Born this way? Why the nature vs nurture debate doesn't concern teachers yet

15th December 2013 at 19:30


There's an old fable about a scorpion and a fox. In some stories it's a frog, in others it's a farmer. I like the fox better. So. The scorpion wants to cross a river but he can't swim. He asks a fox to carry him across but the fox isn't stupid. 'How can I trust you won't sting me?' he asks. 'Are you crazy?' says the scorpion. 'If I did that we'd both drown.' The fox can't fault that, so agrees to give him a lift across. But half way, the scorpion rears up and stings the fox with his deadly tail. As they both sink into the water, the confused fox says, 'Why did you sting me? Now we'll both drown.' 'I can't help it,' said the scorpion. 'It's in my nature.'


Apart from the obvious moral about not giving psychopaths with built-in, lethal ordnance lifts home, this story attempts to show that for some people, no matter how you treat them, blood will always trump. What our ancestors would have called blood we can now call our genetic inheritance, our DNA, and it's a debate that rattles around education like Marley's ghost: is success genetic, or learned? 


This week a King's College London study claimed to show that almost 60% of the variation in GCSE results was down to genetic factors, rather than uprbringing, peers or indeed schooling. 


'The team from King's College London found that on average, genes explained 58% of differences between GCSE scores in core subjects such as maths. Differences in grades due to environment, such as schools and families, accounted for about 36%. The remaining differences in GCSE scores in maths, English and science are explained by environmental factors unique to each person, say the researchers.'

From the BBC website


I was asked to do an interview this week with the BBC World Service to talk about this; because I was- fancy that- teaching when they wanted to do it, I had to refuse, but I already knew what I wanted to say, almost without knowing any details of the report. I haven't looked beyond the summary of it, so I can't comment on its quality- no doubt it is beyond reproach. But I will pick up on one factor which has been only lightly discussed in the responses: this report isn't claiming that genetic factors explain 60% of performance, but 60% of the difference between individuals. Which is quite a big difference from, I'm guessing, how many people would have read the headlines. So there's that. 



But there is a larger issue here, several in fact. This debate takes in the question of freewill; the mind-body duality, the Homunculus argument, and many other philosophical Gordian knots. What do these mean to teachers? The answer is- so far- incredibly little. One reason is that no one of sound mind would doubt that the physical structure of the brain is intrinsically linked to our cognitive abilities, and our sentience. Exhibit A in this argument is a bottle of Scotch added to the average brain. But the brain is still an undiscovered country, and neuroscience is still in its infancy. 


And obviously one's environment is a powerful cookie cutter of character; accent, dispositions, tastes and values can all be accrued osmotically from the soil of the pot in which one is planted. Exhibit A: my Glaswegian accent, my penchant for marshmallow teacakes, my allergy to all vegetables and games that require sunshine. No one disputes these factors.


No mind. No matter


Doesn't this mean that children are condemned to the outcomes of genetic karma? Of course not. Of course not. Even if, say it could be proven- which it hasn't- that 99% of our characters and actions were the product of our DNA, that would still leave 1% of human identity that came about in other ways. Like a midget driving a tank, no matter how small the space was, we could find human freewill. And it still seems far more likely that our characters are the result- in part, at least- of a complex interaction between the dizzying number of genes and their relationships with one another and their relationship in turn to the infinite interventions of experience. 


And even then, the nature of consciosuness is still so mysterious, that you don't even have to go so far as religion to realise that its very existence, its lived experience, is so ineffably transcendent to our analysis that we would be foolish indeed to assume we had captured its lightning in a bottle. Not only is the freewill debate not over, it hasn't even got its pants on.


Lastly there's the issue that concerns teachers the most in the classroom: what does it matter to us? If heritability has this effect or another on the educational phenotype of a child, will it affect how we treat them one drop? Will we try an ounce less hard for someone because we assume that they come from wise stock? Of course not. We would no more do this than write off a child with low grades as destined to stack shelves. 


Not robots, or customers, but pupils


The belief in freewill is central to our understanding of ourselves and others. It is intrinsic to our appreciation of morality, values and meaning. It means I can look at a badly behaved kid and tell them they can do better. It means I can believe, however demonstrably unevidenced, that a child can improve, or escape the narrative destiny of their nurseries, however desperate. I'm often told by people who never teach children, that every behaviour is the result of psychological causes over which the child has no command. I can scarcely believe such people appreciate the implication of what they imply- that children, and by default adults have no responsibility for their actions. 


Believe this, and we doom children, by treating them as if they were helpless passengers in their own bodies. But treat them as if they had the capacity to change, to grow, to learn, to flourish, and we treat them with dignity, love and ambition. And we throw them a life belt. And we treat them like human beings. Not scorpions.