Is math ability inborn or developed?

The “nature versus nurture” debate refers to discussions of the relative importance of a person’s innate qualities (“nature”) versus the importance of upbringing and experience (“nurture”). Such debates have been ongoing for centuries. Shakespeare even referred to such a debate in his play The Tempest (4:1). The phrase “nature versus nurture” in the current sense was first used by Francis Galton in the 19th century, in commentary on the work of Darwin, his cousin. Along this line, philosopher John Locke coined the term “tabula rasa” (“blank slate”) to refer to the “nurture” view that all or almost all human behavior is due to human upbringing and environment. For additional historical background, see [Wiki2011].

The “blank slate” view of human nature dominated the social sciences from about 1920 until roughly 1970. One of the most vocal advocates of this view was anthropologist Margaret Mead, who held, based on her studies of South Seas islanders and others, “that human nature is almost unbelievably malleable.”

But beginning in the 1970s, a new group of social scientists began to question the reigning blank slate orthodoxy. Twin studies, for instance, pointed to a very strong correlation between numerous personality traits and genetics. For example, upon reaching adulthood adoptive siblings are no more similar in IQ than strangers, while the IQ scores of full siblings show a correlation of 60%, and those of monozygotic (identical) twins raised separately are correlated 74%. Further, correlations in personality appear to increase with age — you do become more like your parents as you get older.

In addition, anthropologists began to question the results of Margaret Mead and others. Donald E. Brown, for instance, after doing an extensive review of anthropological literature, assembled a list of 140 “human universals” [Brown1991], effectively refuting claims by Mead as to the unlimited malleability of human nature. Other researchers revisited South Sea islanders and found the environment to be far from the Garden of Eden — contrary to Mead’s claims of a carefree existence, free from western hangups and psychological problems, these societies had pretty much the same array of social problems as the rest of the human family. Violent crime rates were found to be at least 10 times higher than that of large American and European inner cities; deaths from combat with warring tribes significantly higher, on a per-capita basis than deaths due to wars among the North American and European superpowers in the war-torn 20th century; etc. And as for their famed sexual uninhibitedness, researchers found that these societies had every bit as much possessiveness and jealousy over sexuality as in western nations. Further, they typically exhibited veritable cults of virginity — for example, in more than one society if a woman were found not to be a virgin on her wedding night, then the husband and his family were justified in taking violent reprisals on the bride’s family.

But slowly the orthodoxy changed, and now the consensus of researchers is that both nature and nurture are part of the human condition; if anything, nature (biological and genetic effects) have somewhat more effect. Furthermore, a 2011 study has provide the first direct biological evidence for the genetic contribution to overall intelligence [SN2011a]. For additional details on the blank slate paradigm and its history, see Steven Pinker’s very interesting book [Pinker2002].

Recently a study investigated the extent to which very young children may exhibit an innate sense of mathematics. Melissa Libertus, a psychologist at Johns Hopkins University, displayed briefly flashing groups of blue and yellow dots on a computer screen to 200 four-year-old children. The children had to estimate which group of dots was larger (in number). They also were given a standard test of early mathematical ability that measures numbering skills (counting items on a page), numeral literacy (reading numbers), and elementary calculation skills. These researches found that the precision of their estimations of the relative numbers of blue and yellow dots correlated quite strongly with the other measures of budding mathematical ability [SN2011b; Bhanoo2011].

The researchers note, however, that their study still leaves open the question of the root cause of the link between number sense and math ability. Do children born with superior number sense have an easier time learning to count and do arithmetic? Or do children who are better at counting have higher confidence in learning math?


  1. [Bhanoo2011] Sindya N. Bhanoo, “In Future Math Whizzes, Signs of ‘Number Sense’,” New York Times, 11 Aug 2011, available at Online article.
  2. [Brown1991] Donald E. Brown, Human Universals, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1991.
  3. [Pinker2002] Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Viking Press, New York, 2002.
  4. [SN2011a] [no author] “Research Reveals Genetic Link to Human Intelligence,” Science Daily, 12 Aug 2011, available at Online article.
  5. [SN2011b] [no author] “You Can Count On This: Math Ability Is Inborn, New Research Suggests,” Science Daily, 8 Aug 2011, available at Online article.
  6. [Wiki2011] [no author] “Nature versus nurture,” Wikipedia article, not dated but viewed 14 Aug 2011, available at Online article.

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