Hannah Devlin, Guardian, July 23, 2015
You may feel you are just not a maths person, or that you have a special gift for languages, but scientists have shown that the genes influencing numerical skills are the same ones that determine abilities in reading, arts and humanities.
The study suggests that if you have an academic Achilles heel, environmental factors such as a teaching are more likely to be to blame.
The findings add to growing evidence that school performance has a large heritable component, with around 60% of the differences in pupil’s GCSE results being explained by genetic factors.
Robert Plomin, a professor of genetics at King’s College London and the study’s senior author, said: “We found that academic achievement in English, mathematics, science, humanities, second languages and art were all affected by the same genes. People may think that they’re good at one subject and bad at another, but in reality most people are strikingly consistent.”
In the future, if specific genes were identified, nursery children could be screened to help target those who are likely to require more help learning basic skills such as reading and arithmetic, Plomin added.
The researchers analysed genetic data and GCSE scores from 12,500 twins, about half of whom were identical.
Results in all subjects, including maths, science, art and humanities, were highly heritable, with genes explaining a bigger proportion of the differences between children (54-65%) than environmental factors, such as school and family combined (14-21%), which were shared by the twins.
Comparing the outcomes for identical twins with fraternal twins allows scientists to investigate the extent to which genetics influence a person’s life. Identical twins share 100% of their genes, whereas fraternal twins share on average only half of the genes that differ between people.
So if genetics were a significant factor governing GCSE results, the differences between fraternal twins’ performances would be expected to be consistently greater than those between identical twins–and this is what the scientists saw.
When the scientists factored in IQ scores, they found that intelligence appeared to account for slightly less than half of the genetic component, suggesting that other heritable traits–curiosity, determination and memory, perhaps–play a significant role.
Kaili Rimfeld, who led the study and is also at King’s College London, said: “There’s a general academic achievement factor. Children who do well in one subject tend to better in another subject and that is largely for genetic reasons.”
Plomin said that while talking about genetics and education was no longer the taboo that it was twenty years ago, education professionals were slow to adapt teaching methods in the face of new scientific findings. “It’s a problem with evidence,” he said. “Thirty years ago medicine wasn’t particularly evidence-based. I think education is fundamentally not based on evidence. What programme has been rolled out that has been based on evidence? We ought to hold educationalists to the same standards of evidence as medicine.”
However, other scientists cautioned that it was too early to take the latest findings and apply them in schools. John Hardy, professor of neuroscience at University College London, said: “Twin studies are a mainstay of behavioural genetics, but they make a simple assumption that is unlikely to be true – that is that we treat identical twins the same as we treat non-identical twins. These results are interesting, therefore, but by no means definitive and it would be unwise to make educational decisions based on these data.”