Howe Response Sect 01-02

From: Perry Yvonne (
Date: Mon Feb 23 1998 - 23:08:06 GMT

> Abstract: This response addresses eight issues raised in the
> commentaries: (1) the question of how innate talents should be defined;
> (2) relationships between the talent account and broader views
> concerning genetic variability;
> R1. Defining Talents
> The fact that people hold strong views about talents is reflected in
> the commentaries. a number of them, arrive at firm conclusions about
> the existence of innate talents that are broadly in line with our own
> highly sceptical viewpoint. A number of the [opposing] commentaries
> challenge our listing of the defining attributes of innate talents, and
> imply that our criterion is in some respect too stringent. Schneider
> queries the necessity for the concept of talent to include a predictive
> aspect
> Zohar and Rutter question our deciding to include early identification
> as a necessary characteristic of a talent. Rutter also notes that
> inherited characteristics may not become evident until relatively late
> in life. Charness, however, suggests our definition of talent may be
> too broad, whereas Simonton would prefer a more precise
> specification. Winner asserts that a definition of talent should make
> reference to a motivation to work hard.

This may be an important element. A lazy genius is unlikely to excel,
despite his/her remarkable abilities. The element of enjoyment can
contribute to how much an individual is motivated to work hard. A young
concert pianist who does not enjoy performing may even be said to be
more talented than one who does.

> Starkes & Helsen, despite agreeing with our main conclusion, find it
> hard to conceive of talents that are genuinely domain specific.

It seems that the issue of talent is both complex and controversial.
Defining "talent" is a substantial consideration. If we do not know
exactly what talents are, how can we begin to ponder as to their
causes and whether anyone could possess them? There seems to be a
continuum of agreement to Howe's viewpoint, rather than a for or
against stance. It would seem that the one thing everyone would agree
on, is that there should be a universal definition in order to make
judgements and predictions about talent and its existence. This is
unlikely of course.

> teachers" and other adults" beliefs about the presence or absence of
> [such] talents influence practical decisions that have important
> social and educational consequences for many children. As Rowe rightly
> observes, sports teams and organisations do not pick randomly. They
> send out talent scouts, conduct talent searches, and make efforts to
> spot talented children. Correctly or otherwise, selectors clearly
> believe that talent is there to be identified.

But what are they defining as talent? The scouts may not be
necessarily looking for "talent" (as an innate gift), but rather those
that seem to perform well (perhaps from lots of practice). This
example is not a convincing argument for "talent" per se. Howe seems
to be suggesting that the belief that talents are innate could be
unwise and immoral. Perhaps the teacher/parent that sees the
exceptional child as innately gifted ("talented") is blindly accepting
of intelligence as a fixed quality and dismissive of the influence of
experience and interaction. Assumptions like these may be foolish and
the whole selection process may be wrongly influenced by these

> For most people there is a clear distinction between specific talents
> and general intelligence, despite the fact that they are related. This
> consideration makes it impossible for us to agree that talent ought to
> be defined in a way that permits general intelligence or cognitive
> ability to count as an instance of it. The finding that intelligence is
> heritable does not seem to us to have much bearing on the viability of
> the talent account.

I'm not sure of Howe's reasoning behind this statement. Is it because
general intelligence is not as rare and remarkable as what we are
calling "talent"? If this is so a more parsimonious and remarkable
definition of talent would be expected.*

> We confirmed that for researchers as well as for practitioners the
> phrase "innate talent" is indeed tautologous, as Irvine suggests.
> Although it seemed conceivable that some researchers might introduce
> the word as a purely descriptive term, designating an unusual level of
> capability but without implying the existence of innate causes of high
> ability, that does not appear to happen.

The word "innate" may not be redundant. There are surely elements of
both innate talent and talent that has been acquired through
experience in any talented performance. If two people are extremely
exceptional at a given activity, who is to say that one has an innate
talent and one has an acquired talent?

> Our target article is mainly concerned with the possible involvement
> of innate talents in excellence of the degree that thousands of people
> in every generation achieve. Such excellence, unlike the rare
> accomplishments of a few geniuses, is reasonably amenable to
> scientific study, since there are sufficient cases available for
> research investigations to be conducted. Winner and Trehub &
> Schellenberg raise the question of how far above average an
> individual's performance has to be in order to be considered
> exceptional. We do not claim to have a satisfactory answer.

We return to the problem of inadequate definitions. Surely talent must
be exceptional and not something thousands of people achieve.* General
and truly remarkable talents are likely to warrant very different

> R2. Genetic variability and the talent account
> Winner considers that admitting that biological differences may
> contribute to variations in level of expertise amounts to accepting the
> existence of talents. We disagree, feeling that the definition of
> talent implicit in that statement is too vague for it to coincide with
> the ones usually implied when talents are mentioned. Rutter asserts
> that our denial of the reality of talents is based on the outdated
> notion that skills are either innate or acquired. Yet the very notion
> of an innate skill can be seen to be self-contradictory, although it is
> clear that genetic factors do affect our experiences. We do not deny
> that various innate differences between people can have effects that
> contribute to variability in the acquisition of abilities. Our main
> concern is with the question of whether or not there exist influences
> that take the particular form of innate talents.
> "absurd environmentalism" implies a belief on our part that
> non-environmental factors are unimportant, and we have made it very
> clear that we do not subscribe to that view. Environments as such are
> not even among the direct influences we acknowledge. People are
> affected by environmental factors, of course, but the particular manner
> in which an individual experiences environmental events is always
> crucial.

Howe rejects the talent account but does not dismiss the influential
contribution of innate factors when acquiring abilities. It seems
probable that our genes are merely a foundation for our abilities,
neither a sole, all-powerful predictor or a insignificant biological

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