More on Innate Talent and Philosophy (updated)


Alison Gopnik (Berkeley) has written a piece for the Wall Street Journal about the study by Sarah Jane Leslie et al that we discussed last month on innate or “raw intellectual talent” and academia’s gender and race gaps. In her article, she writes, “From a scientific perspective, the very idea that something as complicated as philosophical success is the result of “innate talent” makes no sense.”

I asked Professor Gopnik if she wouldn’t mind elaborating on her views about innate talent in philosophy. She provided the following:

I’ve been thinking about the new Science finding by Leslie and Cimpian and the more I’ve thought about it the odder it seems that philosophers, of all people, haven’t taken the time to see how incoherent the “innate talent” concept actually is. Maybe it’s because it’s so seductive as part of “folk psychology”. In fact, when I first read the Science piece my own first thought was “But that doesn’t apply to me because I’ve always known that  I had a strong innate talent for philosophy, much more than for psychology, and I made my major affiliation to psychology for all sorts of other intellectual reasons”. But literally as I was thinking this I was also preparing the very first standard lecture in my intro developmental psychology course which is about why the nature/nurture distinction for psychological traits doesn’t make sense. Even this philosopher/psychologist can be sucked in by the innate talent idea, but a first year developmental psychology course shows how weird it is.

What would an innate talent for philosophy actually mean? That there is some set of genetic instructions that evolved in the pleistocene which just happens to consistently lead to an “appetite for Hume” phenotype? That some newborn infants are particularly good at asking piercing questions at seminars? That by the age of twenty the vagaries of genes, motivation, environment and culture have all interacted to produce a “sit around late at night asking about the meaning of life” phenotype that is completely immutable from then on? That heritability estimates for ethical reasoning will be constant across all the possible environments in the past and future? 
Its odd, though certainly not unprecedented, that philosophers in their everyday life would endorse an idea that in their thoughtful professional  life they would surely see is about as useful as the medieval theory of elements. More, Carol Dweck’s work suggests that this folk psychological chimera may well do harm to those who think they are talented as well as those who fear they aren’t.
Comments welcome.
UPDATE (2/7/14): Professor Gopnik writes in with a response to some of the commenters:
The comments on this post are interesting, and suggest that maybe I didn’t make the empirical research clear enough (or perhaps that philosophers aren’t familiar with it). Here are two basic and uncontroversial bodies of literature in developmental science.
1) As I mentioned in the column, geneticists, developmental biologists, and behavioral geneticists have pretty unanimously concluded that extremely complex, dynamic, varied lifelong interactions between genes and environment lead to an individual phenotype, and that these interactions are so complex that the attempt to parcel them out into a concept like “innate talent” vs, one like “nurture” is unscientific and fruitless. For vivid examples and discussions readers might look at the work of Eric Turkheimer  who has shown that measures of the heritability of IQ are completely different for poor and rich children, or to Michael Meany’s epigenetic work, — mice from different genetic strains show completely reliable differences on cognitive tasks – except that if the “dumb mice” are cross fostered with the “smart mice” as mothers these differences disappear. Untangling even a small part of these gene-environment interactions for relatively straightforward traits is an extremely demanding empirical task, requiring extensive experiments in work like Meaney’s or massive twin studies with elaborate statistical analyses in work like Turkheimer’s.

2) Social and developmental psychologists have shown that nevertheless a notion of “innate traits” – a conceptual package or intuitive theory that includes ideas about innate origin, individual variation, essentialism, and immutability is very widespread in everyday folk psychology, emerging early and found quite generally, and,in adults, often impervious to data (see the literature on the basic attribution error). Carol Dweck, in particular, has shown that this conception is commonly applied to academic achievement.  Interestingly, however, this strength of this concept varies for different individuals, groups and cultures. In Dweck’s work American children are much more likely to conceive of academic talent as innate than Asian ones. She’s also shown, empirically,that the concept is “sticky” because, of course, it includes a self-fulfilling prophecy – if everyone believes that academic ability can’t be changed no-one will try to change it and it won’t change.  
OK now here’s the basic finding in Leslie and Cimpian’s study. Philosophers think that “innate talent” is much more important than any other group of academics in the study , including molecular biologists, neuroscientists and even mathematicians (incidentally L. and C. controlled for GRE scores in the various fields). Why would this be?
Here are two hypotheses
a) In spite of 1 above, philosophers, with nary an experiment or study, just through reflection and common observation, have somehow perceived a special innate/immutable talent for philosophy, in particular, unlike anything else known to science. (Maybe they used their x-ray intuition superpowers?) 
b) In keeping with 2 above, philosophers have developed a culture in which an intuitive theory of “innate philosophical talent” plays a particularly important role, an exaggerated version of what Dweck calls the American “entity” mindset, in contrast to fields like molecular biology.  There is an interesting empirical question about why this has happened and what its consequences are and also how it might be changed.
Let me end this with an, I think profoundly true, thought suggested to my by Anthony Appiah. Surely, in fact, of all the disciplines, philosophy, has benefited in the past, and is most likely to benefit in the future, from an extremely wide and varied range of intellectual styles, talents, motivations and abilities, wherever they come from.

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