Howe 3

From: Lee Liz (
Date: Wed Feb 25 1998 - 14:53:27 GMT

Commentary on Howe target article section 3.

Having agreed in section 1 that an innate talent is one whose origin is
genetically transmitted, is present only in a small minority, and may
be predicted by early signs of precocity in specific domains, Howe
argues that these early signs of promise are less than convincing.

> much of the evidence pointing to very early indications of unusual
> abilities is either retrospective or based upon records supplied by
> parents whose claims to have played no active role in stimulating their
> child's progress are belied by other information.

It seems corroboration of the early promise of "talented" children is
somewhat lacking. Parents are notorious for their tendency to overstate
their children's ability. Even when children appear more able than the
average, parents embellish their accomplishments by proposing that the
"talent" appears without "__above average degrees of parental support."

> Except in the case of a small number of autistic children in Section 2.4,

The problem is, it may just be that these unusual cases are in
themselves enough to contradict Howe's assumptions that a talent for a
particular domain of expertise cannot be innate. Since autistic savants
may show ability in areas, which are not encouraged by their parents or
other caregivers (Nadia for example), the biggest criticism made by
Howe does not stand up. But perhaps, whereas "normal" children
possessing ability, expressed at an early age, are generally immersed
in an environment with constant exposure to similar stimuli, autistic
savants are similarly absorbed in an "internal" environment where they
constantly rehearse.

To continue the arguments we started in the lecture about Mozart's
supposed innate gift, (and relative to this piece) he was totally
immersed in a world of music from infancy by his ambitious and
over-zealous father (who was an able and experienced music teacher.)
Noticing that Mozart had the aptitude to benefit from such input, his
father prevented him from playing with other children and forced him to
practice playing instruments until exhaustion. By six he and his sister
(Nannerl) were taken all over Europe where their father charged punters
to hear them play. But their father was less than honest, attributing
works of composition to Mozart when their actual origin was dubious,
and billing his children as younger than they actually were to enhance
their reputations. In short, Mozart did little other than play music
from early childhood; his day was filled with practice and performing.
He may well have a biological advantage with, for instance, a good ear
(perfect pitch), and manual dexterity, but this doesn't mean he was
born with the ability to compose and perform music - this he learned.

> it was once thought that the ability of infants in certain parts of
> Africa to sit and walk appreciably earlier than European children must
> have a genetic basis, but Super (1976) showed that this inference was
> wrong. These findings do not rule out the possibility that some early
> differences have biological bases (Rosser & Randolph, 1989), but they
> do show that this cannot be automatically assumed.

I think this is the most important point of the piece. We all look
similar, but all vary individually physically, it makes sense that we
should vary biologically, to a certain degree. But what we make of this
biology is dependent on the sort of environment we are born into. Would
Mozart have been a great composer if he'd been born into an average
Austrian family where music assumed no importance?

> Interview studies of the childhood progress of accomplished artists
> (Sloane & Sosniak, 1985), swimmers (Kalinowski, 1985) and
> mathematicians (Gustin, 1985) reported very few early signs of
> exceptional promise prior to deliberate parental encouragement being
> given.

Like the Geary paper suggested, exceptional talent in some areas of
mathematics only appears after a certain amount of instruction has been given.

> In any case, the assumption that even very early preferences must be
> innate rather than learned is questionable. Small differences in the
> amount of attention infants give (for any of a number of reasons) to
> different kinds of stimuli may elicit increasingly different actions
> and responses, which eventually produce marked preferences and
> contribute to differences between young children in their patterns of
> abilities (Renninger and Wosniak, 1985).

Puts us all under pressure to decorate the nursery appropriately!

> Investigations of long-term practice effects provide some relevant evidence.

So for the best in all areas, at least 10 years of sustained, regulated
and relevant practice is necessary to reach an "expert" standard. So
however you look at it, even if there were such a thing as an innate
talent, it wouldn't be enough in itself, and all the evidence points to
there being individual variations which may be expressed in terms of
motivation and dedication rather than a specific "gift".

Further evidence for the "practice" lobby is in the form of people who
can be trained to perform memory feats (for instance). They did so well
in these tasks that they were thought to possess innate skills.

> The cocktail waitresses in Bennett's study could regularly remember as
> many as twenty drink orders at a time: their performance was
> considerably better than that of a control group made up of university
> students. It is conceivable that people who are employed as waiters and
> bar staff gravitate to such jobs because of an inborn memory skill.

Whilst I think putting these on-the-job skills in the same category as
musical composition or ability at chess is a bit of a joke, it does
illustrate the point that doing the job, day in, day out, is just
practising the skill. Waitresses are motivated to remember orders by
the promise of better tips.

Howe ends this section by highlighting the circularity of explanations
of "talent", its not enough to say that because someone performs at an
exceptional level they must have a head start in effect by being born
talented. How dismissive of the hours (years) of sweat that have gone
into perfecting that talent!

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