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.
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”
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
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”]