The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Saturday, May 30, 2009

"Too many gifted students in the world".

A searcher reached my site today with the terms: "Are there too many gifted students because of pushy parents?". The surfer was from Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. I thought their question, of the internet, eminently revealing of all too common attitudes that need to be countered.

Firstly, there is the idea that giftedness is somehow created by "pushy" parents. Personally, I think this is an impossibility. The idea that one could "push" an otherwise ordinary child into becoming gifted is quite extraordinary. It would be a bit like saying that if you dunk your child's head under water long enough they will be able to breathe it. It is really quite silly.

Gifted children are the way they are, largely because of their fortuitous inheritance. The correlation between the IQ of the parents and their children (when they become adults) has been established to be 0.8. This is a very high correlation. It is actually cruel to think that one could "push" a child without such a lucky inheritance into performing as a gifted child can. No measure of demands from the parents are going to raise the ordinary child's IQ above the magical 130 IQ threshold that commonly defines "giftedness".

Then there is another assumption in their search terms that I take issue with: the idea that there are "too many" gifted students. What does this mean? This person seems to think that the world is better off without intelligent children...they seem to hold the view that intelligence is something to be minimized and contained, not encouraged and expanded. To say that a society has "too many" gifted students is a bit like saying that it has "too much money"...for gifted people comprise the intellectual wealth of a nation.

The IQ threshold of 130 that defines the "moderately gifted" is met by one child in 44 in a society with an IQ mean of 100. This means that in a Singaporean class of about 40 students there will be, on average, one moderately gifted child. Is that too many? Would it be worse for the nation were there two such students, or five in the class? I cannot think of any way in which the nation would be worse off, were that so.

Obviously, higher levels of giftedness are much rarer. The profoundly gifted (IQs of 180 or more) are usually thought of as literally one in a million. Would the world be a worse place were they one in 100,000? I cannot believe so. Were they more common, the rate at which uncommonly difficult problems in science and other disciplines were solved, would only increase. Surely, that would be better for the world as a whole.

Giftedness is present in all societies of the world. Yet, it is odd to observe, that it is misunderstood in all of those societies, too. In some societies, it is marginalized, disapproved of, disparaged, in some quarters. This is most peculiar - for the gifted among us, have, historically as a group, built most of the culture, science and technology on which human civilization rests. Are such people to be disregarded or shunned?

Sometimes giftedness is disconcerting for the less well endowed. They feel comfortable in a world filled with people as ordinary as they are. Yet, what they fail to realize is that such a world would be a very much more limited world. Science would come to a halt. Technology would remain static. Doctors would not be sufficiently competent at their jobs to save lives. Books would not be written and libraries would go unfilled. In fact, all the civilized world that we know, would cease to be. Perhaps, were this situation so, people would appreciate what the gifted among them have contributed. Perhaps, only then, would they welcome them (though too late, for they will have gone).

The welcome or otherwise, of the gifted, should not be determined by the ordinary among us, with a "democratic" agenda, of all having to be alike. The welcome should be determined by the gifted themselves. The prevailing culture should be one that affords opportunity to all who are gifted, to fully become what they may be and contribute what they may do. Such a culture does not include the idea of "too many gifted" people - nor the idea of the "pushy parents created them". Such a culture accepts gifted people for what they are - and is happy to have them.

The question is: which cultures are such cultures? My surfer suggests that Australia may not be one of them. How are gifted people welcomed (or otherwise) in your culture? What are the prevailing attitudes to them? Are they seen as "geeks" or "nerds"? Are they marginalized? Are they shunned? Or are they welcomed and valued? I would welcome your comments, views and observations from wherever you are in the world. Thank you.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and seven months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, five years exactly, and Tiarnan, twenty-eight months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, wunderkind, wonderkind, genio, гений ребенок prodigy, genie, μεγαλοφυία θαύμα παιδιών, bambino, kind.

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 11:54 AM 


Blogger Mochi said...

I have been exposed to both. As a gifted child when I am online, people think I'm some sort of person who wishes to been seen as smart. At school people treat me normally. This is probably because I am not in an enriched class, but a regular one. Or maybe the Canadian system is better at handling gifted children then the countries that those people online are from. I suppose people have problems accepting us. I write, and I put them onto my blog, but I receive comments on how I'm an "amateur" and how I don't know how to write.

At one point I didn't think there was much of a difference between gifted kids and normal kids until I went to an enriched class for a few days. Then I realised that we are different. But I am not teased at school, but only online.

11:30 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Mochi for your comment.

Online, you are teased, because in that environment of anonymity, the worst in people comes out. They wouldn't dare do the same to your face...though, no doubt, they feel like it.

Don't worry about people who criticize on the basis of "amateur" or not...what they are trying to do is say that, without the right qualifications, in a particular area, you are not allowed to comment. This is nonsense, of course: any thinker may think about anything...I don't think that whether one has jumped through a particular set of hoops is really relevant.

Canada sounds quite enlightened. Not all places are so.

Kind regards

9:03 PM  
Anonymous FA said...

The high correlation between parents’ IQ and their children, even after they become adults, is not solely the result of inheritance. It can be due to many other nongenetic mediating factors and this has been investigated quite widely. In fact, in at least one study, the genetic component of IQ (e.g., by investigating different types of twins) varies across different socio-economic groups.

Terence Tao, the math prodigy and currently UCLA professor, believes that one does not need to be a genius to be good at math. He has blogged about this. Although I see many smart people around me in my university, they are not necessarily gifted or geniuses in the sense that they can solve big intellectual problems like they can prove trigonometric identities in 5 minutes. Because at the forefront of knowledge where many things are unknown, there is no clear answer and the best way to progress is to try and try. That takes some intelligence, but also lots of determination and humility. We take basic courses we excel in and feel good about ourselves; but in important research, it’s the opposite. As Martin Schwartz, a highly-cited professor of biology, wrote, the need to feel stupid plays a big role in doing important advanced science and that is why many very smart students drop out of grad school or science or I suspect in most fields of advanced knowledge; they feel they are too gifted to feel stupid.

1:51 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

A twin study using MRI and tests of intelligence concluded that the influence of the environment on the brain was "negligible" in comparison to genes.

The link to it is here:

They saw 95 to 100 % identity in key brain structures between twins. They also noted the same kind of intellectual performance.

There are many studies that show this kind of thing.

Regarding Terence Tao: I have always thought that maths is not as great a test of a great mind as many people think, since the range of skills involved is narrower than in, say, Chemistry or Physics or Philosophy, perhaps. It is interesting that Terence Tao considers intelligence less important in this area, than most do. He may, however, be underestimating the effect of intelligence, owing to the fact that, being intelligent himself, he may not see clearly what advantage it has afforded him.

As for "feeling stupid" to make advances...I think whether one "feels stupid" depends on personality. The reaction of a person to a difficult problem differs. If the problem is difficult, some people will, indeed, "feel stupid"...but others, faced with the same problem, will just say to themselves: "This problem is difficult". They will not consider themselves stupid. I don't, therefore, think feeling stupid is a necessary prerequisite to scientific advance. However, I do think it is necessary to be able to face difficult challenges without becoming disheartened. Perhaps that is a different way of looking at the same thing.

You are right that many people - bright people - drop out of advanced studies. This may not be because they don't like the challenge, may be because many Universities teach really, really badly and make interesting topics incredibly dull. Certainly, that was my own experience at Cambridge University (they managed to make dull, very interesting matters, through being appalling teachers). So, it could just be weak teaching that is putting them off. If the teaching were more inspiring, you would find a higher retention rate, I expect.

Thanks for your comment.

10:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

IQ (and other giftedness selection) tests can be beaten.
Esp in Singapore.
Kids are pushed to beyond their level.
Obviously it is not sustainable.
so it is possible indeed to have too many "gifted" kids who get burnt out at a young age.

Which is why we now have the "international school" path for the offsprings of the "elites".

11:22 AM  
Anonymous FA said...

There are also many other studies that show the influence of environment in brain functions and IQ. The current cutting edge of genetics and behavior is epigenetics and increasingly, studies are showing how patterns of “wrapping” (to put it colloquially) of DNA due to environment affects gene functions. I think the main messages of these studies are: 1) any trait is always the product of environment and genes (a truism almost too obvious to state) and 2) genes are as malleable as the environment.

You are right about Terence Tao’s own perceptions; the fact that Prof Tao is being surrounded by already smart students, such that performance at that level is differentiated more by hard work and perseverance. In statistical terms, it’s an issue of range restriction. But I think his point is that one really does not have to be a genius to be doing good math, something many lay people don’t understand. And wasn’t it also found that Richard Feynman had an IQ in the 120s; quite high relative to the population, but not sure if he could be called a genius or a gifted student by the statistics of IQ. But using measures of his achievements and insights, he is, of course, one of the most influential physicists.

I agree that teaching quality sometimes can turn students off. I’m from the “other” Cambridge and I can personally attest to poor teaching that obscures rather than enlightening me. But I believe real PhD research is not in the class and the true test of a grad student is really when he/she has to strike out on his/her own independent research and that’s where Schwartz’s “feeling stupid” point comes in (very strong phrase admittedly).

Anyhow, I am intrigued by your children. I do look forward to reading more about them and your opinions on intelligence, intellect, and the mess that is Singapore society.

10:25 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks FA for your further comment.

Re. Richard P. Feynman. I understand that his IQ was supposed to have been 126, as a young man. However, from my own observations of him, I would say that he had ways of thinking that would not, necessarily, be captured by an IQ test. He was, for instance, imaginative...and that isn't part of any IQ test. So, I think he made up for his IQ in other areas and that is what made him a great physicist.

The paper I pointed you to, is interesting because it shows that environment has virtually no effect on brain STRUCTURE...thus the actual brain itself appears to be genetically determined. However, there may be effects on how that brain is then used (function) that come from elsewhere. If you could point me towards interesting papers on these effects, I would welcome it (though don't trouble yourself if you are unaware of them).

The problem with poor teaching is that, from what I saw at Cambridge University, it persuades many people never to pursue a higher degree at all...they decide that academia is not for them and move on to other things. Some of these people are very interesting indeed and could have done interesting things, were the system a little less dry and little more open. Thus, in many cases, we never get the chance to discover what great scientists they could have made. Academia really needs to be changed, fundamentally, if the potential of all students is to be attained.

Thanks for your kind comment regarding my children. It is my hope that, when they are older, they will be able to read my reflections on their early days, and know, better, how they were. I know I would have liked to have that.

Best wishes, in the "other Cambridge."

10:08 PM  
Anonymous FFA said...

Your point that Feynman had ways of thinking that cannot be captured by IQ is definitely correct. Something as singular as one piece of statistic we have come to call IQ definitely cannot capture many different aspects and ways of thinking intelligently.

I am not sure if I would agree with you that the environment has no effect on brain structure which would include circuits and patterns of connectivity (that I myself happen to study). Like I said, some studies show that, others do not. Hubel and Wisel won the Nobel Prize decades back for showing that the environmental inputs strongly affect patterning of the visual cortex (ocular dominance). Classic studies by Greenough and others have shown that environmental enrichment has very subtle yet persistent effects on brain structures such as dendritic connections. You can probably read about these classic studies off the net. For a good review of recent studies, I would suggest the review by Kolb & Wishaw (1998). Brain plasticity and behavior. Annual Review of Psychology, 49, 43-64. It is one of the most highly-cited reviews of brain plasticity (I’ll be happy to forward the paper to you if you don’t have access to it).

Francis Crick was once asked by a lady during a dinner, to name one single discovery about the brain that has the greatest significance; Crick replied saying something like “Well dear, we have found that the brain is really plastic”. The lady fainted.

For the twin studies that you cited, it is important to note that identical and fraternal twins do not just differ in genotypes. They may differ in terms of how similar their environments are; I am not familiar with the study’s sample, but it has been shown in other studies that some parents tend to treat identical twins more similarly than fraternal twins, and identical twins tend towards more similar environments/surroundings (though this itself can have some genetic basis). So, there is this genotype-environment confound between identical and fraternal twins, though minimized, cannot be completely separated.

I believe the idea that the brain is a fixed, immutable organ is a seductive one that dates back centuries, no doubt used to justify the status quo, and has been difficult to remove in the minds of the public. But I believe a good reading of the scientific literature suggests this idea is false.

10:53 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you, FFA, for your comment.

I do not have access to the paper you have mentioned...unless it is available online. I would appreciate the chance to read it.

Re. plasticity. I am aware that the brain is "plastic"...were it not, we would not be able to learn. However, I believe that the influence of genes is strong in many ways, ways which environmentalists try to dismiss, or diminish. My own observations lead me to believe that genes are strong influences (very much so), in the growth of intellectual function.

The paper I mentioned was basically saying that the conformation of brain structures appeared almost entirely genetically determined, in their twin study. I do not know what their sample was, but it was published in a solid journal. I take your point about confounding of gene/environmental influence, though given the situation, I doubt that the confusion is great. It would be interesting to see it quantified.

I think the belief in the plasticity of the brain has been taken too far by some commentators, to the extent that they think that all people can do all things. I think this is nonsense. Sure, people can improve in any given area by making efforts to do so...but I think their potential is circumscribed by their genes, in a way that no amount of almost religious fervour devoted to God "Plasticity" is going to overcome.

Some people are smarter than others, by virtue of having been lucky at conception. There is no getting away from that. Some people are stronger than others, for the same reason...and so on. We can argue with it, all we like...but I, for instance, will never be the strongest man in the world, no matter how much I lift weights, nor would I ever be the fastest. The same applies to some students who strive to be the best in some area: they will improve by their efforts, but there will always be others better endowed by good fortune who find it that much easier to achieve.

10:52 PM  
Blogger EbTech said...

With regards to Terence Tao, I recently found this old article discussing his childhood education:
He is now a leading mathematician.

12:10 PM  

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