Posted on July 25, 2016

One of the Fastest Growing Fields in Science Still Makes a Lot of People Very Uncomfortable

Olivia Goldhill, Quartz, July 24, 2016

Think of someone whose political ideology leads them to ignore and groundlessly reject science. Typically, this often describes those on the right of the political spectrum, where climate change, women’s reproductive health, and even evolution are routinely dismissed. But a massive and fast growing field in science–behavioral genetics–has a huge body of conclusive evidence that, at first reading, seems at odds with left-wing ideology.

This week, Robert Plomin, professor of behavioral genetics at King’s College London, published a paper showing that a child’s educational success can be predicted by their genes. Genetic data from 20,000 DNA variants across several genes collectively account for 10% of the differences in children’s educational achievement age 16. At the most extreme ends of this genetic variation is an entire exam grade difference–from A to B grade for those with the highest polygenic score, to B to C grade for those with the lowest.

The notion that success at school could be so influenced by genes is uncomfortable for those who uphold the view that anyone can do or achieve anything they put their mind to. But Plomin’s paper is far from the only publication showing such results. Meta-analysis of 61 twin studies shows that genetic variation accounts for 66% of educational achievement at primary school level.

And, disquieting though that may be, twin studies have time and again highlighted other aspects of ourselves that seem to be shaped by genes. Nancy Segal, evolutionary psychologist and behavioral geneticist at California State University who has written several books on twin studies, says the research suggests that about 50% of individual differences in personality are affected by genetic variation.


Though these scientific findings could be alarming for anyone, the seemingly deterministic perspective seems to contradict the left-wing emphasis on the role of privilege in any person’s success.


{snip} I’ve spoken to people with no knowledge of the scientific literature but a strong political perspective who insist that such studies about the role of genes simply cannot be true.

Both Segal and Saskia Selzam, lead researcher on Plomin’s paper, say that they’ve experienced the same. “Everyone has their own sets of beliefs. Some people ignore data even when other people are persuaded by it,” says Segal. The evidence is building at such a pace that both say the public seem to have become more accepting over the past couple of years.

But the belief that anyone can be anything they choose — that you could take a child and train them towards literally any goal with success is, says Segal, “such an old-fashioned notion, with absolutely no backing whatsoever.”


Behavioral genetics is an extremely fast-developing science, the “fastest developing science in human existence,” says Selzam. {snip}


Selzam says she hopes her work can help create personalized education “so that we acknowledge and understand individual differences and work towards creating equal opportunities for children based on who they are.”

Decoding our genetics can highlight our individual risks and resilience. And, crucially, this research helps us understand ourselves.