Posted on July 25, 2018

Why Progressives Should Embrace the Genetics of Education

Kathryn Paige Harden, New York Times, July 24, 2018

College education is a fault line in American society. {snip} Now new research has found that college graduation, with all its advantages, is partly the outcome of a genetic lottery.

On Monday, scientists published a study in Nature Genetics that analyzed the genes of 1.1 million people of European ancestry, including over 300,000 23andMe customers. Over 99 percent of our DNA is identical in all humans, but researchers focused on the remaining 1 percent and found thousands of DNA variants that are correlated with educational attainment. This information can be combined into a single number, called a polygenic score. In Americans with European ancestry, just over 10 percent of people with a low polygenic score completed college, compared with 55 percent of people with a high polygenic score. This genetic disparity in college completion is as big as the disparity between rich and poor students in America.

Because researchers focused on differences within an ancestrally homogeneous group of people, their results have no implications for understanding racial disparities in education. Also, when researchers looked at African-Americans, the genetic variants only minimally predicted educational outcomes. {snip}

But research like this makes many people nervous. {snip}

Eugenic thinking {snip} confirms a racialized hierarchy of human worth.


But this is a mistake. Those of us who value social justice should instead be asking: How can the power of the genomic revolution be harnessed to create a more equal society?


First, these genetic results reveal the injustice of our so-called meritocracy. {snip}

But success in our educational system is partially a result of genetic luck. No one earned his or her DNA sequence, yet some of us are benefiting enormously from it. By showing us the links between genes and educational success, this new study reminds us that everyone should share in our national prosperity, regardless of which genetic variants he or she happens to inherit.

Second, knowing which genes are associated with educational success will help scientists understand how different environments also affect that success. The eventual development of a polygenic score that statistically predicts educational outcomes will allow researchers to control for genetic differences between people, so that the causal effects of the environment are thrown into sharper focus. Understanding which environments cause improvements in children’s ability to think and learn is necessary if we want to invest wisely in interventions that can truly make a difference.

{snip} We can’t change someone’s genes, but we can try to change how she grows up.


Genetic differences in human life are a scientific fact, like climate change. Many progressives resist acknowledging this when it comes to education, fearing that it will compromise their egalitarian beliefs. But just like acknowledging the reality of climate change is necessary to ensure a sustainably habitable planet, acknowledging the reality of genetic differences between people is a necessary step for us to ensure a more just society.