I think everybody heard this claim, and its opposite, a million times. Students or teachers commonly speak about having talents for a particular subject or another.

The subject is debated, for example, here:

Does one have to be a genius to do mathematics?

The answer is an emphatic NO. In order to make good and useful contributions to mathematics, one does need to work hard, learn one’s field well, learn other fields and tools, ask questions, talk to other mathematicians, and think about the “big picture”.

While people may have different acquired "tastes" in knowledge and put different amounts of enthusiasm and effort when studying different subjects, and thus get better or worse knowledge and grades, is it scientifically proven that people are "born" with specific mathematical or language (or any other subject-specific) talents?

Note, please do exclude extreme examples from any answers, e.g. idiot-savants, etc. The claim is commonly made about the general population.

  • 3
    I am afraid solving nature vs. nurture is quite difficult. While there were studies for IQ, I doubt you will find similar studies for more detailed traits. I agree the question is answerable in principle, but I doubt there will be any answer is practice.
    – Suma
    Jul 17, 2011 at 19:41
  • 2
    As you know, we also allow "we don't know" questions, in which case it would be really interesting to know why it's so hard to tell. It seems a straightforward research area.
    – Sklivvz
    Jul 17, 2011 at 19:49
  • "Is it possible than people are "born"?" Perhaps a simple "Are people "born" ..." would do and the question would be clearer? Also: what is the difference you perceive difference between "people may have different tastes" and "that people are "born"? (Is it intentional you distinguish between skill and taste, or would you also be interested about "born" taste)?
    – Suma
    Jul 17, 2011 at 19:52
  • I think you are correct regarding the "is it possible", I had a reason for including it, but I now see it leaves the door open to bad answers. Regarding tastes, if the tastes are genetic, then I would consider it a talent, the taste being the mean through which the talent is expressed. I assumed that tastes were acquired though. I'll correct correspondingly.
    – Sklivvz
    Jul 17, 2011 at 20:20
  • Perhaps talent would be better than skill, then? I am not native English, therefore I may be easily wrong, but in my understanding we are all born with almost zero skills - with notable exceptions of suction and crying :). Or, if you want to retain skill, than I would prevent "skills are born" over "we are born with a skill".
    – Suma
    Jul 17, 2011 at 20:28

3 Answers 3


Yes, you can be naturally better at it. People with Aspergers are often highly logical and intelligent and good at computers. Aspergers is over-represented in computing, and generally accepted as being just a sort of computer-nerdery turned up to 11.

The people with Aspergers are better at maths and computers than people in general, and there is little doubt genetics are involved in Aspergers. Hence it is clear that genetics can cause you to be so disposed that you have a easier time for the types of formal logical thinking that computers and maths require.

Aspergers is also not a on/off disorder, but a spectrum where everyone ends up somewhere on the spectrum. At one end there are people who are autistic, and on the other end people who have very high social IQ's. So how good you are at maths or computers are at least partially determined by your genetics.

Math skills has also been shown to be heritable in many studies:

Similar to our results at 7 years, all mathematics scores at 9 years showed high heritability (.62–.75) and low shared environmental estimates (.00–.11) for both the low performance group and the full sample. (source)

The section of brain used for math computations may be 85 percent dependant on hereditary, genetic factors, according to the UCLA scientists. (source)

This should of course not be a surprise to anyone, it's pretty obvious really. The answer to "Nature vs Nurture" is always "Both".

(Note that this is not the same as saying that all math skills are genetic).

  • Just to be clear, being good at math/computers is not always negatively correlated with poor social skills. There are plenty of socially adequate computer geeks, and some are social intelligence geniuses (Eric S. Raymond is a good example of both. Any managers in financial companies generally have both excellent math skills required professionally and social skills required managerially.
    – user5341
    Dec 22, 2012 at 22:25

Fluid intelligence (the capacity to think logically and solve problems in novel situations) is an incredibly important piece of "computer abilities" in general. As shown by study cited below, it has a high heritability and therefore that means "being born" with "computer talents" is possible.



Fluid intelligence, on the other hand, has the highest heritability between families, reaching a mean of 0·92

However, those same IQ attributes are not unique to computers vs. other fields (Mathematics specifically) and therefore it's a lot more accurate that you're born with talent to excel in fields requiring a lot of logical thinking and problem solving - which include but aren't limited to computers. This is illustrated by looking at most good software developers - they are rarely only good at computers - they are usually good at Math as well.

  • What's the basis of down-vote?
    – user5341
    Jul 18, 2011 at 21:40
  • I am not the down voter, but you haven't really explained yourself clearly, maybe?
    – Sklivvz
    Jul 23, 2011 at 22:27
  • That could be it. I had to read through it several times to get it. I think the whole "fluid intelligence" bit is distracting. Jul 24, 2011 at 2:00
  • @Sklivvz - could you clarify which pieces are unclear? Does this require an explanation of what heritability means? P.S. I changed the wording somewhat on computer vs. noncomputer stuff, that did seem slightly unclear. But that is ancillary to the meat of the answer.
    – user5341
    Jul 24, 2011 at 7:50
  • Maybe you should explain your reasoning first and then show the evidence to support it. Laid out like this, it seems to ask us to examine the evidence as the correspondence to the question was "obvious".
    – Sklivvz
    Jul 24, 2011 at 7:52

There are different styles of Learning. When you are taught using one that works well for you you learn well. When it is not unless you can adapt that to your style then you do not.

However if you do not reach your potential then how can you measure your capacity. How can you tell if someone has reached their optimum potential. (For this the point where additional training and practice has negligible effect) It is claimed 10000 hours of practice is required to achieve expert level performance.

Thought Experiment on how to do good evaluation as the question asks:

So to create an experiment that could measure what you are asking for you would need to introduce controls.

  1. Detemine the best way to teach each of students.

  2. Force them to learn the same things in the way that teaches them the best.

  3. Carefully measure the results after certian numbers of hours and get a statisical sample.

  4. Then selectively inter breed them with each other.

  5. Gather data.

  6. Repeat the process.

    Probably repeat for several generations... Do we see the problems with this?`

  • I don't believe "maximum potential" to be a real thing. Jul 20, 2011 at 19:26
  • @BlueRaja reworded. Certianly there is a maximum potential as human life is finite. But I can agree that that the expectation of that maximum is not set at birth though Unless you can demonstrate it scientifically...
    – Chad
    Jul 20, 2011 at 20:50
  • 1
    Why would this sort of experiment be necessary. It seems to assume that the data isn't already available by looking at the current population. Jul 23, 2011 at 8:13
  • "I'm unable to think of a smart way to answer this question" in no way implies that there's no smart way to answer it.
    – Christian
    Jul 23, 2011 at 17:16
  • @Lennart - Because you assume that everyone goes into a field where they are most adept at. Certainly there are subsets that seem to perform better in certian fields, but that does not mean that their potential is greater in those fields. The path of least resistance is not always the path that leads to the greatest rewards. But that does seems to be the path the majority of us take.
    – Chad
    Jul 25, 2011 at 13:13

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