Please read this article by Polly Carl on HowlRound: Was I Born This Way? Then we can continue with the following, which is adapted from a comment I made on what she wrote.
I believe genetics plays a significant role in artistic development. There is something to be said, in other words, for the claims that some people are born with what is often (and poorly) referred to as “talent.” I would call it potential instead, because DNA is only half of the story.Â Having read a fair bit of genetics, I’m of the opinion that both nature and nurture are co-responsible for creativity. We have genes that hard-wire us with certain gifts, but experiences are necessary to activate those genes: to make those gifts or traits express themselves.
The problem is that we understand neither which genes are involved nor which life experiences will activate them.Â We do, however, have the rudiments of a similar understanding with regard to certain criminal behaviors: genes that are associated closely with perpetrators of certain crimes, but that only get expressed when those perpetrators have experienced certain influencing acts themselves.
In other words, we know the genes that cause certain people to commit certain crimes… if they’ve also been traumatized in very specific ways. (Our knowledge is still a bit speculative, but it’s 30 or more years old and gaining steam.) People who have the requisite genes but lived through happy childhoods don’t commit offenses. Those who don’t have the gene, but who do live through traumatic childhoods, also don’t commit the crimes. Put them both together, though, and… BAM.
What if we knew the same about creativity? That there were certain genes that predisposed us toward creative endeavors? And what if we knew what childhood experiences would activate those genes? How would we engineer things differently?
Let’s even think about it at a more granular level. What if we knew there were genes for fluency with words and genes for collaboration, and we knew how to activate them both? Would that be the recipe for a playwright? For a dramaturg? For a director? For all of the above?
What if we were to assume, right now, that both nature and nurture were required collaborators for our artistic development? That we’re all born gifted — all of us — and simply require certain experiences to help us make those gifts manifest?
Shouldn’t we be working really hard to try to figure out what those experiences might be? Because if an arts-deprived childhood in Elkhart, Indiana can still result in someone as gifted as Polly Carl — while upper-middle class parents meanwhile devote huge resources to sending their children to arts camps — we clearly don’t know the first thing about how to make an artist.
I would like us to know that. I suspect that if we did have that knowledge, it would be considered dangerous by the powers that be, who would be (understatement alert) quite reluctant to engender creativity in the masses. That leads me to my next suspicion: a great many more of us would be artists if we knew how to activate our creative genes. I’m not saying we’d suddenly have a dearth of bankers and lawyers; I’m saying that we’d conceive of those professions differently, or that they wouldn’t resemble what they resemble now. They’d look more like arts jobs.
Finally, I think that if we really accepted the implications of nature AND nurture, our educational system would also be radically overhauled. (This will not surprise anyone, of course.) What would it look like? I have no idea, though I suspect it would resemble the current system the way a bicycle resembles a ladder: two points of contact with the ground and made with metal. In other words: not much.