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The IQ trap: how the study of genetics could transform education

The study of the genes which affect intelligence could revolutionise education. But, haunted by the spectre of eugenics, the science risks being lost in a political battle.

The appointment – followed, eight days later, by the resignation – of Toby Young to the board of the government’s new Office for Students in January was only the latest in a series of controversial interventions in education for the self-styled Toadmeister (Young’s Twitter handle). Having established his media profile on a platform of comments guaranteed to rile the “politically correct” (sexism, homophobia, that sort of thing), he began to reinvent himself as an educationalist through his initiatives on free schools – and he has been raising hackles in that sphere too. Things came to a head late last year when an article that Young wrote for the charity Teach First on intelligence and genetics was withdrawn from the organisation’s website on the grounds that it was “against what we believe is true and against our values and vision”. Young’s article summarised – rather accurately – the current view on how genes affect children’s IQ and academic attainment, and concluded that there is really not much that schools can do at present to alter these seemingly innate differences.

That affair is now coloured by the disclosure that Young had advocated “progressive eugenics” as a way to boost intelligence in a 2015 article in the Australian magazine Quadrant. The flames were fanned by Private Eye’s account of how Young attended what was widely labelled a “secret eugenics conference” at University College London that featured speakers with extremist views.

All this is viewed with dismay by scientists who are researching the role of genes in intelligence and considering the implications for education. They are already labouring under a cloud of suspicion, if not outright contempt, from some educationalists, and interventions by grandstanders such as Young will do nothing to soften the tenor of the debate. Such polarisation and conflict should trouble us all, though. Because, like it or not, genetics is going to enter the educational arena, and we need to have a sober, informed discussion about it.

Researchers are now becoming confident enough to claim that the information available from sequencing a person’s genome – the instructions encoded in our DNA that influence our physical and behavioural traits – can be used to make predictions about their potential to achieve academic success. “The speed of this research has surprised me,” says the psychologist Kathryn Asbury of the University of York, “and I think that it is probable that pretty soon someone – probably a commercial company – will start to try to sell it in some way.” Asbury believes “it is vital that we have regulations in place for the use of genetic information in education and that we prepare legal, social and ethical cases for how it could and should be used.”

If that sounds frightening, however, it might be because of a wide misapprehension about what genes are and what they do.

It’s sometimes said that the whole notion that intelligence has a genetic component is anathema to the liberals and left-wingers who dominate education. Young reliably depicts the extreme version here, saying “liberal educationalists… reject the idea that intelligence has a genetic basis [and] prefer to think of man as a tabula rasa, forged by society rather than nature”. He’s not alone, though. The psychologist Jill Boucher of City, University of London has lambasted what she calls “the unthinkingly self-righteous, hypocritical and ultimately damaging political correctness of those who deny that genetic inheritance contributes to academic achievement and hence social status”. Teach First’s suppression of Young’s article contributed to that impression: it was a clumsy and poorly motivated move. (The organisation has since apologised to Young.)

Despite this rhetoric, however, you’d be hard pushed to find a teacher who would question that children arrive at school with differing intrinsic aptitudes and abilities. Some kids pick things up in a flash, others struggle with the basics. This doesn’t mean it’s all in their genes: no one researching genes and intelligence denies that a child’s environment can play a big role in educational attainment. Of course kids with supportive, stimulating families and motivated peers have an advantage, while in some extreme cases the effects of trauma or malnutrition can compromise brain development. But the idea of the child as tabula rasa seems to be something of a straw man.

That’s backed up by a 2005 study by psychologist Robert Plomin of King’s College London, one of the leading experts on the genetic basis of intelligence, and his colleague Sheila Walker. They surveyed almost 2,000 primary school teachers and parents about their perceptions of genetic influence on a number of traits, including intelligence, and found that on the whole, both teachers and parents rated genetics as being just as important as the environment. This was despite the fact that 80 per cent of the teachers said there was no mention of genetics in their training. Plomin and Walker concluded that educators do seem to accept that genes influence intelligence.

Kathryn Asbury supports that view. When her PhD student Madeline Crosswaite investigated teachers’ beliefs about intelligence, Asbury says she found that “teachers, on average, believe that genetic factors are at least as important as environmental factors” and say they are “open to a role for genetic information in education one day, and that they would like to know more”.

Why, then, has there been this insistence from conservative commentators that liberal educationalists are in denial? It’s just one reflection of how the whole discussion has become highly politicised as left versus right, political correctness versus realism. There’s more of that to come.

It may be that people’s readiness to accept innate difference decreases when it is couched in terms of genes. If so, one reason could be a lingering association of genes with eugenics – the notion of improving traits in a population by selective breeding, and perhaps sterilisation, to promote “good” genes and drive out “bad”.

That bitter stew gets stirred by media-fuelled fantasies about designer babies and a genetic underclass (see the 1997 movie Gattaca). But I have a hunch, too, that many detect a whiff of determinism in the current discourse on genetics: that your genes fix from conception what kind of person you will become.

The intended counter-piece to Young’s on the Teach First website was written by Sonia Blandford, dean of education at Canterbury Christ Church University College and author of Born to Fail?. Blandford was silent about genes but wrote only about the inequities of a disadvantaged or lower-class background. So Young and Blandford would have been talking past each other, while leaving hanging in the air the idea that your genetics could also leave you “born to fail”.

All too often genes are read as destiny. But in truth there’s rather little in your genetic make-up that fixes traits or behaviour with any clarity. There are some genetic diseases that particular gene mutations will give you if you’re unlucky enough to inherit them. But most traits (including diseases) that are influenced by genes manifest only as tendencies. If you’re a woman with a certain variant of the BRCA1 gene, you have an increased risk of developing breast cancer. But there’s nothing to say that you will.

Partly this is because a lot of traits are influenced by many genes, interacting and correlating with one another in complex ways that are hard, perhaps impossible, to anticipate. But it’s also because genes are themselves influenced by environmental factors, which can cause them to be activated or suppressed. When it comes to behavioural traits such as intelligence, prediction from genes is unclear. Brain development is sensitive to genetic influence, but it’s not completely determined by it. The way the brain gets “wired” depends on early experience in the womb, childhood and adolescence, and remains susceptible to environmental influences throughout life.

Quite why genes have acquired this deterministic, and therefore ominous, aura isn’t clear. I strongly suspect that the rhetoric used to advertise the human genome project played a big part, promoting the notion that your genes are “the real you”. DNA sequencing companies such as 23andMe now use this line to sell their wares. Talking of genes “for” this or that trait reinforces the impression – there are no genes “for” intelligence, height, breast cancer and so on, although some genes affect those things. Genetics is now trying to backpedal out of a hole that, without such hype, it need never have got into. The result is that the tone of a discussion of innate versus environmental factors in intelligence is likely to plummet once genes are mentioned. “People worry about the motives that researchers have for asking these sorts of questions [about nature and nurture],” says Asbury. “I think eugenics still casts a long shadow.”

Whatever the reasons, the fact is that almost all research on education and genes is done within departments not of education but of psychology or genetics, a point made by the psychologist Stuart Ritchie of Edinburgh University. As a result, he says, while the science is fairly settled, “the debate in education is lagging behind”.


What does the science tell us about genes and intelligence? For geneticists, the challenge with any behavioural trait is to distinguish inherited influences from environmental ones. Are you smart (or not) because of your genes, or your home and school environment? For many years, the only way to separate these factors was through twin studies. This is a somewhat coarse way of controlling for genetic similarity, which entails looking at how the traits of identical and non-identical twins (who are 100 per cent or 50 per cent genetically identical, respectively) differ when they share or don’t share the same background – for example, when they are adopted into different family environments.

But now it’s possible to look directly at people’s genomes: to read the molecular code (sequence) of large proportions of an individual’s DNA. Over the past decade the cost of genome sequencing has fallen sharply, making it possible to look more directly at how genes correlate with intelligence. The data both from twin studies and DNA analysis are unambiguous: intelligence is strongly heritable. Typically around 50 per cent of variations in intelligence between individuals can be ascribed to genes, although these gene-induced differences become markedly more apparent as we age. As Ritchie says: like it or not, the debate about whether genes affect intelligence is over.

If that’s so, we should be able to see which genes are involved. But it has proved extremely difficult to find them. For many years, extensive efforts to zero in on the genes underpinning intelligence produced only a few candidates. Over the past year or so, however, the picture changed dramatically, partly because of better methods of searching but also because the spread of genome sequencing has made much bigger population samples available: that’s the key to spotting very small effects.

None of the genes identified this way are in any meaningful sense “for intelligence”. They tend to have highly specialised functions in embryo development – mostly connected to the brain. The influence of a particular gene might manifest in one or more aspects of intelligence, such as spatial sense, vocabulary or memory. There may well be hundreds, even thousands of such genes that make a contribution to intelligence. And people show so many different cognitive skills, ranging from imagination to an ability to remember historical dates or do calculus, that it could seem ludicrous to collapse them all to the single dimension of, say, IQ (see box, overleaf).

Recently, the introduction of a new way of adding up the influences of many genes, known as a genome-wide polygenic score (GPS), has hugely boosted our ability to identify the specific genetic variants that contribute to the heritable component of intelligence. But if so many genes are involved, can we meaningfully predict anything from someone’s genes about their likely intelligence? Well, even if we don’t know quite how all those genes function or integrate their effects, we can search for patterns – just as, although we can’t know exactly what led some individuals to vote for Brexit, we can make a fair prediction of how they voted from their age and demographic profile.

GPSs can now be used to make such predictions about intelligence. They’re not really reliable at the moment, but will surely become better as the sample sizes for genome-wide studies increase. They will always be about probabilities, though: “Mrs Larkin, there is a 67 per cent chance that your son will be capable of reaching the top 10 per cent of GCSE grades.” Such exam results were indeed the measure Plomin and colleagues used for one recent study of genome-based prediction. They found that there was a stronger correlation between GPS and GCSE results for extreme outcomes – for particularly high or low marks.

We could never forecast anything for sure. In Plomin’s study, the young person with the second-highest GPS for intelligence achieved results only slightly above average. That’s not surprising, though: environmental factors still play an important role. There might be, say, a family problem holding the child back. Or it may be that the GPS is not in this case an accurate indicator of potential at all, and the child gets burdened with unrealistic expectation and disappointment from teachers and parents. So using such measures for individual prediction could be fraught.

Whatever the uncertainties, though, you can be sure some people will want this information, just as they currently get their genomes analysed for medical and genealogical data by private companies. “We predict,” Plomin and behavioural psychologist Sophie von Stumm wrote in a paper published this January, “that IQ GPSs will become routinely available from direct-to-consumer companies.” They say that a GPS analysis – not just for intelligence but for other traits – can be conducted at a cost of less than $100 per person.

 Twin studies prove that intelligence is heritable. Credit: Robin Macmillan/ Trevillion images

The era of genetic forecasting of intelligence and ability is, then, already upon us. We now need to grapple with what that might mean for educational policy. “I believe that GPSs will be a real game-changer for education and provide a realistic and practical way of using genetics in the classroom,” says Emily Smith-Woolley, a researcher with Plomin at King’s College. But how? Nothing here is obvious, for the same reason that no scientific discovery implies moral inevitabilities: as David Hume put it, there is a difference between is and ought. “Genetic research has no necessary policy implications,” says Smith-Woolley. “What policymakers wish to do with the research is a judgement based on values they do or do not class as important.”

That helps presumably to explain why those with left-leaning inclinations, such as Plomin and Asbury, want to see our understanding of genes and intelligence used to level the playing field by applying a knowledge of children’s genetic potential to tailor their educational regimes, rather than persisting with a one-size-fits-all approach.

Toby Young, on the other hand, rejects such notions and favours a sink-or-swim approach that will (he believes) let the most able rise to the top: a philosophy far more suited to the instincts of the right. The correct approach, he argues, is simply to introduce “all children to the best that has been thought and said” and teach them “to value logic and reason”. And, one supposes, to pull their socks up.

I’ll hazard a guess that most people, at least among New Statesman readers, will feel sympathetic to the idea of finding ways to maximise every child’s potential. This would not be about the vague and contested notion of “learning styles”, but a more rigorous analysis of how certain genetic profiles respond better to particular types of problem or environment.

“At the moment we are detecting ‘problems’ only when they are visible, and at that point they can be detrimental for the child and hard to treat,” says Smith-Woolley. “Genetics offers the potential for predicting and preventing. For example, from birth we might be able to tell if a child has many genetic variants associated with having dyslexia. So why not intervene straight away, with proven strategies, before a problem emerges?” Whether such a scheme could work for more subtle aspects of intelligence and learning – whether we could realistically and reliably use genes alone to predict them, and then tailor learning strategies to have an impact – remains far from clear.

Moreover, educationalists already know a great deal about what works in education and what doesn’t, just as good teachers are attuned to the needs of a child. In their 2014 book G is for Genes, Asbury and Plomin make several sensible suggestions on education policy; but all of them – giving struggling children support without belabouring labels, teaching “thinking skills”, personalising and broadening the curriculum – could have been made without recourse to gene-based arguments. Might a fixation on genes be a red herring when there’s much more in education that we could fix now to far greater effect? Do we really need yet another way of testing and classifying children?

Asbury and Plomin say that eventually we will have a device that cheaply and quickly analyses a child’s DNA – what they call a “Learning Chip” – to make a reliable genetic prediction of “heritable differences between children in terms of their cognitive ability and academic achievement”. This idea will send a chill down the spines of many parents, who might fear that children will be branded for success or failure from birth.

Yet, according to Stuart Ritchie, some studies have shown that when IQ tests are used in this way they may identify more bright children among disadvantaged and ethnic minorities than teachers do. Even with the best will in the world, teachers may have cognitive biases that could influence the assessment of such groups. An objective test of academic potential based on a readout of a child’s genes might help to avoid such ingrained prejudices. And discrepancies between prediction and outcome could flag up cases where children are being held back by circumstance, or could help us learn from children who excel despite apparently unexceptional genetic endowment.

Plomin, Asbury, Smith-Woolley and their co-workers – Toby Young is a co-author on the paper too – have recently caused a stir with another demonstration of how genetic analysis may inform educational practice. Using GPSs from nearly 5,000 pupils, the report assesses how exam results from different types of school – non-selective state, selective state grammar, and private – are correlated with gene-based estimates of ability for the different pupil sets. The results might offer pause for thought among parents stumping up eyewatering school fees: the distribution of exam results at age 16 could be almost wholly explained by heritable differences, with less than 1 per cent being due to the type of schooling received. In other words, as far as academic achievement is concerned, selective schools seem to add next to nothing to the inherent abilities of their pupils. Again, politics informs conclusions. For the Conservative peer and science writer Matt Ridley this research affirms the futility of the left’s desire to “wish away” the role of genes in ability. For Asbury it shows that there is nothing to commend grammar schools, which merely cream off the best pupils without enhancing their innate capabilities.

All the same, Asbury avers that genetic assessment will only ever be an accessory to, and not a replacement for, existing methods of teaching and evaluation. “While genetic information can’t tell us everything,” she says, “it can indicate risk and might catch some kids that other indices, focused on more economic measures, miss.”

 Credit: Time Life pictures/ US signal corps/The Life Picture Collection/ Getty

Those “economic measures” alert us to one of the most controversial issues: whether the well-established correlation between socioeconomic status (SES) and measures of intelligence or achievement have a genetic component. Obviously there’s a strong environmental influence – rich kids go to the best schools, middle-class families have the resources to help with homework and go on cultural visits – but is that the whole story? To put it bluntly, might some children remain socially immobile because of their intelligence-linked genes?

It’s an uncomfortable thought, but the evidence seems clear: “SES is partly heritable,” Asbury and Plomin say. Genes can explain 40 per cent of the variability in people’s job-related status, and 30 per cent of income differences. In a 2016 study using GPSs, Plomin and colleague Eva Krapohl found that about half of the correlation between educational achievement and SES of British 16-year-olds could be ascribed to genetic factors.

If we put it in everyday terms this isn’t seem surprising. People with genetic learning disabilities face bigger obstacles than the rest of us to becoming socially and economically secure, while very smart people from poor families have a better chance of climbing the ladder. Still, it’s disturbing to see it spelt out in hard data: social mobility is not all a question of inequality
of opportunity. Our social structures may well exacerbate these genetic influences – for example, in terms of how we choose to award status.

“We prioritise academic goals such as university entry to such an extent that good goals that are less ‘intelligence-loaded’ are not encouraged,” says Asbury, “and the children for whom they would be a good fit, leading to life satisfaction, pride, fulfilment, happiness, are under-nurtured.” Psychologist Wendy Johnson, a sceptic about how useful genetics can be in education, concurs with that sentiment: “A big reason intelligence test scores are so associated with all the ‘good things’ in life are because we reward its display.”

With unerring instinct, Toby Young seized on the most inflammatory way to frame this discussion: Bring up the E-word. But he did so not in quite in the way you might think. To read some media reports of his 2015 article on “progressive eugenics”, you might imagine he was advocating eradication of the IQ-deficient poor. On the contrary, he was pointing to the possibility that de facto eugenics might arrive soon in the form of people using genetic screening of embryos in IVF to select for those with the best intelligence profile. When such technology arrives, said Young, it should be made available freely to poorer people to avoid a widening divide in intelligence between the haves and have-nots. Indeed, he said, it should then be welcomed as a means of raising the intelligence of the whole of society – surely a morally valid goal?

Is that scientifically possible, though? With intelligence thinly spread across so many genes, many of which have other functions too, is it realistic to think of selecting for intelligence? That’s not clear. “Any form of eugenics is nonsensical from a scientific view, as well as being abhorrent from a social, ethical and moral point of view,” says Asbury. But Ritchie points out that some intelligence-linked genes also relate to other characteristics we might consider beneficial, such as reduced chance of depression, obesity and schizophrenia. He also says that some rough-and-ready estimates suggest “you could get a pretty good benefit” in intelligence (on average)
from selection.

Embryo selection for intelligence is illegal in the UK under current regulations. But it’s unlikely to be made illegal everywhere in the world. Besides, Ritchie adds, in the West we already permit some degree of intelligence selection in reproduction – for example by licensing sperm or egg banks stocked by Ivy League graduates, and conversely by allowing for Down’s syndrome screening.

The irony with the furore over Young’s eugenics musings, says Ritchie, is that moral philosophers and bioethicists have already been discussing these issues for a long time. That’s not to exonerate Young but to say that the debate would be better served by turning to more serious minds than those of incontinently provocative liberal-goaders. It’s a debate we can’t shirk. “I feel a sense of anxiety that we’re not having it already,” Ritchie says.

In this fraught arena, we each need to place our cards on the table. As I watch my daughters’ local state schools work wonders with a pupil intake of hugely mixed ability and background, I can plainly see how significantly a child’s environment, such as the family circumstances and teacher’s skills, can impact on his or her attainment. So I believe that educational outcomes are partly determined by circumstances. At the same time, as a child of an unprivileged lower-middle-class family who found himself with an anomalously high IQ – for which, unearned and unsought, I feel neither pride nor embarrassment – I can see what advantages a lucky roll of the DNA dice can bring.

If research on genes and intelligence helps both to reduce the injustices of environment and release the full potential of every child, I would welcome its consequences. It is by no means certain that it will do either; a possible outcome is that it becomes an unwelcome distraction from addressing immediate, soluble problems in education, and that it might even exacerbate inequality. I do believe, though, that collectively we can and must decide which outcomes we want – and that the first step is to look without prejudice at the facts. 


How is intelligence measured?

The notion of an “intelligence quotient” (IQ) was introduced over a century ago as the ratio of mental age (in terms of intelligence) to chronological age. A ten-year-old child with an IQ of 120 has a mental age of 12, say. But there are all sorts of questions about what that means.

After all, IQ testing can be coached, IQ changes over time, and average IQ has been increasing over time. “Intelligence” is here in any case a somewhat emotive, prejudicial and, arguably, narrow term for what IQ is meant to measure, which is general cognitive ability. Yet what the notion of IQ reflects is the well-established fact that people who score well in one type of cognitive test tend to do well in others: there’s something generalised about such abilities.

The flaws of IQ testing have been wellrehearsed, not least the accusation that it is culturally biased. And it hasn’t yet fully expunged the stain of its use to guide ideas about eugenic sterilisation in the UK and the US in the early 20th century. But IQ seems to measure something meaningful. There are, for example, clear correlations between people’s IQ scores and their academic attainment, as well as their success in later life and their general well-being. One response is: big deal. Our culture, you might argue, has simply elected to reward those aspects of intelligence that IQ measures, so it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy.

IQ tests might tap a host of cognitive abilities, but not qualities such as empathy or loyalty that carry less guarantee of reward. Studies of genes and intelligence should not, then, be divorced from a much wider debate about what gets valued and nurtured in school and in life. The University of York psychologist Kathryn Asbury agrees with those criticisms, but she believes nevertheless that IQ is a worthwhile metric. “To my mind it is the jewel in psychology’s currently rather tarnished crown. It is reliable, robust, stable over decades and predictive of most of the things we care about.”

And it’s not just about measuring how good you are at spatial puzzles and mental arithmetic. “IQ correlates with other aspects of a person such as personality or motivation, and these factors are likely to make a difference to education and life outcomes, too.” The problem is not the use of IQ testing but how it is interpreted. IQ, Asbury and Robert Plomin say, is “just one predictor of achievement – albeit a strong one”.

Philip Ball’s most recent book is “Beyond Weird: Why Everything You Thought You Knew About Quantum Physics is Different” (Bodley Head)

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war