Everyone can recognize talent in music, art, sports, writing, mathematics, and occupations. Most people can claim to be talented at one thing or another, even if their ability is not formally recognized. However, measuring talent is highly subjective, since the perception of talent varies from culture to culture and person to person. Where do our talents come from? Some believe they are innate entities, inherited from our parents. Others believe that talents are environmentally developed through learning and reinforcement.

Eugenicists assumed that there was a strong hereditary component to talent and even mechanical skills. A striking example is a study published by Charles Davenport in 1919 that purported to identify heritable traits that predisposed men to become naval officers. These included fearlessness and thalassophilia, a term he coined to describe "love of the sea." Davenport determined that thalassophilia was a "sex limited" (x-linked) trait, because it was found only in men. Of course, he failed to take into account the fact that sons of naval officers often grew up in an environment dominated by boats and tales of the sea, or that women were prohibited from seafaring occupations throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The basis of talent is still an open question. Victor and Muriel Goertzel's study of 300 highly accomplished people, Cradles of Eminence, suggests that developing superior talent may be largely due to environmental responses — such as compensating for difficult home life or an eccentric parent. Although pedigrees of talented families, such as the Bachs, still suggest a strong hereditary component, it is unlikely that complex skills are due to the inheritance of a single gene. A recent study suggests that there is a genetic predisposition to "perfect pitch," but this is only realized through early musical training.


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