The social sciences can have an enormous impact on society by identifying talented individuals and finding methods to fulfill the potentials implied by that talent. Talent generally refers to particular potentials. It can be contrasted with the general ability estimated with tests of intelligence (IQ). Talent is both domain and culture specific.
Exceptional talents have been studied for many years. In his seminal study titled Hereditary Genius (1869), Sir Francis Galton presented data suggesting that talent is inborn. He concluded that talent ran in families, the implication being that there was not much that could be done if an individual was not born into the right family. Galton’s data were derived from archival sources, which did indeed show that the more closely family members were related (e.g., sons and fathers versus cousins), the more likely they would share the same level of ability. The data were biased, however, in that only certain fields were represented. Also, gender bias, common in Galton’s time, meant that only certain careers were open to women and only certain skills were developed in girls. Indeed, educational advantages were at that point given almost entirely to boys and men. The conclusion about heredity seems to have been unwarranted as well. This is because both nature and nurture run in families. Just because talent runs in families does not mean that it is genetically based. Certain experiences are also more common in some families than others. Socioeconomic status, for instance, shows continuity across generations, and this means that certain families will have educational advantages in every generation, while other families will not. In short, talent might appear to be inherited because it runs in families, but that can just as easily be explained in terms of experiences (e.g., educational) that are common to certain families.
It is most realistic to recognize both nature and nurture as influences on talents. Certain biological givens, for example, characterize the entire human race. There is also some indication that the human nervous system has specializations for different talents and that these might vary from person to person. Recent evidence suggests that certain talents are tied to particular genes and alleles, such as the dopamine receptor DRD2. Biological influences on talent determine what potentials any one individual will have. Everyone has potentials, but clearly the range of potentials varies dramatically from person to person. If these potentials are recognized, perhaps as a kind of precociousness or giftedness, they may be reinforced and fulfilled through formal and informal educational experiences.
Some talents may require more reinforcement (and more experience) than others. Musical talent, for example, is apparent very early in life, in part because the individual need not master a huge corpus of information. Mathematical talent is not apparent quite as early, but still is manifest by approximately age ten. Other fields may require the individual to master a large knowledge base, and for that reason more experience is necessary. Talent in an area such as physics, then, would not be fulfilled until adulthood.
Although talent often develops to the degree that it is valued and reinforced, sometimes the causality is the other way around and the talent has an impact on the experiences obtained. This occurs when parents or teachers recognize a child’s potential and react to it by providing optimal experiences. Talent is not, then, entirely dependent on nurturance; it can also determine what experiences are most likely to occur. In short, talent and experience have a bidirectional causal relationship.
One of the most influential theories of talent was presented by Howard Gardner (1983). Often called the theory of multiple intelligences, his view distinguishes eight domains of talent: verbal-symbolic, mathematical-logical, musical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic. Gardner’s theory is widely recognized in part because it is based on data from experimental, psychometric, cognitive, biographical, and developmental investigations, and in part because it avoids common cultural biases. In Western culture, for example, the emphasis is on verbal-symbolic and mathematical-logical talents. These are emphasized in the schools much more than the other domains. But other cultures (and eras) emphasize other talents.
Even within one culture, views of talent vary with the passage of time. Athletic skills such as hitting or catching a ball, for example, were probably not greatly valued in the early part of American history, though now these skills can lead to scholarships and lucrative careers. What may be most important is the implication that some talents are presently not recognized. This further implies that there are human potentials that are not being fulfilled. Some of these may be extremely important for world peace and the preservation of the environment.
Talent is probably best identified and nurtured by looking beyond cognitive ability. Certainly cognitive ability plays a role, but there is much more to it. A potential talent will not even be fulfilled unless the individual invests time in the domain in question. Joseph Renzulli recognized cognitive and extracognitive aspects of exceptionality. Here, general ability plays a role, as does creative potential and task commitment. The last of these reflects interest, motivation, and persistence. Clearly educators should look for each of these contributions to talent (general ability, creative ability, and motivation).
The domain-specific view of talent is also useful in the educational setting. If educators recognize a variety of different talents, the potentials of each child can be fulfilled. Instead of identifying as gifted only children who are exceptional in verbal or mathematical skills, each individual’s talents can be reinforced.
SEE ALSO Cognition; Creativity; Culture; Gifted and Talented; Heredity; Intelligence; Intelligence, Social; Multiple Intelligences Theory; Nature vs. Nurture
Gardner, Howard. 1983. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books. Tenth anniversary ed., 1993.
Sternberg, Robert, and Janet Davidson, eds. 1986. Conceptions of Giftedness. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Mark A. Runco
tal·ent / ˈtalənt/ • n. 1. natural aptitude or skill: he possesses more talent than any other player | she displayed a talent for garden design. ∎ people possessing such aptitude or skill: I signed all the talent in Rome | Simon is a talent to watch. ∎ inf. people regarded as sexually attractive or as prospective sexual partners: most Saturday nights I have this urge to go on the hunt for new talent. 2. a former weight and unit of currency, used esp. by the ancient Romans and Greeks. DERIVATIVES: tal·ent·less adj.
Administration of All the Talents an ironical name for the ministry of Lord Grenville (1806–7), implying that it combined all possible talents in its members; the term is recorded from 1807.
parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14–30) tells the story of a wealthy man who, before going on a journey, gave each of his servants a certain number of talents. According to the story, the man who had received five talents and the man who had received two doubled them by trading, but the man who had been given one talent buried it for safety. When their master returned he commended those who had increased their talents as good and faithful, but the man who had buried his was condemned as wicked and slothful, and ordered to hand over his one talent to the man who had ten.
From this parable, talent in late Middle English came to mean a person's mental ability or particular faculty regarded as something divinely entrusted to them for their use and improvement; this developed (in the early 17th century) to the current sense of natural aptitude or skill.
ap·ti·tude / ˈaptiˌt(y)oōd/ • 1. n. (often aptitude for) a natural ability to do something: he had a remarkable aptitude for learning words. ∎ a natural tendency: his natural aptitude for failure. 2. archaic suitability or fitness: aptitude of expression.
A. †inclination, disposition XIII;
B. ancient weight and money of account XIV;
C. mental endowment or aptitude XV. — OF. talent will, desire :- L. talentum in Rom. sense of ‘inclination of mind’ — Gr. tálanton balance, weight, sum of money. Sense C is from the use of the word in the parable of the talents. Matt. 25: 14–30.
an abundance or plenty; persons of ability collectively ; actors collectively ; girls collectively.
Examples : talent of his hatred, 1635; rising talent of the kingdom, 1838; talent of the stage, 1885.