Primal Numbers – Making the Genetic Grade

Do you have Neanderthals in your family tree? Are you at risk for certain kinds of cancer? These days, lots of people are getting answers to those questions and more by handing over samples of DNA. But there’s one type of genetic link that we’re still not keen to explore: intelligence. Now, one psychologist wants educators to pay more attention to genes?and his theory could transform the way we teach.

The idea that nature trumps nurture in the classroom isn’t new. As this Telegraph article explains, a 1969 research paper concluded that ?80% of variance in IQ scores was attributable to genes, not environment.? The notion was divisive back then, too. One psychologist who backed it was ?punched on the nose? while delivering a lecture.

Fast forward to 2014, when genetic testing for everything from cancer to ancestry is the latest trend. Everything, that is, except native intelligence, and That’s where researchers like Professor Robert Plomin come in.

He’s a professor of (and holds a PhD in) behavioural genetics at the MRC Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre at the Institute of Psychiatry in King’s College London. He’s been active in the field of behavioural genetics since 1974, and has spent the past decade working to identify the genes that are responsible for psychological traits. In other words, he knows a thing or two about how our DNA makes us tick.

Similar to the findings of other researchers, Plomin’s studies show that the more we equalize the environment, the more that genetics account for differences in cognitive ability.

Suppose, for instance, that a group of kids from different socioeconomic backgrounds are educated in exactly the same way. The same school setting, the same books and supplies, the same extracurricular activities. They will, of course, go home to differing environments after school. But for a large part of their day, they’re being shaped on a level playing field. The cognitive differences between them, then, come down to genetics instead of environment.

So what does that mean for kids in the classroom? Ideally, we could use DNA analysis to create personal learning plans for every student?the opposite of a one-size-fits-all strategy that sees so many students fall through the cracks. After all, as Plomin told The Telegraph, ?It’s wholly accepted that preventative medicine is the way to go. Why not preventative education??

Why not, indeed?

Because technical issues aside (those IQ genes have yet to be isolated), humans have long held a very narrow view of intelligence, and a shameful history of how we treat those who don’t fit the mould. One example is the widespread sterilization laws created in the 20th century. Many US states enacted them, with North Carolina performing state sterilizations as recently as 1974. This map on the DNA Learning Center blog offers a fascinating look at the history of the practice.

To be absolutely, abundantly clear, That’s not what Professor Plomin is suggesting. Instead, his goal is to use DNA to create a customized Learning Chip, a ?reliable genetic predictor? that will give students, parents, and teachers a clear picture of where each child needs help and where they naturally excel.

Unfortunately, while the work of researchers like Professor Plomin could be used to help students, we can’t ignore the potential pitfalls.

Suppose It’s that momentous day you and your child have been waiting for?the first day of school. Every teacher, from kindergarten to high school, could potentially see the DNA report that shows little Sophie’s inherited lack of math skills. Will that create a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which everyone’s assumptions lead to low expectations because, after all, She’s not genetically meant to win a math scholarship?

And how might DNA insight affect admissions to prestigious universities? Money and connections already skew your chances of getting in. But what if you love science in spite of struggling to get good grades, yet your file shows that you aren’t the right genetic material for MIT?

Those concerns shouldn’t stop promising research like Professor Plomin?s. But we can’t forget that It’s often the intangibles?things like perseverance and resourcefulness?that make all the difference in making the grade.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.