Nature vs Nurture? what about passion and discipline?

A Wall Street Journal article (“The Perils of Believing That Talent Is Innate”, February 7-8, 2015) asked why so few philosophy professors are women, less than a third, whereas in molecular biology and neuroscience, half of the professors are women. From the title, you know it assumes political correctness in that condoning innate abilities is a no no. Fortunately, the article ruled out male prejudice and oppression as the cause, something even a liberal journalist must concede is passe.

However, the author, Alison Gopnik, cites a Harvard study published in Science which found: “The more that people believes success was due to intrinsic ability, the fewer women and African American made it in that field.” The wording is deceptive: it implies that the belief of innate ability causes fewer women and blacks to succeed in a particular field. The Harvard study was based on interview of professors on their opinions of which field requires more innate ability to succeed – highly subjective and unreliable data. Such a study can at best generate correlation, not causal relationship between a reported belief of innate requirement and actual ‘making it’ in a field. It tempts people to conclude that the belief of innate ability needed to study philosophy causes especially women or an African Americans to not succeed in philosophy. It’s the old learning-stops-at-the-level-of-expectation idea.

Perhaps a more potent explanation is interest and passion towards a field. It’s possible that less women find studying philosophy interesting than biology or neuroscience. There is evidence that in-depth interest, or passion, towards an activity is inborn and cannot be easily fostered. The fact that more boys than girls play video games and more girls than boys like to read could be explained by the concept of innate interest.

It is possible to train a person who has little the passion or discipline in a task to be master of that task, using very effective behavioral techniques and external rewards. In fact, that’s what try to do everyday in school. Most students nowadays hate to write or learn math. But we aim to make them skilled at it through systematic teaching and motivation. We don’t wait for the student to develop the interest to learn before we teach. Then if we meet a student that has the potential to learn and the passion to learn, he or she won’t need much teaching anyway.

The in-born ability/potential of course places a limit on how far one can learn even under systematic and intensive training. A developmentally disabled person would be hard put to become a philosophy professor. Short of this out-of-the norm limitation, most people should be able to succeed in most fields provided, I really mean provided, that they are trained properly and they exert the required amount of effort and discipline. My violin training for my son in the last nine years led me to conjecture that it is possible to teach him to play the violin very well via behavioral training, but much harder to foster a passion to want to hear the violin and to practice to produce the beautiful tone. It is also hard to foster stamina and discipline through training. The attitude of practice-until-perfect and the discipline to persist on boring but necessary tasks, like practicing scales, appears to be inborn. Some people just develop it ‘naturally’ without much structuring and external motivators, but others, like my son, need to be prompted, coaxed or even ‘bribed’ in order to do it regularly. I now tend to believe this passion for training on a complex, not immediately gratifying activity, and the subsequent daily discipline and stamina to perfect it, be it music, painting, mathematics, etc., is innate.