The story of Srinivasa Ramanujan, an exceptionally talented, self-taught Indian mathematician, seems to suggest that mathematical ability is something at least partly innate. But what does the evidence say?
The film The Man Who Knew Infinity tells the gripping story of Srinivasa Ramanujan, an exceptionally talented, self-taught Indian mathematician. While in India, he was able to develop his own ideas on summing geometric and arithmetic series without any formal training. Eventually, his raw talent was recognised and he got a post at the University of Cambridge. There, he worked with Professor G.H. Hardy until his untimely death at the age of 32 in 1920.
However, the extent to which mathematical ability relies on innate or environmental factors remains controversial. A recent large scale twin and genome-wide analysis of 12-year-old children found that genetics could explain around half of the observed correlation between mathematical and reading ability. Although this is quite substantial, it still means that the learning environment has an important role to play.
So what does all this tell us about geniuses like Ramanujan? If mathematical ability does stem from a core non-linguistic capacity to reason with spatial and numerical representation, this can help explain how a prodigious talent could blossom in the absence of training. While language might still play a role, the nature of the numerical representations being manipulated could be crucial.
The fact that genetics seems to be involved also helps shed light on the case – Ramanujan could have simply inherited the ability. Nevertheless, we should not forget the important contribution of environment and education. While Ramanujan’s raw talent was sufficient to attract attention to his remarkable ability, it was the later provision of more formal mathematical training in India and England that allowed him to reach his full potential.