The nature of nurturing a genius

Sometimes the most poignant questions can be found in the unlikeliest of places. For my fellow nerds who have played the video game “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim,” gamers are asked to make decisions based on the question, "What is better – to be born good, or to overcome your evil nature through great effort?"

I've recently been asking myself a very similar question. In my genetics class, we discussed the question of whether human intelligence is determined mostly by genetics or environment.

I'm not smart enough to give readers an answer, but I can attempt to answer the question of which of these two avenues to intelligence is better.

Is it better to be born smart, or to overcome your stupid nature through great effort?

My first instinct was to believe that being born smart was a better fate than becoming smart. There was something appealing to me about the idea of great intellect being intrinsic components of geniuses.

Having thought about it long and hard, I think I may have changed my mind.

It's good to be born smart, because intellect is in many respects a wonderful gift. But as with all gifts, simply having it thrown at you from birth removes the sense that the gift you’ve been given is actually special.

Does the billionaire care as much as the beggar about the dollar they find on the side of the road?

When we evaluate geniuses, and heap our praises upon them, this is perhaps the most important measure of their worthiness of such praise: Did they earn their powerful mind, or did they simply get it by the luck of the draw? Do they appreciate the gift as much as we would?

Imagine a man like Michael Faraday, who was born into a lower classed family, never learned much math, but grew up to become one of the most important physicists to have ever lived, whose discoveries were electromagnetic induction and electrolysis. I have a feeling that a man like Faraday has a greater sense of respect and thankfulness for his vast learned intellect when compared even to Charles Darwin, who was essentially bred into the upper intellectual class of England at around the same time.

It may very well be that the issue of what determines intellect will be solved through scientific means, making arguments about that subject seem kind of limited by time. However, I think the value of one way of gaining intellect is pretty constant.

If we eventually learn that intellect is almost entirely determined by genetics alone, I think it would be a great blow to the virtuous nature of intellect.


Reach the columnist at or follow him at @jacobevansSP.

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