arguments smack too much of phrenological justifications for racism that prevailed in the 19th century. Clumsy, ugly, and dull.