Originally published in The Conversation UK. Find here.
Researchers at King’s College London say they are able to predict educational achievement from DNA alone. Using a new type of analysis called a “genome-wide polygenic score”, or GPS, they analysed DNA samples from 3,497 people in the ongoing Twins Early Development Study. They found that people whose DNA had the highest GPS score performed substantially better at school. In fact, by age 16, there was a whole school-grade difference between those with the highest GPS scores and the lowest. The researchers herald their findings as a “tipping point” in the ability to use DNA – and DNA alone – in predicting educational achievement.
These findings will certainly generate debate, particularly about nature versus nurture. It’s a debate that forces us – often uncomfortably – to think about what makes us who we are. Are our careers, hobbies, food preferences, income levels, emotional dispositions, or even general success in life rooted in our genes (nature)? Or are we shaped more by our environment (nurture)? If it’s all down to our genes, what happens to the idea of determining our own destiny?
When it comes to the subject of intelligence, which today includes behavioural genetics research into “g (a measure of intelligence commonly used as a variable in research in this area) and cognitive ability, the nature-nurture debate becomes that much more heated.
There is a growing body of research that suggests intelligence is a highly heritable and polygenic trait, meaning that there are many genes that predict intelligence, each with a small effect size. While the connection between genetics research on educational achievement and findings on intelligence might not seem direct, studies like the one out of King’s establishes a biological connection between “g” and educational achievement. The findings mark the strongest genetic prediction for educational achievement so far, estimating up to 9% of variance in educational achievement at age 16.
But despite claims that this research moves “us closer to the possibility of early intervention and personalised learning”, there are important ethical concerns to take into account. For example, who would early intervention and personalised learning reach first? Is it possible parents with money, means, awareness and access would be first to place their children in “genetically sensitive schools” in the hope of getting an extra advantage?
It is not a secret that the history of intelligence research, and by extension genetics research on cognitive ability or educational achievement, is rooted in eugenics and racism, and has been used to validate the existence of racial and class differences. So how does this shameful past impact the field of behavioural genetics research today?
Many behavioural geneticists, like Robert Plomin, the senior author on the King’s study, believe the field has moved past this dark history and that the science is objective, neutral (as neutral as any research can be) and clear. The controversies that surround this research, at least in the eyes of Plomin and others, are fuelled by media sensationalism.
But many bioethicists and social scientists disagree with him. They argue that society values intelligence too much for this research to remain in neutral territory. Previously, the field was largely used to marginalise certain groups, particularly low-income or ethnic minority groups.
For some, attributing intelligence to genetics justifies the adverse circumstances many low-income and ethnic minority groups find themselves in; it wasn’t nurture that led to the under-performance of low-income or ethnic minority students in the classroom, it was nature, and nature cannot be changed. For bioethicists today, the question hanging over this branch of behavioural genetics is: who’s to say new research in this area won’t perpetuate the same social inequalities that similar work has done before?
Genetic research in an area once used to oppress people should openly acknowledge this past and explicitly state what its findings can and cannot prove (what many bioethicists call “trustworthy research”).
Stark class and race divides still persist in the UK and US, two countries where this branch of research is rapidly growing. While the study mentions the impact of a person’s place in society with educational achievement, it links this status back to genetics, highlighting the genetic overlap between educational achievement, g and family socioeconomic status.
The possibility that this kind of research may influence attitudes towards certain ethnic minorities and the less well off is real, as is the risk that this work might be used to justify social inequality. These concerns should be admitted and addressed by behavioural geneticists. The alternative could be a new form of eugenics.