Schools should acknowledge that genes influence IQ

by Grace

Putting genetics and education in the same sentence is a modern taboo.

Kathryn Asbury, co-author with behavioral geneticists Robert Plomin of G is for Genes: The Impact of Genetics on Education and Achievement made this point when she wrote “Genes do influence children, and acknowledging that can make schools better” last year.

Recent research by Professor Plomin “shows genes are more important than we like to think”.  Longitudinal adoption studies in particular show parents have much less influence than some might believe.

… At one time people thought family members were similar because of the environment, but it turns out that the answer — in psychopathology or personality, and in cognition post-adolescence — the answer is that it’s all genetic! What runs in families is genetic!’

It’s not really “all” genetic, and Plomin’s hyperbole is not helpful.  But IQ and other traits do correlate closely with birth parents, and “tiger-mothering” by adoptive parents makes very little difference in the long term.

It’s another counterintuitive mind-melt. The environment, all that maths coaching and tiger-mothering, can maybe have an effect on a kid’s IQ when he’s young — bump him up a few notches. But as he gets older, his IQ will become ever more closely correlated with that of his blood relatives.

Plomin offers a theory that would explain why IQ moves closer to biological origins over time.

‘… ‘We don’t know, but it’s probable that little early genetic differences become bigger and bigger as you go through life creating environments correlated with your genotype.’ I must look baffled. ‘The simplest way of saying this is that bright kids read more, they hang out with kids who read more.’

Our environment shapes our development, but it’s also true that our genes shape our environment.  This reminds me of the finding that parents read more to their daughters than to their sons.  Perhaps part of the reason is due to innate differences between the genders, and parents find the “cost” of reading to a squirming child higher than to a calmer one.

According to Plomin, educators “especially don’t want to hear that IQ is highly heritable”.  Perhaps because they believe this lessens the value of what teachers do in the classroom and what social services schools push to provide.  And then there’s the fear of “a segregated world, children with low IQs condemned from birth to clean the loos”.

Knowing and accepting heritability of certain traits can aid in tailoring teaching to help students with specific difficulties.

‘Oh, I go to an education meeting and this is all I get,’ Plomin says, showing the first sign of mild exasperation. ‘They think it’s just terrible because we’re going to start labelling kids from really young. But kids label each other already — they know who’s sporty, who’s bright. And if we can read a kid’s genome, we can predict and prevent disease. If we can read their DNA, we can tailor the teaching to help a kid with learning difficulties. Surely it’s worse,’ he says, ‘to just sit in a classroom and sink, unable to read because no one has identified that you might have trouble? At least consider that it’s not an open-and-shut case.’

Many aspects of good teaching apply to the general population of students, but some particular instructional strategies work better for particular types of students.


Kathryn Asbury. “Genes do influence children, and acknowledging that can make schools better”, The Spectator, October 17, 2013.

Mary Wakefield, “Revealed: how exam results owe more to genes than teaching”, The Spectator, July 27, 2013.

RELATED:  Dan Hurley, “Can You Make Yourself Smarter?”, New York Times,  April 18, 2012.


5 Comments to “Schools should acknowledge that genes influence IQ”

  1. My experience is that the schools already assume that genetics determine a kids potential, and label kids that way starting from the beginning. “Oh, you and your husband are in computers. That is why Johnny is so good at math” , as the kid is learning 2+2.

    However, I think it is pretty clear to everyone that genetics are a powerful determiner of IQ, as well as various learning disabilities and traits such as ADHD. The real problem is the tendency to conflate this with social class, which I see popping up even from commentators who should know better. My own husband, who is astoundingly bright, is from a social class that is not generally associated with PhD quants. Most likely his intelligence is genetic – most likely there are one or more ancestors who were also really bright, but whose intelligence was masked by the limitations of social class. Another example- I know 10 little girls who were all adopted from the same region of China at the same time. The parents are unknown but almost certainly were all very poor peasant farmers with little education. But the variation among the 10 girls is quite large. A couple are extremely academic, several are very good at math, a couple are good at sports, some are social leaders and some are not. The ones that are very academically oriented most likely did have biological parents who were very smart – yet, were probably inpoverished farmers who probably could only read on a rudimentary level. The point is, while you can predict that a kid of not-so-bright parents will also not be very bright, or the kid of parents with ADHD will also likely have ADHD, you can’t predict that a kid who comes from a social class that is poor and uneducated will not be very bright. And yet, I see this mistake being made over and over and over in current discourse.


  2. “you can’t predict that a kid who comes from a social class that is poor and uneducated will not be very bright”

    But I think people who predict that may just be going with the odds. It’s unfair to stereotype individuals, but most of us do it to some degree. Teachers should definitely look to students as individuals, not as a stereotype.

    I agree that many teachers label students based on their parents, or siblings or social class, which are usually related.

    OTOH, it strikes me as a terrible idea to make students DNA information available to public schools.


  3. Even though IQ is highly heritable, that doesn’t mean that we can read someone’s genome and predict their IQ. IQ is a ‘multifactorial’ trait, which means that it results from a combination of many genes, and none of the currently available tests for association between genes and traits has anywhere near enough power to figure out the relationship. Maybe when we have billions of genomes with accurate phenotypic information we’ll be able to tease out a bit more, but don’t hold your breath.

    There has been a general failure of genome-wide association studies for complex traits. Even relatively simple traits often have no more than a tiny fraction of the heritable variation explainable from known alleles. I have no expectation that IQ will be predictable from genomic data in my lifetime (other than a few simple cases of retardation due to single-gene Mendelian traits or large chromosome rearrangements like Down’s syndrome).


  4. gasstation — Thanks for that info. I had no idea. This makes wonder, and be a little fearful, of a future where these traits can be predicted from a fertilized egg.


  5. I just ran across this:

    “Genetic Variants Build a Smarter Brain

    Researchers have yet to understand how genes influence intelligence, but a new study takes a step in that direction. An international team of scientists has identified a network of genes that may boost performance on IQ tests by building and insulating connections in the brain.

    Intelligence runs in families, but although scientists have identified about 20 genetic variants associated with intelligence, each accounts for just 1% of the variation in IQ scores. Because the effects of these genes on the brain are so subtle, neurologist Paul Thompson of the University of California, Los Angeles, devised a new large-scale strategy for tackling the problem. In 2009, he co-founded the ENIGMA Network, an international consortium of researchers who combine brain scanning and genetic data to study brain structure and function.”

    Linked from this:


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