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The Nature of Genius II: On Late Bloomers and Ugly Ducklings

Is late blooming possible?

The early life of a particular young swan was not a happy one. In the beginning of this swan's life, he was treated as ugly by his friends and even his family. He was too white, too large, and too clumsy to have smooth social interactions with the other animals. When he tried to play water polo with them, they swam away. When he played hide and go seek with them, they never looked for him. Even a Danish poet labelled him "The Ugly Duckling", which certainly didn't do much for his already fragile self-image.

This swan felt just horrible. Why would the other ducks not play with him just because of the way he looked, he thought, as he sat in tears reflecting on his life so far. He hung in there though, and he eventually flowered into a graceful, beautiful swan. With his newfound confidence and inner strength he became a hit with the other swans and was sought after by the ones who initially rejected him. Now, he just smiles at the ones who rejected him and moves on, deciding to stick with those who aren't fair weather ducks.

The Hans Christian Andersen story that I've just summarized resonates with a lot of people. It certainly does with me. As briefly mentioned in my introductory post, I was labelled "learning disabled" when I was younger, and was removed from the mainstream academic context. It took until High School for me to fight my way back into mainstream classes, but of course I still felt like an outsider, and the students treated me as such. Hey, it wasn't all that bad. The bullies left me alone because they thought I was too mentally deficient to count my own lunch money, so decided out of pity to not steal from me.

Ever since, I've been deeply fascinated not only with the nature of human intelligence and creativity, but also the causes of late bloomers. Here I describe an interesting feature of genes that may offer at least a partial explanation for the ugly duckling syndrome.

In my last post, I discussed how many traits are a result of many interacting genes. One may have left that discussion thinking that these traits just emerge all at once-- either you have it or you don't. This is a popular conception of giftedness, held by many gifted education instructors and administrators around the world. It turns out that this conception of giftedness is wrong.

Here's how genes work. We all start out in a relatively undifferentiated state, and our various traits slowly appear and differentiate over time [1]. These traits aren't "hardwired" at birth. They can't be, because the multitude of genes that underlie a trait emerge over the course of long-term interactions between the developing body and mind of the child and the stimulation of the environment [2]. Furthermore, each of the genes that underlie a trait has its own developmental trajectory. Since the multitude of genes that underlie a trait can develop independently of each other, you may see high ability in one area early on while ability in other areas lag. Child savants are like this: they have early indicators of talent in one highly specific area, but often lack other skills necessary for survival, such as social skills and emotional regulation. The study of gene-environment interactions and the developmental trajectories of genes is called epigenetics, and is currently an active and promising research program.

The implication of this is that just because a trait may be heritable, meaning that it has a genetic foundation in the general population, this does not mean that the trait blooms suddenly. Many human traits, like physical attractiveness in the case of the Ugly Duckling, are under genetic control but may take decades to emerge. Even intelligence, which is partly determined by many interacting genes, go through various changes across the lifespan as some genes are automatically turned on, and some are automatically turned off.

This means that the late bloomer has some missing genetic components that haven't yet begun their developmental growth. As Dean Simonton points out, there is one way of becoming an early bloomer, but there are an infinite number of ways of being a late bloomer. Also, the more complex a trait, the more ways that a child can become a late bloomer for that trait. This means that the most appreciated abilities in society, such as creativity and leadership will rarely fully present itself at a young age, all at once.

This also has implications for child prodigies. Whereas the child prodigy is the one who gets all the right genes together early, there is no guarantee that the prodigy will remain one, because other genes can emerge later that may make it difficult for the prodigy to continue his or her success. So it is possible, as there are many anecdotes to show, that an initial gift may completely disappear (more on prodigies later).

I do think it's significant and noteworthy when a child demonstrates an early inclination and talent for something. And we should help nurture that potential. But I also think we shouldn't rule out the Ugly Duckling. While I don't think the evidence suggests that every single person has the same potential to become a genius (see earlier post), the fact that we can't tell at any one point in time whether any particular person will be a late bloomer is reason enough to treat everyone as if they have the potential for greatness. After all, the genes may have a developmental mind of their own, but at the end of the day it's the environment that determines whether it will allow that genotype to realize its full potential.

Next up: Another intriguing way genes can explain a lot about the nature of high ability.


[1] Simonton, D.K. (1999). Talent and its development: An emergenic and epigenetic model. Psychological Review, 3, 435-457.

[2] Bronfenbrenner, U., & Ceci, S.J. (1994). Nature-nurture reconceptualized in developmental perspective: A bioecological model.Psychological Review, 101, 568-586.


For a short list of some famous creative late bloomers, go here. Some of my favorites include Rodney Dangerfield, Charles Bukowski, and Stan Lee.

My thanks goes out to Elliot Paul for the late bloomers link as well as introducing me to the wonderful story of the ugly duckling.

© 2008 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved

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