September 25, 1998 (Ira Pilgrim)


My wife and I are both sterile. Is there any danger of passing this on to our children?

Letters to a government agency(Juliet Lowell, Dear Sir)

In the middle 1800s Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace postulated that evolution took place by a process that they called "natural selection." In other words, a natural process selects those animals and species that survive to reproduce into future generations. This is in contrast to the deliberate selection of various attributes made by people, as is done with domestic animals. This principle got to be known as "the survival of the fittest." Even though nothing was known at the time about genes or the mechanism of inheritance, debates ensued about what was meant by the word "fittest." Many Brits assumed that what was fittest was also British. In this century, the Nazis assumed that what was fittest was German, and proceeded to prove it by exterminating members of so-called inferior non-Arian races. Of course, when fitness is proved by the extermination of other species, then there is no doubt that man is fittest when compared to other species, with the possible exception of the ant and various species of microbe.

A term that says about the same thing and is less fraught with emotion is "reproductive fitness." It has been established as a major guiding principle in evolution. It states that fitness can be measured over many generations by how many animals or plants with a particular gene reproduce and how much they reproduce. It is the fitness of the gene, not the individual or species or race, that is measured.

Let me use a ridiculous example. Suppose that that there was a single gene whose effect was to double a person's physical strength, agility, memory and intelligence. It also produced sterility. Regardless of all of the apparent benefits, its reproductive fitness would be zero.

Which brings me to the subject of this essay, which is why aren't there more prodigies? By prodigies I mean people whose capacity to remember and learn is far superior to people who are considered to be highly intelligent. Many of these super-gifted individuals end up in music, as performers or composers. Some attain fame; some end up as Jeopardy winners; some attend Mensa meetings and do little else. While there are a few so-called "idiot savants," most prodigies are well adjusted people who lead normal lives, except that their brains contain a hellofalot more information that ours do. There are some people who are similarly gifted physically who, if they expend the effort, become sports superstars.

It seems to me that these gifted people gravitate to occupations where their gifts are useful. A prodigious memory is useful in all of the performing arts, including preaching and politics.It is useful in scholarship of all sorts. It is less essential to a carpenter, heavy equipment operator, merchant, or most of the occupations that we come in contact with every day. It used to be valuable to a supermarket checker, but much of that function has been taken over by computers. In fact, the lack of a prodigious memory can in some measure be substituted for by having a computer with a prodigious memory.

It seems reasonable to postulate that the genetics of prodigies involves a number of genes. If so, it would be theoretically possible to produce a whole race of prodigies. That this has not happened is a good indication that there is much more involved. Is it possible that a prodigious intellect has its down side? True, the whole Bach family seemed to have musical prodigies over several generations, but it petered out. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton have, or had, prodigious memories and both wasted them on politics. The geneticist James Watson was a wiz kid. He, with others, made a single great discovery in their youth. He wrote a fine book and then shuffled papers for the rest of his life.

I knew several prodigies in my younger days. All did very well, but not that much better than many who were not as gifted.

There is one thing that interferes with the utility of memory. Much of the information that exists in the world is wrong, with the exception of music and the lines in a play or movie, which are correct, but of very temporal value. Besides, there are now computers with prodigious memories; and they never, never make mistakes.

If you're not confused enough already, I would like to point out that both parents contribute equally to the genetics of their child. If the basis of being a prodigy is genetic, it would take two prodigies to start a line of prodigal children.

So why aren't there more prodigies? Damned if I know.

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