When confronted with thorny issues, I often find myself turning the issue around in my mind, trying to see it from all sides, and ultimately reaching little or no conclusion. I find myself acting a little like the ancient court, the Areopagitica in Athens, who, when faced with a particularly thorny case, would tell the plaintiffs to return in a hundred years.
I found this point driven home in a little of my light reading this week. For instance, I had recently flipped through a recent book by a man named David Shenk, entitled The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You Thought You Knew About Genetics, Talent and IQ is wrong. Presumably Mr. Shenk believed no one had ever thought along his lines, or that the entire world disagreed with him before hand. In fact, this book is another take- I cannot call it a new take, precisely- on the old Nature vs Nurture debate. As you may guess from the title, Shenk is firmly on the side of nurture.
Well, not quite. Mr Shenk is writing about self nurture, if that is the correct term. What Mr Shenk looks at is super achievers. those who are driven to succeed far beyond the aims and ambitions of most mere mortals, and achieve their goals. Mr Shenk begins with the case of baseball player Ted Williams, the last man to ever average more than .400 in a season, and possibly the greatest batter in the history of baseball. Many people of WIlliams' time attributed his batting to phenomenal natural gifts, particularly his reputedly incredible eyesight. Williams himself attributed his skill to pure hard, endless work and determination. Shenk pushes this point by telling stories and anecdotes about Williams' spending every waking moment practicing his swing and preparing himself to be the greatest hitter of all time. Furthermore, in the nineteen forties, and again in the fifties, Williams joined the air force to be a fighter pilot. Medical tests of the time revealed Williams to have excellent, though not abnormal, eyesight.
There is much to be said for this argument. Williams did indeed work hard, perhaps harder than anyone else, before or since, on his particular craft, as did, say Michael Jordan, who, as is well known, did not have the 'gifts', let us say, to make it onto his high school basketball team the first time he tried out. Jordan then worked and trained until he, like Williams, became the preeminent player in his field.
And yet, can we say genetics played no part whatsoever? Would Williams' hard and endless batting practice have paid off, let us suppose, had he been born blind? Could Jordan's fiercely intense training have paid off had he been, let's say, five feet tall?
In other parts of the book Shenk proposes the words of philosophers. He cites Rousseau, who claimed art was a gift, something one possessed or not, and countered it with Nietzsche, who claimed art was hard work, the artist an endless sifter, editor, and polisher of his work. For myself, using Nietzsche to oppose Rousseau is rather like using gonorrhea to oppose syphilis. But Shenk cites the pair, and uses the case of Beethoven, who endlessly restruck and revised his music, to bolster Nietzsche's position, and leaves Rousseau unsupported, not even citing the obvious case of Mozart, who wrote many of his pieces in one draft, straight from his head.
But Mozarts and Beethovens are few and far between, more's the pity, and even Nietzsches and Rousseaus are rather rare, thank the Lord. If hard work is enough to turn anyone into a genius, an artist, or a whatever, where are they?
Shenk proposes that there is a latent talent abundance, which we have not yet learned to tap, though we are making some headway. Take, for example, the case of violinists. Student violinists play regularly and well pieces the nineteenth century thought to be unplayable. The simplest explanation: violinists have learned techniques their predecessors knew not, and therefore regularly achieve what they only dreamed of. If we could only learn the techniques to unlock other potentials, all would be wonderful.
Or perhaps not. People being highly skilled does not necessarily mean that they are nice people. In fact, I have found it often makes them the opposite. Is having a bunch of arrogant geniuses walking around such a worthy goal? But let's turn from that now, and back to the question with which I began, nature vs nurture.
Largely I find it is successful people who promote the nurture, particularly self-nurture, debate- I got here through my own hard work- and failures who propose the nature side- I could have been great if only I had been born with more (fill in the blank). Both sides tend to comfort the speaker, and put themselves in the better light. Success is something I earned, failure is not my fault.
To say that training, and hard work, can help us achieve our full potential is something I can fully support, but notice the use of the word 'potential'. It seems to me that while anyone may achieve these things, not everyone can, regardless of how much hard work one puts in. My position on the nature vs nurture debate is therefore both, and neither. I regard nature as a glass, or a vase, of some size and shape. Nurture is what is poured into that glass, whether it is water, or fruit juice, or wine, or poison. The liquid will conform to the shape of the glass, The glass may be small, or it may be huge, almost oceanic. The glass may be full, or empty, or somewhere in between, but there are limits on what it can hold. A man with a small glass may be holding more than a man with a titanic one. That is nurture. That is work. That is practice. The drive to achieve is to fill that glass as high as possible, perhaps even in defiance of perceived limits.
I short, I see both nature and nurture, rather than either or. I simply can't choose between the two. Perhaps I'll revisit this argument in a hundred years. I may have a better answer by then.