I am the proud father of two remarkable citizens of the world. Our daughter is a neuroscientist who conducts cellular-level research and writes research papers. Our son is an activist who makes good trouble. His sister has pointed out that if you do something wrong, “he will take you down”. Several differences in their relative dispositions were obvious from birth. Katie was quiet and seemingly curious, looking around the delivery room almost immediately after birth, as if to ask “what is this?!” By contrast, Matthew was furious, and not about to put up with it. These core elements of the disposition in each of them have remained consistent into their early thirties, until now. Both of them have channeled their energies and attentions in the ways that are most productive, and most true to who they are.
We are not blank slates at birth. Each of us has a uniquely formed brain with a unique set of predilections and aptitudes. Before we write research papers in the neurosciences or raise activist hell, we are best advised to know where we are starting.
Scholarly research has identified the following traits, emotions and characteristics as having some foundation in neurobiology: hope, resilience, giftedness, perceptual abilities, body awareness, language-learning ability, vocalization structure, kinship orientation, number sense for mathematics, spatial-temporal reasoning, psychomotor skills, orderliness, sensory-motor behavior, visual preferences, arthroscopic skills in surgeons, musical aptitude, flavor preferences, sex-related preferences, fear and anxiety.
To date, research has not established an innate component of curiosity. (I suspect that someday it will.) What I saw in my daughter’s delivery room was not entirely what it appeared to be. (Neonates do not have the capacity for curiosity as we know it.) However, it may have reflected the precursors of curiosity, and an attitude that was different from my son’s. The neonatal brain has far to go in its development but the foundations are taking shape even then. The old debates about nature versus nurture unwisely assume a false choice: every organism is a product of its genetics and its environment. Scientists’ challenge is not to choose one or the other but to gather data, and make incisive and well-researched conclusions about the relative contributions of each. The research to date does establish a neurobiological foundation for many human traits. No doubt someone will offer a more detailed account of this a generation or two from now. We have enough information today to being building sound and reliable systems of values, ethics and behavior.
We could think of talent and disposition as innate intelligence. On this website, in the sections devoted to technical and analytical literature, is a summary of the research and scholarly literature on Gardner’s nine kinds of intelligence: musical, spatial, mathematical/logical, interpersonal (including the vast body of research and scholarship on emotional intelligence), intrapersonal, linguistic (verbal), bodily/kinesthetic, naturalistic, and existential/spiritual.
Prominent among our narratives are stories of exceptionally talented people. Each of us has a unique blend of talents, which we are challenged to refine into abilities. The diversity makes for a fascinating story and the human talent pool has paved the way for remarkable progress in the human condition.
“Who are we? How did we get here?” By extension, why do we humans have our uniquely human capacity for language and mathematics, found in no other species? Why are some of us gifted for theoretical science, others for construction work? Whence Mozart’s musical genius, from such a young age? We could trace evolutionary history back to an incomplete answer – we can answer these questions to a point but not ultimately.
Returning also to Einstein’s observation about miracles – a sense of natural piety reveals a path to seeing everything as a miracle – a sense of awe and wonder leads to a naturalistic concept of grace. In Christian theology, grace is a gift from God, which we did nothing to earn. It is free.
What, then, of our innate talents, the fact that we were born human, and the fact that we were born at all? They are all miracles, in Einstein’s sense of the word; furthermore, we did nothing to earn any of them. We emerged into consciousness with them already present by the time we “got here”.
In Christian theology, they are products of God’s grace. In scientific naturalism, they are products of natural forces we do not fully understand. This is our Humanist concept of grace: all the marvelous things we have through no doing of our own.
In this, we depart from theism in two ways: (1) we do not attribute these free gifts to the agency of a supreme being, and (2) we do not presume to answer the second great question – “How did we get here?” – ultimately. By “ultimately”, I refer to our ability, through science and in counterpoint, to understand the genesis of our species and of life, to whatever point we can trace through science, but no further – until, perhaps, science advances further. We can trace the development of the human intellect through developments including an ankle that allowed our distant ancestors to climb trees, and an opposable thumb that allowed them to work with tools; but we cannot (yet at least) answer precisely why or how organic matter becomes conscious.
We do not endorse agency of a super-human being as an answer, because there is no evidence for it; besides, we know why humans believe in gods. Theistic belief is fully explained by the human inclination to assign agency to the inanimate, and to posit a comforting and definite answer as a response to uncertainty. However, a brief survey of religious history reveals that humans have given wildly different answers to these questions, and imagined thousands of different gods to exist. The biblical First Commandment is against worshiping false gods; but where did these false gods come from? Obviously, someone imagined them to exist. We also know that humans tell stories – we are naturally inclined to be story-tellers. Zak may have imagined that the rain god would bring rain, thereby making his crops grow, and saving his family from starvation, but that was not a true answer. He only imagined it, as a product of what he wished. In life and in nature, many questions remain unanswered. We see no value in settling on a theistic answer, because we know that it is a product of natural human biases, not a product of objective observation or reason.
This leads to a third departure from conventional thinking, which we naturalistic Humanists make: we embrace uncertainty as a fact of life. One of the commonest objections to scientific naturalism from theists is a rhetorical question challenging us to explain what “was” before the Big Bang, or where the singularity came from – questions like that. Constantly overlooked is the parallel question, “whence God?” The underlying theistic assumption seems to be that knowing the ultimate answers to the ultimate questions is the natural state of human affairs; but of course, that assumption is false. Also false is the notion that scientific naturalism proposes final answers to ultimate questions. If you have read these paragraphs as saying “there is no god”, please read them again. That would be an ultimate claim. I cannot tell you whether there is a god but I can tell you, based on the evidence, why humans believe in gods: it has nothing to do with there being any.
I have known self-described Humanists who want nothing to do with music in their communal meetings, especially not singing; after all, singing is what theists do in church. This is a colossal and tragic mistake. Mahler constructed his Resurrection Symphony (Symphony No. 2) around a vision of an ideal life, in perpetuity. In it are passages evoking memory, love and other core human values, along with a scherzo movement that evokes the vagaries in the human condition. The Christian hymn “How Great Thou Art” includes lines saying “I see the Sun, I hear the rolling thunder.” So do we all, if our senses of sight and hearing are intact. Because theistic belief is a product of human desire, we can look to its traditions to understand the parameters of what humans consider to be desirable. This is essential, because human preferences are the bedrock of values and ethics. We can use theistic art to understand the human condition, and particular cultures. Our art is part of our story. Its stories may not be part of nature but our human telling of them is. If we fail to account for that, then necessarily our understanding of the human animal is incomplete, and therefore inadequate. Because theistic ideation is so widespread throughout history, this omission can be crippling.
The people who object to music at meetings also are likely to object to using the word “grace” in a non-theistic context. “Why use a word that is so loaded with theistic baggage?” they might ask. “Let’s come up with our own word.” Language does not work that way. It evolves, usually bit by bit. Just as a monkey does not turn into a human in biological evolution, a new word does not bring to mind the associations of the old word, without being grounded in shared experiences and. understanding. Words like “grace” carry weight culturally. They have a known meaning, and evoke a set of associations that are commonly understood. The most effective way to get the point across to a listener is to use the word that best expresses the idea, which in this case is a set of associations and experiences. We will find this to be true with many words in the theistic lexicon, including grace, Faith, spirit, soul and even God. Perhaps without exception, the only departure necessary for a scientific naturalist to make, is to remove the idea of a supreme being, or any other magical or supernatural idea. Everything else fits. Equally important, this is how language evolves: just as one gene changes at a time in biological evolution, so may one association change in the evolution of a word.
Seen this way, we can explain and understand theistic ideas about grace as a natural human phenomenon. To do less than that would be to reject the very purposes of this work. This naturalistic conception of grace draws upon Einstein’s idea of natural piety as a useful attitude in approaching these questions. We can honor the elements of grace that are consistent with basing our beliefs on facts. The core idea of grace is that we did nothing to earn our innate talents, or life itself. Approaching it that way brings science into the realm of religion, without compromising its integrity.
Documentary and Educational Films
- Genius: Child Prodigy, on three contemporary young geniuses
- Mango Melvin, Manstein: Hitler’s Greatest General (Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin’s Press, 2011). A book like this challenges us to see the aspect of dignity in a life that served evil purposes. “The greater part of the book . . . concerns Manstein’s talents as a general.”
- Ann Hulbert, Off the Charts: The Hidden Lives and Lessons of American Child Prodigies (Knopf, 2017): “Gifted and Talented and Complicated”
- David Maraniss, Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe (Simon & Schuster, 2022): “. . . ‘It wasn’t just he was the greatest athlete. Greatest runner. Greatest jumper. Greatest hurdler. Greatest football player. Played in the World Series. He won trophies for ballroom dancing! But see he could watch you do whatever you did best, and then he could do it better.’ He tapped the CNN flag on my microphone. ‘He could take this out of your hand and five minutes from now, he’d be better at it than you are.'”
Technical and Analytical Readings
- Allison Gopnik, The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016): Gopnik “takes a . . . sweeping approach, contending that children are such naturals at learning and playing and innovating that parents should just loosen up and let them do their thing.”
- David Barrie, Supernavigators: Exploring the Wonders of How Animals Find Their Way (The Experiment, 2019): “The number of animals traveling long distance, from insects to sea turtles, and from eels to whales, is just astonishing, as are the many ways in which they find their way.”
- René Magritte, The Natural Graces (1967)
- Vasily Perov, Portrait of the Painter Nicolai Kasatkin (1876)
In Kristin Cashore’s novels for children, “from time to time, people are born with a ‘Grace,’ a superhuman skill that can take any form, from sword fighting to weather forecasting to bread baking.”
- Kristin Cashore, Graceling (Harcourt Children’s Books, 2008).
- Kristin Cashore, Fire (Dial Books, 2009).
- Kristin Cashore, Bitterblue (Dial Books, 2012).
- Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding: A Novel (Little, Brown & Company, 2011): this story of a gifted shortstop who crashes on the infield reflects “the natural concerns of a serious artist coming to terms with his powerful talent and intentions.”
- Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing: A Novel (W.W. Norton & Company, 2016) “follows three prodigies caught up in China’s Cultural Revolution.”
- Catherine Cusset, Life of David Hockney: A Novel (Other Press, 2019): “ . . . an affirming vision of a restless talent propelled by optimism and chance . . . ”
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart comes to mind whenever the word “prodigy” is used. He began composing music when he was approximately six years old. Below are some of his early compositions The symphonies below were composed between the ages of eight and fifteen, and the violin sonatas between the ages of eight and ten.
- Symphony No. 1 in E-flat major, K. 16
- Symphony No. 4 in D major, K. 19
- Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, K. 22
- Symphony No. 6 in F major, K. 43
- Symphony No. 7 in D major, K. 45
- Symphony No. 8 in D major, K. 48
- Symphony No. 9 in C major, K. 73/75a
- Symphony No. 10 in G major, K. 74
- Symphony No. 11 in G major, K. 84/73q
- Symphony No. 12 in G major, K. 110/75b
- Symphony No. 13 in F major, K. 112
- Violin Sonata No. 1 in C major, K. 6
- Violin Sonata No. 2 in D major, K. 7
- Violin Sonata No. 3 in B-flat major, K. 8
- Violin Sonata No. 4 in G major, K. 9
- Violin Sonata No. 5 in B-flat major, K. 10
- Violin Sonata No. 6 in G major, K. 11
- Violin Sonata No. 7 in A major, K. 12
- Violin Sonata No. 8 in F major, K. 13
- Violin Sonata No. 9 in C major, K. 14
- Violin Sonata No. 10 in B-flat major, K. 15
- Violin Sonata No. 11 in E-flat major, K. 26
- Violin Sonata No. 12 in G major, K. 27
- Violin Sonata No. 13 in C major, K. 28
- Violin Sonata No. 14 in D major, K. 29
- Violin Sonata No. 15 in F major, K. 30
- Violin Sonata No. 16 in B-flat major, K. 31
- Christone “Kingfish” Ingham, “Kingfish” - he was 18 years old when he made this album.
spring omnipotent goddess Thou / dost stuff parks / with overgrown pimply / chevaliers and gumchewing giggly
damosels Thou dost / persuade to serenade / his lady the musical tom-cat / Thou dost inveigle
into crossing sidewalks the / unwary june-bug and the frivolous / angleworm / Thou dost hang canary birds in parlour windows
Spring slattern of seasons / you have soggy legs / and a muddy petticoat / drowsy
is your hair your / eyes are sticky with / dream and you have a sloppy body from
being brought to bed of crocuses / when you sing in your whisky voice / the grass rises on the head of the earth / and all the trees are put on edge
spring / of the excellent jostle of / thy hips / and the superior
[E.E. Cummings, “Spring Omnipotent Goddess Thou”]