‘G is for Genes’: Genetics and Education?

The behavioral genetics community’s focus on cognitive ability and educational attainment stems partly because it is data that is more readily available. Educational attainment is a ‘low-hanging fruit,’ meaning many genetic data samples routinely gather information on an individual’s education background. Information on education attainment is widely available, relatively easy to standardize across different data sets, and has allowed genetic researchers to get ahold of very large sample sizes that promise greater statistical power. Intelligence, or cognitive ability, can also be measured on a common metric across countries and across development (though there is some debate as to whether intelligence can truly be measured through the use of IQ tests– see Ken Richardson).

As a researcher caught between the social and hard sciences, I am interested in the social impacts of behavior genetics and focus particularly on the impact this research may have on the US education system. Some behavior genetic researchers are also interested in how their work may influence education curriculum, policy, and practice.

The Impact of Genetics on Education and Achievement

Dr. Kathryn Asbury, a behavioral psychologist at the University of York and Dr. Robert Plomin have highlighted this in the 2013 publication of the book “G is for Genes:The Impact of Genetics on Education and Achievement.”Both are researchers in the Twin Early Development Study,  a large UK-based research consortium which studies how genes and the environment shape human development from birth to young adulthood. “G is for Genes,” advocates for the use of genetically sensitive information in school curriculum creation and implementation:

“By personalizing education, schools, through embracing the process of genotype-environment correlation, should draw out natural ability and build individual education plans for every single child, based on pupils’ specific abilities and interests rather than on arbitrary hoops set in place by partisan, vote-courting governments”(Asbury and Plomin, 2013: 11).

 In the book, Asbury and Plomin offer eleven policy points for the creation of a system of “personalized learning” that uses genetics research findings to shape education policy. The policy points are outlined below:


Asbury and Plomin believe that:

“Schools can promote individual fulfillment and achievement, and prepare cohorts of young people who know their talents and have been educated to use them. Society will surely benefit from generation after generation of young people with a firm grasp of core skills underpinning a wide range of specialist abilities and interests”(Asbury and Plomin, 2013: 8).

 Criticism of genetic research is similar to criticisms of sociobiology or some areas of sociogenomics, and lies namely in the argument that this research runs the risk of being fatalistic, deterministic, and could validate deficit thinking (or the idea that people fail because their inherently inferior). Because of this reputation, many behavior geneticists try to avoid making deterministic or conclusive statements. Indeed, Plomin responded to some of these concerns in a BBC 4 radio interview: “Let me say again that it’s science here. And as a scientist I want to know what causes these differences and I think a lot of good often comes out of basic science and big discoveries, like the fact that genetics is so important… people react against that, I understand that, but we are truth seekers.” (BBC Radio 2015)

You can see this attempt to address concerns over genetic determinism in “G is for Genes.” Asbury and Plomin seem caught between the argument that genetics are very important and highly influential and that genes are not deterministic or ‘can prove anything.’ In the book, Asbury and Plomin write that genes are “highly influential,” “the single best predictor,” “a biological advantage” (p45), “the primary reason…”(P29) while also saying, “next to nothing is determined by genes” (96), “genes matter, but they don’t determine anything” (p75). Dr. David Gillborn, a critical race scholar and education researcher at the University of Birmingham also noticed this apparent conflict and summarized some examples into the table below:

screenshot-2017-01-03-15-02-43 Asbury and Plomin have written this book well and catered it directly to policy makers and educators. The simple and even humanitarian language and appeal to overworked teachers who operate in high-stakes environments is enticing. An education system that takes some burden away from teachers and criticizes the bureaucracy and red-tape would certainly be better for both teachers and students. Plomin spoke to the Education Committee in the British House of Commons in 2013 and has appeared in youtube videos like the one below highlighting the benefits he sees an understanding of genetics having for the education system.


“Children differ and they differ genetically…and it’s not because they have bad schools, bad teachers, bad parents, or are bad themselves–unmotivated… So recognizing that children are different genetically is an important general principle…Don’t just automatically blame teachers, and schools, and parents. Realize that genetics is important.”

Despite the long way behavior genetics research on cognitive ability and educational attainment has to go in order to pinpoint exact markers that account for the high heritability estimates identified in twin studies (this has been dubbed “the missing heritability problem”), Kathryn Asbury and Robert Plomin see the possibilities of this research for childhood education. Asbury and Plomin are clear to state that genetic influence does not signify genetic determinism while also advocating for the use of genetic information in educational policy, especially because, as they write, “the ability to learn from teachers is, we know, influenced more by genes than by experience” (Asbury and Plomin, 2013: 7). Similar to the language of “personalized medicine,” which is seen as a future outcome of genomic research in biomedicine, Asbury and Plomin advocate for a system of ‘personalized learning’, one in which pedagogical practice is informed by genetic research– able to predict which kinds of educational interventions a child will be most receptive to (Asbury and Plomin, 2013).

So what about the environment?

The ideas Asbury and Plomin put forth in “G is for Genes” are intended for students not defined by exceptional genetic disorders like Down Syndrome that affect cognitive ability. This research moves from the realm of exceptional circumstances like a child with Down Syndrome or a child who is able to master complex theoretical physics by the age of ten, to the every day–the ‘average’ student stuck in overworked and under-resourced schools. However, while Asbury and Plomin discuss the impact an environmental influence like a child’s socioeconomic status might have on their academic achievement, race is remarkably absent. Robert Plomin (he now says he regrets this– if only because of the media attention he’s received as a result) added his signature to the 1994 Wall Street Journal article supporting the findings in The Bell Curvea book co-authored by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein that argued among other things:

“The bell curve for whites is centered roughly around IQ 100; the bell curve for American blacks roughly around 85; and those for different subgroups of Hispanics roughly midway between those for whites and blacks.”

Given the history behavior genetics was built upon and especially the previous actions of Plomin one would think that Asbury and Plomin would make a more conscious effort to discuss some of the environmental aspects of race– like the fact that ethnic minorities are more likely to find themselves in lower-income environments with fewer resources or worse schools.

Again and again I will return to the importance of realizing that by not talking about race and generalizing result findings in a way that makes it seem like a behavior such as cognitive ability is highly heritable (an expression that itself if often misunderstood) and genetically influenced regardless of your circumstances runs the very grave risk of perpetuating implicit and explicit ideas about group difference. While “G is for Genes” is certainly written in an appealing manner, the authors may be overly optimistic that it won’t be used to further track, label, and define students, particularly those who are underserved in the current system.

See here Murrary’s recent re-visit of the Bell Curve and an open-letter written to Virginia Tech about this work. While I am very critical of Murray and many of his political arguments and views of the social sciences, I do believe it is worth reading his works and trying to understand his point of view. It is troubling that Murray believes in racial differences in terms of IQ, suggesting that stratification between Blacks and Whites is strongly influenced by genetics and I am a strong critic of Murray and The Bell Curve; I believe The Bell Curve is a socially irresponsible work in that it has been used by some to validate racialized and eugenic arguments and because the book itself holds these undertones. However, Murray also wrote in his Bell Curve re-visit that:

 “None of us has earned our IQ. Those of us who are lucky should be acutely aware that it is pure luck (too few are), and be committed to behaving accordingly. … Massive government redistribution is an inevitable feature of advanced postindustrial societies.”

Murray has also argued that a critical political implication of intelligence being heritable is that countries should implement a minimum income to all persons – a policy also endorsed by MLK Jr.

I highlight these points to demonstrate the very murky waters with regard to behavior genetics and theories of egalitarianism. The field is fraught with turmoil over whether behavior genetics on contested traits like intelligence could ever promote socially just platforms. I think it often goes unrecognized that there are researchers who are trying to use behavior genetics to promote social justice– whether that is actually possible or simply naive optimism is to be determined, and I will certainly have to form my own opinion on the matter. What is clear to me is that many researchers in this area are NOT the right-wing conservative racist individuals they’re often painted to be (though some certainly are)– many, however, consider themselves liberal and believe they are conducting work that will genuinely better society and even promote equity.  I will  have to figure out whether I believe it is realistic that behavior genetics on intelligence could be restorative or socially just.

At the end of the Bell Curve, Herrnstein and Murray highlight the following:

“Predicting the course of society is chancy, but certain tendencies seem strong enough to worry about:

  • An increasingly isolated cognitive elite.
  • A merging of the cognitive elite with the affluent.
  • A deteriorating quality of life for people at the bottom end of the cognitive distribution.”

I personally would find these points worrisome–particularly if it is further solidifying social hierarchies. Imagine however, if cognitive was replaced with ‘racial’ — by suggesting that racial groups are cognitively different this is essentially what Murray and Herrnstein are saying in the context of the entire book (of course this is not explicitly stated, that doesn’t mean it isn’t implied). With this change, the underlying eugenic tones become obvious. It becomes that much scarier.

Published by historicallyburdenedconcepts

Bi-racial butterfly interested in bioethics, sociogenomics, impacts on understandings of inequities

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