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Nature vs. Nurture: Which Causes Giftedness?

By Keren Perles

The question of nature vs. nurture in giftedness has long stumped intelligence theorists. The controversy has evolved over the last couple of centuries, and we have finally come to uncomfortable answer: it's a mixture of both.

The Nature vs. Nurture in Giftedness Controversy

Is giftedness caused by nature or nurture? In other words, is there some sort of “giftedness gene” that is bequeathed to those lucky enough to get it? Or is giftedness completely dependent on the environment in which a child grows up? This question has been debated by intelligence theorists for centuries, and the answer that is believed today is less than satisfactory: it’s a mixture of both.

History of the Controversy: The IQ Test

In the late nineteenth century, most intelligence theorists applied Charles Darwin’s theories about the survival of the fittest to the debate on nature vs. nurture. They believed that genes caused giftedness through a sifting process that continued over generations, and that gifted people were more likely to pass on their genes to their offspring.

In the middle of the twentieth century, Alfred Binet finally challenged this view. He developed the Binet scale (later renamed the Stanford-Binet scale) of intelligence, which is still used today to calculate intelligence quotient (IQ). Binet’s scale could determine whether a student was above, on, or below their “mental age,” or the intelligence level that most children at that age have reached. His scale was based on the presupposition that those who scored lower on the scale than expected could raise their “mental age” through skill-based education.

Nature vs. Nurture Today

Nowadays, most theorists believe that Binet was correct, to a degree. They believe that there is a certain potential that each human has based on his genes. At the same time, some humans reach that potential through proper education and hard work, and others do not. Therefore, you can have two people, one of whom could be considered gifted while the other could not, but the second far outshines the first because of the “nurture” she was given. So nature vs. nurture in giftedness isn’t quite as straightforward as it might seem. Nature is definitely an important component in giftedness, and not everybody has the ability to become gifted. However, developing a child’s abilities through gifted education can make the difference between the child becoming gifted or lacking giftedness altogether.


Gifted Education, by Joan F. Smutny