The elephant in the classroom: what can genetics tell us about intelligence?

Sunday 3 November, 17:3018:45, Frobisher 4-6Battle for Education

Research into the relationship between genetics, education and intelligence has a chequered history, but has been refined in recent years and has produced some striking findings. Researchers have claimed that general cognitive ability, educational achievement and the number of years spent in education are substantially influenced by genetics. They have also concluded that selective schools make little or no difference to educational outcomes, compared with non-selective schools, except to the extent that these schools are inadvertently selecting pupils on the basis of genetics. What are we to make of all this?

The eminent behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin has described the influence of genetics as ‘the elephant in the classroom’, arguing that there is an ongoing reluctance in the world of education to acknowledge or engage with relevant genetic findings. At the same time, Plomin has argued that ‘there are no necessary policy implications’ from such research, and that one can respond to genetic findings just as legitimately with left-wing education policies as with right-wing education policies. By contrast, critics of genetic research, such as the law and sociology researcher Dorothy Roberts, have argued that ‘research on the genetics of intelligence cannot be socially neutral’.

Debate about this area is made challenging by the slippery concept of ‘heritability’, which has a specialist meaning in genetics: the degree to which differences between individuals can be attributed to inherited DNA. Surprisingly, the heritability of characteristics such as intelligence is said to increase throughout people’s childhood and adulthood, rather than staying static or decreasing. On top of this, it is argued that greater social equality and universal standards of education will make educational achievement more heritable – not less heritable, as was traditionally assumed – because non-genetic differences will be subtracted from the picture.

This raises key questions about the degree to which a particular intellectual ability is down to our genes. Is a person’s ability at maths, philosophy or languages something heavily influenced by their DNA? Could that effect be so profound that some people will never be good at certain things, regardless of the quality of teaching, while others could excel even without a good formal education? What would this mean for the role of teachers and the education system?

How should educators respond – philosophically, morally, politically or practically – to claims from genetic researchers?