‘A “fixed” view of intelligence certainly constrains the potential of educators to develop young minds’

26th November 2015 at 17:55
Genetics and Plomin
Two education researchers take on the ideas of geneticist Robert Plomin

The recent TES interview with Robert Plomin raises an old educational chestnut about nature and nurture. The article speculates that genetics research might become an inevitable force in education: maybe one day teachers will have DNA data at their fingertips to tell them who might require extra maths support.

It is highly debatable whether we would want to take such a deterministic view of children’s intelligence, particularly given the multitude of genes in question, each of which bear such minute influence. A "fixed" view of intelligence certainly constrains the potential of educators to develop young minds. 

But the idea that intelligence is learnable is not just wishful thinking. Genetics in intelligence research is, in many cases, a flawed science. Like any research it carries a risk of being misinterpreted, or used in unethical ways. But at its core is a narrow understanding of intelligence that is simply not in line with the growing consensus that intelligence is largely learnable. It is unhelpful for teachers and learners to think about genetic constraints, when even these are open to external influence.

Misuse of genetic research

While Plomin doesn’t like the idea that genetic data be used deterministically to "keep everyone in their place", it isn’t hard to see how this would be unavoidable in an educational values system that glorifies the academic over the practical.

He argues that if test data were misused, we should blame the culture and the policy and not the science. His reference to Brave New World and genetic "castes" resonates because this sort of misuse is not unimaginable.

Is it too far-fetched to imagine a world where children and young people are assigned a figure representing their inherited intelligence? One that is required in college applications, let’s say. Those using the information might well be quick to forget how malleable even the inherited aspect of intelligence actually is.

Any requirement to make available our own unique genome might be seen as an invasion of privacy. One can imagine being refused life assurance because we may have a predisposition toward a certain life-limiting condition. Yet equally unsavoury is the idea of shoehorning children into a particular pathway because it allows them to "develop the way their genetic propensities are pushing them".

What would be the result of a scenario where genetic propensity is given higher status than a child’s (perhaps unidentified as yet) interest or passion in life? This might push some down an academic route, and others down a vocational route, further reinforcing a false dichotomy between mind and matter, brain and hand, and their association with "smart" and less intelligent.

In Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley concluded that the world was becoming like his dystopian vision much faster than he originally thought. We cannot so easily separate the science from the way it is used. A debate about the appropriateness of the study of intelligence carries on to this day.

Leaving values aside for the moment, I suspect such tests are an impossible dream (or nightmare) because the science itself is contestable.

Critiques of genetic research

One critique of heritability of intelligence research is the reliability and validity of the research, which typically relies on studies of identical twins reared apart. Looking at a number of such studies, Jay Joseph concluded that the evidence does not support the claims. Undermining studies, researchers falsely classified twins as "reared apart", which is notoriously difficult to achieve. For example, some "separated" twins were actually placed with members of the extended family. Others were placed into families correlated for socio-economic status, perhaps after being raised together for a number of years.

The Council for Responsible Genetics states that, based on the "massively flawed and environmentally confounded" studies, their exaggerated claims, and lack of replicability, "the evidence suggests that genes for the major psychiatric disorders, as well as for IQ and personality, do not exist". While intelligence, and proxies for intelligence (such as IQ test performance or educational attainment) are heritable in some part, there is no identifiable gene or set of genes that make labelling of individuals possible.

The Social Science Genetic Association Consortium (SSGAC) has also put to bed the idea that we are anywhere near finding genes for educational attainment. A ‘sobering’ editorial reports that "it now seems likely that many of the published findings of the last decade are wrong or misleading and have not contributed to real advances in knowledge".

SSGAC’s initial "genome wide association study" looked at 126,599 individuals and found three genetic variants linked to educational attainment. It makes extremely modest claims for their effects, which, as Ewen Callaway reports in the journal Nature, "are maddeningly small".

Genes are strongly mediated by environmental factors and even IQ is not fixed

Intelligence is controlled in only some part by many multiples of genes. It can only be quantified by proxy. IQ tests, for example, can be used to track some aspects of intelligence relatively reliably. IQ, however, is absolutely not fixed and so it is meaningless to judge a person for the fixedness of their intelligence.

Environmental factors have so great an impact that genetics cannot quantify even the so-called genetic portion of a person’s intelligence. Genes only affect propensity, not opportunity. Genetic factors may impact on intelligence indirectly through, say, their influence on preferences. For instance, a person might like reading but have access only to dull or limited reading material. Not only this, but the environment can modify or even cancel out the influence of genetic predispositions. What if policy dictates that the person’s access to reading material (or spectacles!) be restricted?

This is to say nothing of the aspects of intelligence under the influence of the learner. We should note that Alfred Binet, father of the IQ concept, believed strongly in the plasticity of intelligence:

“Some recent philosophers have given their moral approval to the deplorable verdict that an individual’s intelligence is a fixed quantity…We must protest and act against this brutal pessimism…it has no foundation whatsoever.”

Dr Ellen Spencer and Professor Bill Lucas work at the Expansive Education Network at the University of Winchester


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