Genius – Made or Born?

The following is a report I wrote for my Artificial Intelligence course in September 2006. It discussesĀ an article by David Dobbs entitled “How to be a genius.” This report also references an email exchange (source not available) between Douglas Hofstadter and David Dobbs.

In the email conversation between Howard Rutiezer and Douglas Hofstadter, Rutiezer presents an article by David Dobbs while Hofstadter rebuttals it with his own observations. The topic of discourse is the relationship between innate intelligence or talent, and greatness in terms of success or recognition. Dobbs contends that although some people are inherently smarter or more talented than other people, their gifts do not guarantee their greatness in terms of success. Furthermore, people who achieve greatness are not necessarily more gifted than usual. Dobbs argues that greatness is achieved by fervent and lengthy hard work, and is not dependant on a person’s inherent traits. Hofstadter strikes back, presenting his personal observations and experiences as counterexamples to Dobbs’ viewpoint. Hofstadter asserts that hard work alone can not achieve greatness; it is necessary to also be specially gifted.

Dobbs starts with a narrative, explaining how he enjoyed natural intelligence and writing talent in his youth. But as he matured, he discovered that his natural talents would not carry him far unless he intently dedicated himself to his work. He cites studies in which people who have achieved greatness are shown to have high IQs on average, but not remarkably high IQs. This indicates that another factor is at work, an individual’s drive and willingness to work. According to Dobbs, some factors leading to greatness are constructed as a child. An environment encouraging children to explore and learn is thought to contribute to the child’s potential for greatness. Even then, Dobbs believes that someone who has achieved greatness is rarely exceptional outside of their field of expertise. Their greatness is focused in one area of practice that they have dedicated themselves to, and often doesn’t spillover into unrelated areas of life. Thus, greatness is the result of our (sometimes average) inherent talent being fully realized through massive amounts of dedicated hard work.

However, Hofstadter very much disagrees with Dobbs. As a graduate student, he found himself unable to ascend his understanding of math above a certain level of abstraction, despite his strenuous efforts to overcome this barrier. Thus, he believes that although hard work will certainly pay off, no amount of hard work can ensure greatness for someone who simply was born without the related capacity for greatness. He also contends that there are many who achieve greatness with only a modest amount of effort; they are carried almost entirely by their inherent abilities. Therefore Hofstadter believes that greatness is in large part determined by the abilities one is born with, and dedicated work plays a small role in unlocking that potential.

Who is correct? Is genius made or born? The issue is widely debated. Hofstadter mostly draws upon his personal observations and experiences, while Dobbs also supports his assertions with several large studies. Personally, I believe that both natural talent and dedicated work are important for achieving success. But, like many things in life, there are obvious expectations. Some people are natural cooking connoisseurs or chess masters and put forth only modest amounts of effort. Perhaps we aren’t all capable of being so exceptional, but most people can be reasonably successful with enough hard work and only modest natural talent.