Is genius genetic or is it nurtured?

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Though he received a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant for his work in paleontology, Christopher Beard doesn't consider himself a wunderkind or believe he was genetically predestined for success.

Not entirely, anyway.

Dr. Beard said he had his parents' guidance, along with their genes. He's worked industriously to make a mark in his profession. And he believes that serendipity has been on his side.

"Some people would call it luck," said Dr. Beard, curator and head of vertebrate paleontology at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, who received the $500,000 MacArthur research grant in 2000.

The question of whether high-performers are born or made long has captivated the scholarly community, whose search for answers has led to studies of chess players, musicians and leaders in various fields.

In the 1980s, Howard Gardner, professor of cognition and education at Harvard Graduate School of Education, published a ground-breaking work proposing multiple kinds of intelligence. Dr. Gardner, a 1981 MacArthur grant recipient, also proposed multiple kinds of creativity.

In Dr. Gardner's view, "Picasso probably could not have been Mozart and Mozart probably could not have been Picasso because they had different kinds of intelligence," said Kenneth Kiewra, professor of educational psychology at University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

In recent years, the mystique of high-performers has been grist for popular books, such as Daniel Coyle's "The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How," Geoff Colvin's "Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else" and Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers: The Story of Success."

The books downplay the notion of genetically predetermined greatness and suggest that other factors, including many hours of strategic practice, differentiate high performers.

"Great performance is in our hands far more than most of us ever suspected," Mr. Colvin wrote.

Some believe that talent and work both are part of the mix.

"Neither one is sufficient; both are necessary," said Yong Zhao, professor of education at Michigan State University and author of "Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization." The book, published by the education group ASCD, says schools should do more to help students nurture individual abilities.

With determination and practice, a person can attain proficiency, if not greatness, in many fields, Dr. Zhao said. "I would say everybody can learn to swim, but not everybody can become Michael Phelps."

Time constraints are one factor limiting a person's improvement in a given field; developmental factors also may play a role. For example, Dr. Zhao noted that research has suggested that mastery of a foreign language becomes more difficult after early adolescence.

Schools recognize innate abilities by offering special programs to "gifted" students.

However, giftedness is no all-or-nothing proposition. Some students classified as gifted struggle with an advanced curriculum; other gifted students show a knack for one discipline but struggle in another, said J. Kaye Cupples, associate professor of education at Point Park University and retired executive director of support services for the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Dr. Kiewra said a variety of environmental factors could influence a person's performance.

They include early exposure to a discipline or hobby, perhaps through one's parents; sustained family support of a child's interest; and the right kinds of mentors or instructors at various points in life. He said there's also what researchers call "accumulated advantages."

For example, a young soccer player with an elder sibling to practice with outperforms teammates lacking the same opportunity. The young player gets more touches than his teammates, which translates into a still-higher skill level, which leads him to a more-advanced team with better coaches.

"That kind of thing happens all the time," Dr. Kiewra said.

Personal qualities are important, too, including the drive Dr. Kiewra called a "rage to learn."

The nature-or-nurture question often leads to a discussion of golfing great Tiger Woods. Mr. Colvin and Dr. Kiewra are among those who cited two interrelated factors -- a rigorous practice regimen and the influence of Mr. Woods' father -- as key factors in Mr. Woods' development as a golfer.

Practice is so powerful that it changes the brain. For example, Dr. Kiewra said the brains of taxi drivers "grow" in the areas governing spatial skills.

But how circumscribed is greatness? How successful would Mr. Woods be in another line of work, even another sport?

Dr. Kiewra noted that Michael Jordan, a basketball superstar, has proven less adept at baseball and golf.

Each year, the MacArthur Foundation awards no-strings-attached grants to a select number of people in various disciplines, recognizing their "creativity, originality and potential to make important contributions in the future."

They're commonly called "genius grants," though the foundation doesn't use that term. The foundation won't say whether it considers its recipients to be prodigies.

Dr. Beard and Luis von Ahn, assistant professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University and 2006 recipient of a MacArthur grant, said many factors influenced their success.

Dr. Beard said he received good guidance from parents who encouraged him to take schoolwork seriously. He had an early interest in animals, which grew when his father, a biology teacher, began relating stories about extinct animals and fossils.

After receiving his doctorate from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, he had an opportunity to teach and conduct research at a medical school or to take the paleontology position at the Carnegie.

Dr. Beard said he had the good fortune, or luck, to choose the latter. The Carnegie position led to cutting-edge research in China, which, in turn, attracted the attention of the MacArthur Foundation.

As for talent, Dr. Beard didn't cite technical ability but a knack for helping others to understand a project and buy into its importance -- a gift he said some scientists lack.

Dr. von Ahn said he got his first computer when he was 8 and soon was doing things with it that his peers could not.

"There may have been talent, but more than talent, I think, there was curiosity," he said.

And a work ethic, too. "I know the following: You can't do it without hard work, at least in my case," Dr. von Ahn said.

Joe Smydo: or 412-263-1548.


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