Thursday, 29 November 2012

Why doesn't the world have more child prodigies?

From time to time, the internet is capable of highlighting extraordinary young talents.Two of the recent stories are those of Deepika Kurup, from the USA who invented a water purificator based on solar energy, and Kevin Doe, who has built a radio - from junk, in Sierra Leone. Why both kids are extraordinarily talented, the large differences between their achievements raise some important economic questions. Why didn't the inventions happen vice versa? What limits child talent's emergence and potential? And most importantly, are there economic strategies which may contribute to the emergence of such prodigies?

Mozart, one of the world's most famous child prodigies
has been afflicted by poverty himself in his later life.
Source: Wikimedia


In order to understand the difference between Deepika's and Kevin's achievements, we need to scale away from their actual inventions. Child prodigies have been present throughout the course of human history (just think about Mozart, John Stuart Mill and Kasparov for three notable examples). The emergence of such talents is, while rare, but certainly not unique - hence, it can be statistically and scientifically assessed. My analysis here will rely on the educational and societal characteristics of the two countries Deepika and Kevin originate from - the USA and Sierra Leone.

Deepika's world

While Deepika herself is of Indian origin (her parents hail from the capital of Kerala, one of India's most prosperous states), she is every bit an average American schoolgirl nonetheless. She lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, attends public school, and she likes to practice martial arts in her freetime.
But her social and economic environment is quite different from that of Kevin. The median income in New Hampshire is $49,467, the 7th highest in the United States; it's secondary school students had the highest average scores on the SAT tests used for university admission in the country. The country itself has the 4th highest HDI (Human Development Index) value on the globe; it's people are universally well-catered and literate.

Kevin's world

Kevin's leisure activities and dreams could be those of an American kid as well. He likes to broadcast, to listen to music, play table tennis or football,  and he loves tinkering and modifying his gadgets. However, his economic background is vastly different.
Sierra Leone is one of the world's poorest countries. It scores as 180th out of 187 on the HDI. 64% of it's population is illiterate (worse than the figures of the war-struck Somalia). It's median income is an astonishing $340. More than 20% of children are suffering from malnutrition. Kevin, a devoted young to-be engineer, is hampered in his work by power outages lasting over a week.

The differences are certainly striking. But how do they translate to "genius birth?"

Measuring genius

Firstly, we have to assess whether there is a reliable scientific tool for measuring genius - luckily, there is, the intelligence quotient widely called as IQ. IQ is measured by intelligence tests, which in turn are designed to create a Gaussian distribution of IQ levels in a large enough population. Consequently, for a large enough group of people, there are bound to be geniuses - people with unusually high levels of IQ, based simply on statistical, empirical distribution.
Given that the average intellects of Americans and Sierra Leoneans do not genetically differ, the only thing which could explain why didn't Kevin invent the solar water purificator are environmental factors.

Environmental determination

While the growth potential of IQ can be limited by a number of factors, one of the most widely proven of them is malnutrition. An Indian medical study has distinguished three types of malnutrition (severe, moderate,mild) and assessed the consequences on 1336 rural Indian children attending primary school(a large sample size). The results have showed that "the relative risk of having an IQ less than or equal to 89 in severe, moderate and mild malnutrition was 3.5, 2.7 and 1.4 times for boys and in girls it was 2.4, 1.7 and 1.4 times respectively."
This is grim news for Sierra Leone's children. Even before school age, their intellectual potential is severely distracted by the possibility of malnutrition; 70% of them living under the poverty line, a mere 70% of the roll in to school, where only 51% of them (0.36, the literacy rate divided by 0.7, the enrolment rate) manages to learn reading and writing.
 The figures get even worse later. According to Wikipedia, Njala University's (one of the country's three) 820 students represented 27% of the total college student population in 2000; that makes the total number of college students 3037 in a country of 5,485,998 souls - 0.05 percent of the population. The corresponding figure for the USA is 5.7% - 114 times higher.


Needless to say, both Deepika's and Kevin's achievements are extraordinary. Yet few understand the dimension of the difficulties Kevin and his fellow nationals have to overcome. Genetics assures us that despite horrific economic conditions, exceptional talents will always emerge time to time - but who knows just how many such talent's skills have gone to waste, perishing in the chaos of violence, poverty and lack of education?


Abstract of Influence of malnutrition on intellectual development. Upadhyay SK, Agarwal DK, Agarwal KN.
Wikipedia on New Hampshire, Sierra Leone, HDI
World Vision on Sierra Leone

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