Dominic Cummings, outgoing special
adviser to education secretary Michael Gove, set the cat among the pigeons with
his views on genetics and education policy (as reported in BioNews 727). One of his points, that many people in education and beyond do not
understand the concepts underlying the study of genetics and human differences
and/or do not want to engage with the possible implications of this work, was
amply proven by the response to his leaked thesis.
Distinguished Guardian columnist,
Polly Toynbee, accused him of claiming that '70 percent of cognitive capacity is
genetic, beside which the quality of teaching pales into insignificance'. Writing in The Telegraph, geneticist Steve Jones said: 'A closer look shows just how misleading
it is to use heritability as a key to educational policy'.
The irony, of course, is that
Cummings did not make the claim that Toynbee accused him of and does in fact
understand the basic point Jones makes about heritability. In a radio
discussion with Cummings' primary source, behaviour geneticist Robert Plomin,
Jones had the good grace to admit that he had leapt into print without reading
Cummings' own words. And significantly, during the discussion, Jones agreed to
a large degree with Plomin that the past three decades and more of research
have established that school test scores, like IQ scores, show a significant
heritability (between 50 percent and 70 percent). So what do Cummings and
Plomin actually argue, and what to make of it?
Cummings and Plomin are claiming a
great deal, some of which is sound, some of which is not and some of which is
very speculative. Let's start with the claim that 70 percent of the variation in IQ
and IQ-type tests is down to genetics. That is a statement about variation in a
given population at a given moment in time. IQ
scores are re-normalised to keep the average at 100. The famous Flynn effect
points to the fact that if we don't do this the mean goes up. Flynn and others
have produced some fascinating work on this issue, about the relationship between
knowledge and intelligence, and how learning new and different kinds of
material could stimulate conceptual thinking and lead to a rise in the
non-normalised mean. He breaks it down by historical period and class.
But we also need to ask whether
we're comparing apples and oranges: that is, making a category mistake. Intelligence,
after all, isn't a biological thing, or not entirely so, whereas genes are
physical things. Differences in a physical thing can have consequences for
something that is more than physical, so genetic variation can and does affect
variation in cognitive ability. But this requires theorising and it's certainly
a nonsense to say '70 percent of cognitive capacity is genetic' not just
because of the point I made on this above (the 70 percent refers to variation) but also because
cognitive capacity isn't a simple or purely physical thing. And it
is just this that behaviour geneticists tend to glide over. Or worse, they presume
an explicitly naturalistic framework.
Behaviour geneticists, in particular
through their notions of evocative and active gene-environment correlations,
tend to marry a naturalistic notion of potential to a statistical treatment of
difference to produce the idea that genes play the active role in realising
potential and difference. So in their new book on genetics and education, G is
for Genes, Kathryn Asbury and Robert Plomin argue that 'the entire education
system is predicated on the belief that children are "blank slates"',
but that in reality it will soon be possible 'to use DNA chips to
predict strengths and weaknesses for individual pupils'. (pp. 5, 12). What is
needed, they argue, is learning that is 'personalised to an unprecedented extent',
in a large and fantastically resourced school designed to 'activate positive genotype-environment correlations', so enabling children to 'fulfil their natural
potential' (pp. 182, 183).
In summary: it is wrong to accuse Cummings
and Plomin of 'genetic determinism' in relation to academic performance (of
either schools or individuals). 'Genetic determinism' is consistent neither with
Plomin's research findings nor with Cummings' policy proposals.
great to see Asbury and Plomin defying the current culture of austerity. But in
their speculations about the prospects for 'personalised education' they
exaggerate the grip of 'blank slate' thinking, introduce a naturalistic notion
of 'potential' and go way beyond what is currently known about the character of
causal contributions of genes to differences in cognitive ability.
John Gillott's book, The Changing
Governance and Politics of Bioscience Research, is published by Palgrave
Macmillan in Spring 2014.