Revealed: how exam results owe more to genes than teaching

New research by Professor Robert Plomin shows genes are more important than we like to think

27 July 2013

9:00 AM

27 July 2013

9:00 AM

How pleasant it is to live in the 21st century, enlightened, no longer scared of science. We can marvel at the diversity of life with David Attenborough; face the vastness of the cosmos with Brian Cox. These days we talk of colliders and particles as casually as we shop for milk. Science is our oyster.

Except of course when it comes to genetics. Just try starting an excited conversation about gene therapy, or about the young Chinese genius Zhao Bowen, who is, right now, hunting down the genes for intelligence. Faces will fall, there’ll be talk of eugenics, perhaps a sudden burst of inexplicable fury. This I know because I’ve felt it myself.

I felt it first with a friend who tried to tell me about the research being done by Professor Robert Plomin — who I’m now here waiting to meet. Professor Plomin is one of the world’s leading behavioural geneticists, which means he studies genes; not down a microscope, but by looking at the population and how we behave.

He’ll pick some interesting and measurable traits: weight, height, intelligence; and survey thousands of kids. Then take the spread of results — the variation — and figure out to what degree nature or nurture is responsible. He’s asking: why do we differ from each other?

Twins are obviously useful in studies like these — especially identical ones because they share 100 per cent of their DNA — and Professor Plomin runs the Twins Early Development Study (Teds) of all twins born in England and Wales from 1994 to 1996.

And what his research shows time and time again (said my friend) is that nature is often more important than we like to think, particularly in the contentious area of IQ. Yes, there’s a complicated interplay of genes and environment, but even so, it’s striking how heritable IQ is. Clever parents are more likely to have clever kids, and once it is born there’s little you can do to up a child’s long-term IQ.

Well, here’s when the fury rose up in me. An anger I at first took to be righteous rage in defence of the genetic underdog, but on retrospect I recognised as pique. Being told that IQ — or any other trait — is highly heritable makes me feel limited. I’m a child of the West: we can do or be whatever we want, thanks very much.

So Professor Robert Plomin gets a wary look from me as he lopes into the restaurant for lunch: 60-odd, tall in a way a Yank might call ‘rangy’. He has just come from the Department for Education, he says, which for a geneticist is a little like swimming with sharks, because if there’s a group of people who especially don’t want to hear that IQ is highly heritable, it’s teachers.

‘Education is the last — well, backwater,’ says Dr Robert with a grin. Then he tells a story about the dark old days of the 1970s when he was young and antagonism to genetics was the norm.

‘My very first conference was by this old guy Leon Kamin, the author of a book called The Science and Politics of IQ,’ says Plomin. ‘Kamin came back to academia just so as to stop this pernicious stuff about genetics entering psychology. There were 2,000, maybe 3,000 people. It was dark and he was bald with kinda craggy features. I mean he looked scary. Then he started saying: “We’ve got to stop this talk of genetics now!” And I realised it didn’t matter to Kamin what was true. He believed in what he called “science for the people”, which was what he thought it would be useful for the people to know. I mean, that killed me because it was Kamin and these elite Harvard professors deciding what’s for the people! The idea was that science should serve politics.

‘Well,’ Plomin spreads his hands wide, ‘that’s just anathema if you’re doing science — I mean that’s heresy!’ He looks at me, expectantly. There’s just a hint of Tom Jones about his blue eyes. Who wants to be a Kaminite? Not me. For the rest of our conversation, I try hard, and mostly remember that my own discomfort with a finding has no bearing on its truth.

So what does the science say? What’s the state of the new nature/nurture debate?

Just being in the same family doesn’t make siblings similar

‘OK, the reason we did genetic research,’ says Plomin, ‘was because we know traits run in families, right?’

You mean, families are more alike than strangers?

‘Exactly. So we look at both nature and -nurture to see why. 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!’

So any way in which I’m like my parents or siblings is because of their genes, not because of how they brought me up? ‘Yes.’

I can feel the old anxiety open an eye. Surely families have some effect on how children turn out, what sort of adults they become?

Yes, Plomin explains, but it doesn’t make family members more similar — in the lingo, it’s not a ‘shared effect’. Imagine identical twins separated at birth. Bill and Rob. Bill and Rob are brought up by different adopted parents and never meet. But when Professor P knocks on the door and tests them both for various traits — IQ, let’s say — it turns out that they are just as similar to each other as other identical twins brought up in the same family. How weird is that?

‘I did an adoption study on weight, IQ and cognitive abilities,’ says Plomin, ‘and parents who don’t see their children after the first few hours of life are just as similar in terms of both weight and IQ to them after adolescence as are parents who reared their own kids. And [killer blow] adopted parents are zero similar!’

It’s riveting, once you get your head around it. It puts paid to the parental delusion that the family is a great binding force, experienced by siblings in the same way. One of Professor P’s findings is, for instance, that the love parents think they distribute to their children so evenly turns out to be experienced very differently by each child.

But… hang on: weight? How can the family environment not have an effect on how much a child weighs? Surely that’s about how much you eat, right? And isn’t that about what a parent chooses to put on the table: a KFC family bucket of fried chicken, or salad? Genes are important, but doesn’t the family’s eating habits create shared tastes?

If you’re fatter than your friends, it’s probably genetic

‘Yes, weight is really interesting, isn’t it?’ Plomin says. ‘Because all the theories as to what causes obesity are about family. People keep going earlier and earlier into a child’s life to look for causes, but they need to keep going right back further, into their genes!’

Here’s where it’s important to remember that Plomin is not studying individuals, but variation in populations. You are of course free to starve your own individual fat kid. His genes can’t smuggle cakes into the cellar. But in the population as a whole, in the absence of a psychopathic parent or a famine, most of the reason why people come in different sizes is because of their different genes.

The most contentious trait of course isn’t weight but IQ. ‘Well,’ says Plomin, ‘familial resemblance for IQ is just due to genetics.’

So if you’re adopted, your IQ will stay resolutely correlated with your birth parents?

‘Yes. And the Texas adoption study is one of the best on this,’ says Plomin, ‘because it’s longitudinal — it tracks kids as they grow up. At one time everybody thought that adoptive parents correlated 0.2 to 0.3 with the IQ of their adopted children.’ (A correlation of 1 means that children are exactly like parents, and zero means they are no more alike than a random person.) ‘But nobody noticed that these were just young children!’ says Plomin. ‘The Texas longitudinal study found that by 18, the correlation was zero.’

‘Tiger – mothering’ won’t make much difference in the end

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.

Genes really have more effect the older you get? Plomin’s face is lit up with interest. ‘It’s such an amazing story, isn’t it? That the heritability of IQ goes up lineally across the lifespan. From 30 per cent to 40, 50, 60 — some people even say it becomes 80 per cent heritable.’

(Now remember, the 80 per cent isn’t about any individual’s intelligence — the question Plomin is asking is: how much of the reason that we’re all different is genetic? That’s what 80 per cent is an answer to.)

‘Why does it go up? 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.’

Robert Plomin himself is a good example. The young Plomin grew up poor in inner-city Chigaco, to a family where no one went to university. ‘Because there were no books in our house, I used to go to the public library and get lots out,’ he says. See? His bright little genes seeking out an environment they liked. Then: ‘A real formative experience for me was a book on Darwin’s Beagle trip. I brought it to my Catholic school to show them, and I was kicked out!’ Plomin shakes his head. ‘I mean it was a mortal sin, go straight to Hell! But then I realised it was so obviously true and they were stonewalling, so it made me wonder what else they had wrong.’

It’s a great argument for public libraries — young Plomins need an environment in which to forage for facts. But the other lesson is just as important: Plomin’s classmates shared his environment, but not his questing genes; you can’t just put a kid with a low IQ in a library and expect him to become a genius.

‘There’s this slightly misleading fact,’ says Plomin, ‘that kids’ cognitive abilities is related to the number of books in the house. And it’s true that kids who grow up in houses with books are smarter. But that’s not why they’re smarter!

‘Sometimes, if you talk to teachers they behave as if it’s books themselves that cause the cognitive development of kids. They say: “See? Books don’t have DNA!” But they don’t consider that the fact that there are books in the house is because the parents are smart and like to read! Oh, it makes me feel as if I’m in Alice in Wonderland!’

But I can see the teachers’ point. Wouldn’t it just be too depressing for them to accept that there’s not much they can do to up a kid’s intelligence? ‘We’re talking about IQ, but remember it’s not just aptitude that’s important in a child,’ says Plomin. ‘It’s what I call appetite, just for the alliteration. I mean, conscientiousness, which means things like grit and sticking to it.’

But isn’t that genetic too?

‘So, there’s a genetic component to everything, but it’s a lot less than IQ.’

GCSE results are in the genes too!

Certainly Professor P’s enquiries into GSCEs should be of interest to everyone in this country, because he has no political axe to grind. He’s looked at the GCSE results of over 10,000 twins in the Ted study and will soon be publishing his data.

And there are several striking results. First, GSCE and IQ only correlate 0.5. Which means GCSEs aren’t a great measure of what we would normally call academic intelligence.

Secondly, GSCE results turn out to be strikingly heritable — 60 per cent, when at that age, 16, IQ is only 40 per cent heritable. So the reason why children’s GCSE results vary is more to do with their genes than their environment. Blimey. This is utterly at odds with the conventional wisdom. Most supporters of GSCEs imagine that an equal education (teaching the same curriculum to every child) will iron out inherited advantages; in fact, it only makes them more significant. (For those who care, the results for Michael Gove’s phonics tests are even starker: performance is about 70 per cent -heritable.)

Crucially, I suppose, what educationalists of a leftish bent must consider is this: if IQ is measurable (it is) and highly heritable (that, too), then the diversity we see now in exam results isn’t going to melt away. In fact, in the best school, with excellent teachers and rigorous exams, a normal, randomly selected bunch of kids will see a greater spread of results, reflecting their inherited abilities. The little Plomins, rich and poor, will pull away. The other kids’ results will get better too, but the gap will grow.

It’s no surprise really, to find out towards the end of our conversation that Plomin is not just at the cutting edge of behavioural genetics, but also at the heart of molecular genetics as well. Remember that Chinese programme I mentioned? It turns out that the young Zhao Bowen, in his quest to discover the genes for intelligence, is in fact using samples that Plomin collected — data from some of the brightest people in America. And though pinning down the actual genes for intelligence has proved tricky, Plomin (as ever) is optimistic: ‘I think it’s going to happen, I hope this is going to happen! I hope we do find the genes.’

No reason why not: DNA sequencing becomes cheaper all the time, meaning thousands of people can be sequenced, and the first results are coming in.

Babies may soon have their genes read

In fact, it will become so cheap that, as Plomin says, ‘Newborns may well have their DNA sequenced as a matter of course.’

I pale. The anxiety returns: but doesn’t that mean a segregated world, children with low IQs condemned from birth to clean the loos?

‘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.’

I do, and it’s not, and what convinced me in the end was to think about the awful harm done in the past by not knowing that certain traits or diseases have a genetic cause. ‘There was a time,’ says Plomin, ‘when people thought bad parenting caused autism and schizophrenia. Those mums not only had to deal with the children but with the world thinking it was their fault.’

And consider ADD — attention deficit disorder — still routinely supposed to be a product of bad parenting or letting kids exist on fizzy pop. Not so, says Plomin: it’s highly heritable — and I feel a wash of shame for the way I’ve judged parents in the past.

Before we leave, Plomin admits it’s not just teachers who don’t like to think about how heritable IQ is. Many of his clever friends, ‘post-doc types’, left having kids too late and so adopted. ‘They’re in this field, in genetics — and will they take genetics into account? They won’t,’ says Plomin. ‘They know how heritable certain traits are, but for their own kid, they think: I can make him just like me! A little TLC can do anything!’

I think Professor Robert Plomin is trying to sympathise, to show he understands it’s not just dolts who find genetics hard to stomach. But it shows me something else as well: that the maternal will is indomitable. No one’s going to love a child, adopted or otherwise, less because its genome has been sequenced, read and found wanting; no one thinks IQ is a measure of worth. So perhaps there’s less to fear than we think.

GCSEs are more nature than nurture

An abstract of Plomin et al’s forthcoming paper

We have previously shown that individual differences in educational achievement are highly heritable in the early and middle school years in the UK. The objective of the present study was to investigate whether similarly high heritability is found at the end of compulsory education (age 16) for the UK-wide examination, called the General Certificate of Secondary Education(GCSE). In a representative twin sample of 11,117 16-year-olds, heritability was substantial for GCSE performance for compulsory core subjects (58%) as well as for each of them individually: English (52%), Mathematics (55%) and Science (58%). In contrast, the overall effects of shared environment, which includes all family and school influences shared by members of twin pairs growing up in the same family and attending the same school, accounts for about 36% of the variance of mean GCSE scores. The significance of these findings is that individual differences in educational achievement at the end of compulsory education are not primarily an index of the quality of teachers or schools: much more of the variance of GCSE scores can be attributed to genetics than to school or family environment. We suggest a model of education that recognises the important role of genetics. Rather than a passive model of schooling as instruction (instruere, ‘to build in’), we propose an active model of education (educare, ‘to bring out’) in which children create their own educational experiences in part on the basis of their genetic propensities, which supports the trend towards personalised learning.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Mary Wakefield is deputy editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • commandergreen

    Something the leftists and the multicult wont ever accept.

  • Jan Tishauser

    “in which children create their own educational experiences in part on the basis of their genetic propensities, which supports the trend towards personalised learning.” This remark is educational baloney. The authors may have done good research on genetics, but they clearly have no knowledge of successful educational strategies. They simply repeat a popular educational, yet debunked, myth.

    • HFC

      As predicted, from a closed mind.

      • Jan Tishauser

        Show me the evidence, my mind is always open to evidence, but please don’t reply with storytelling and fairytales.

        • HFC

          Now you are demonstrating that you haven’t even bothered to read the article. Shame on you.

          • Jan Tishauser

            Shame one who, you show you haven’t read (or) understood my comment. I read the full article. I found It interesting and some information was new to me. The findings are consistent with educational research on the effects of teachers on achievement. The problem that I have is the reference to “experiental learning” in the conclusion. The research clearly doesn’t cover the best educational solution to the research findings. The researchteam advocates a debunked educational myth in their conclusion. These researchers clearly know how to research genetics; they are not up to date on educational research, otherwise they would not advocate the worst possible solution to educational inequality: an educational strategie that favours the intelligent over the less intelligent.

          • vieuxceps2

            “favours the intelligent over the less intelligent”-Why should the one be at the expense of the other? Why not nurture(ie. educate) both sets of children? Or might that conflict with leftist dogma?

          • Jan Tishauser

            I fully agree: every child deserves the best possible education. Gifted students are served best by acceleration: let them finish the curriculum in a shorter timetable. All childeren deserve differentiated instruction. Differentitation means adapting the route and the timetable, not the goals.

          • Mr Grumpy

            So we mustn’t set any goals for the gifted that others might never be capable of attaining?

          • Jan Tishauser

            Dear mr. Grumpy,

            I accidently replied to Paul S HK, instead of you, please read my reply there

  • Abc Def

    Brilliant interview. Vital education world starts thinking seriously about the hard science evidence. Also, it doesn’t mean ‘schools are irrelevant’ – tooth decay is also highly heritable but ‘secular interventions’ such as widespread dentistry make a big difference.

    If the Chinese / Plomin team do start finding the genes for IQ among the cohorts from Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY) etc, then it will offer hope for dealing with learning disabilities EARLY – while most early years programmes now are a waste of money – as well as identifying people with the capacity to solve very hard problems humanity faces.

  • Beauchard

    I knew it all along. It is not my fault. I cannot help myself. It is in my genes. You know like that scorpion and frog anecdote.
    There is no such thing as individual responsibility as individual choice does not exist. We are all programmed by our genes. Blame it on my parents. They created my genes.
    And here’s me thinking it was the result of my ascendant.

  • MrJones

    Good article.

    “We suggest a model of education that recognises the important role of genetics.”

    Practical example, class size of 10 for the thickies, 20 for the average and 40 for the bright.

    • Paul S HK

      That depends on whether you want a uniform outcome rather than one that maximises the overall social benefit of the educational process.

      Of course, it may not sound nice to say that it is less useful to lift what you so rudely term ‘thickies’ (let us say ‘mathematical thickies’) up to 100% of their potential than to get the ‘bright’ to 95% of theirs, but if real differences are accepted to exist and be the ‘possession’ of the child (inherited or not), then why deny society the benefit of a potentially brilliant child’s accelerated development?

      Maybe a ‘mathematical thickie’ would actually make a brilliant artist, and bring great joy to many more than the ‘mathematical brighty’.

      It is really foolish to attempt to pigeon-hole all children into uniform equal sized units of value across all subjects and capabilities.

      Anyhow, the model suggested by Mr Jones purports to respond to the role of genetics: but the idea of determining class sizes according some measure of ‘thick’ or ‘bright’ has no necessary causative link to genetics. It is simply a misallocation of resources, unless the target outcome is uniformity.

      Talk about an inhuman and regressive theory of human potential!

      • Fergus Pickering

        How would you now what the potential of a child was? These percentages are quite worthless, the pretence that this stuff is scientific and therefore exactly measurable when it is not. The teaching of children is not in any way (thank God) an area where science can tall us anything..

        • Paul S HK

          Putting aside, as artefacts of web based exchanges, now for know and tall for tell, Fergus, actually science can tell us a lot about the potential of a child. The correlations are quite strong.
          However, when a child is born, no matter where, we cannot know his precise intellectual, human, social or artistic qualities (to choose my four preferred reference points), so we need to maintain a flexible mind and a responsive educational system.
          Also, children do not stay children. They mature. And as that process evolves, the potential becomes more evident. There are late starters… But in the end, we must choose… To support or not to support those who have a clear and developed capacity to operate at an adult level.
          A Ruth Lawrence should not wait until 18 to study maths at Oxford, if it is evident she can do it at 14…
          So what is your real point, Fergus?

  • george

    Lordi, you’ll believe anything, won’t you? Perceptive teachers (I know one very well) will tell you that a lot of what is labelled as this or that psychological problem — including ADD — is actually a result of being a child or adolescent, and part of growing up. Medical labels are also very handy for irresponsible parents of children that they don’t know how to manage. High school teacher I know was made aware via the administration of a 16-year-old student who had been on anti-anxiety drugs since he was seven. That isn’t help: it’s child abuse.

    • Cumberland

      In many cases thick ear was an excellent remedy for hyperactive disorder.

  • Slicer

    The pseudo-science of gender theory and other postmodernist lunatics will not be able to accept this.

  • A quote embedded in my mind from a 1996 education production for teachers by the Open University …

    “There is no difference between children in terms of their ability.”

    I really thought that I was going mad during the 90s, because there were so many empty-headed pronouncements from the supposed “authorities” on so many subjects – in so many areas – that I just could not figure how so much nonsense kept being spewed into our minds from people who should know better, and who often clearly did know better.

    It took me years to figure out what was going on.

    And, in a nutshell, the answer was a desire to get power and money through intimidation and lies.

    And this was nearly all coming from the Left, the abuse industry and the feminists – who would SUCCESSFULLY shut down any debate with hostile, aggressive accusations of “racist”, “sexist”, etc whenever anybody dared to question their dogma.

    The upshot is that these people have now bullied their way into positions of power – almost everywhere – and in order to join in and climb their various power ladders (e.g. through one’s career) one merely has to support their nonsense. The better you support it, the higher you climb.

    And if you don’t support them then they will use every tactic possible to hurt you – if they can.

    Most of you have no idea how big this ‘beast’ has become.

    It is positively enormous.

    Various aspects of it are commonly labelled as Cultural Marxism, political correctness, feminism, multiculturalism etc etc etc.

    But, essentially, they all stem from a continuing and successful power grab by government and by goverrnment workers – though, of course, most of the latter will not know what is really going on; i.e. they will not see the bigger picture.

    And with regard to this particular issue of genes being hugely important with regard to our abilities, personalities, predispositions, mental illness etc etc, psychologists have known about this for decades. But they could not speak up about it because they would be viciously attacked – often physically – or have their lectures disrupted – by the usual leftist culprits – if they did so.

    Biy by bit, over the past ten years or so – largely thanks to the internet – the sheer scale of deception and aggression employed by these malicious groups has been gradually exposed.

    But there is still hell of a long way to go.

    In the USA, for example, some 96% of all university professors vote Left.

    Those who don’t, don’t get the jobs.

    So, when it comes to academic ‘research’, you always need to bear in mind that where social/political/economic/educational issues are concerned, you are most likely being deceived – because the research findings of these academics will MOSTLY be designed to please their political masters and, hence, to further their careers – as indicated above …

    “And I realised it didn’t matter to Kamin what was true. He believed in what he called “science for the people”, which was what he thought it would be useful for the people to know. I mean, that killed me because it was Kamin and these elite Harvard professors deciding what’s for the people! The idea was that science should serve politics.”

    Fortunately, many academics – e.g. Stephen Pinker and Robert Plomin above – have slowly and carefully pushed against these horrible forces in order to expose the truth – at least, as best as it is knowable given current techniques.

    I have such huge admiration for these people.

    • Frank P

      You’re on to something Harry, m’boy. Now read this and keep on truckin’:


    • Fergus Pickering

      You are quite right, Harry boy. Both my daughters have to appear to agree with self-evident rubbish in order to clmb the greasy pole to success in their chosen fields. But it was always so. The crap I had to learn about literary theories when I was educating myself reading great works of English Literature! But God gave us two ears so that this stuff could go in one and out the other..

    • TonyB58

      Yes. A lot of what you say has been my experience working in education too. Being, I suspect I am a bit older than you so I can confirm that the “PC” agenda began in further education in the mid-eighties specifically with Thatcher government’s edict for colleges to shift from employing full-time or fractional staff to use of hourly paid “visiting lecturers”. This allowed managers to hire and fire “visiting lecturers” at will while employing those who believed or mouthed the academic orthodoxy full time posts regardless of their competence as a teacher. Of course when these people, usually women, inevitable went sick due to “stress” the visiting lecturer was employed again to cover their classes. It’s always amazed me that these people never seemed to have any problem getting jobs despite their health record and manifest inability to teach!

  • Paul S HK

    I think we should avoid confusing a high degree of heritability with total predictability of outcome.
    We know that families actually can have a high dispersal of inherited traits: – height, intelligence, skin colour, musculature, are not all inherited identically.
    Surely this research merely demonstrates one needs to focus on the specific individuality of the child.

    This means the child’s background is not key, except where a high level of disadvantage, coupled with a high level of achievement, compels greater admiration for and suggests potential in a given child. This in turn probably means greater social benefit will flow from offering the child greater support in his or her development.

    It would have been a shame if a mathematician of genius such as Ramanujan had not been identified and nurtured by GH Hardy at Trinity, Cambridge, rather than left in an intellectually underprivileged environment.

    So we need to be open to the potential of all, regardless of origin, while not fooling ourselves into thinking that all are equal.
    It is not the heritability that matters, but the genetic POSSESSION of the young individual that needs respecting and nurturing.
    If heritable factors play a part in an individual’s IQ or knowledge capabilities, that is interesting, but it does nothing to define the value or otherwise of the educational outcome for the individual and for society.
    If the teaching profession wishes to nurture according to abilities, it cannot also assume a uniformity of need in the allocation of resources.
    Unless of course it believes that uniformity of outcomes is inherently more desirable than individual fulfilment of potential… no need to nurture, from kindergarten to University, a Ramanujan, an Einstein, a Fleming, an Edison, a Watson or a Crick …

    • Jan Tishauser

      Dear mister Grumpy,

      The gifted are best served by acceleration, so that they can enter university at a young age to achieve their highest aspirations. Setting higher goals for them in primary or secondary education is holding them back and serves only the prevention of boredom. Preventing boredom is a goal unworthy of a school.

      • Paul S HK

        Dear Jan T and Mr Grumpy, as someone who benefited from both higher goals and acceleration, might I suggest you are really both right and in agreement?
        If you accelerate a child’s progress through the system, you are de facto setting him higher goals.
        But acceleration is a great way of doing it as it need not disrupt the overall pace of class work. And, yes, it does dissipate boredom.
        We – four of us – were given free extra classes on Saturday mornings provided we did not disrupt normal classes, and used them to work to the higher level curriculum.
        Everybody benefited, but it was the willingness of our teachers to do this for us that was key. And of the school, a French state school, to allow a deviation from the rules.

        • Jan Tishauser

          I think you were very lucky with those teachers. Teachers really can make a difference and many do! I went to school in Canada and the Netherlands. In both countries I had very good and very bad experiences with teachers. I think you are right about me and mr. Grumpy, we seem to agree on the main issue.

          • Teacher (female-sorry chaps!)

            I hope Prof Plomin’s grasp of genetics is NOT on a par with his understanding of Latin. Educare does not mean ‘to bring out’ or, as the ignorant educationalists in thrall to child-centredness usually assert, ‘to lead out’. (In other words, the children are all born with it already and need only a teacher (or anyone, really) to draw it out.)
            Educare is a first conjugation verb,whereas the verb ‘educere’ , a second conjugation verb, means ‘to lead out’. The e makes all the difference. This verb is the root of our nouns ‘reduction’ and ‘seduction’ , so that if education meant to lead out it would be eduction, not education.

            Educare in Latin means ‘to train’ which until 40 years ago is just what schooling was for, but since then as most of the contributors here recognise, it has deteriorated from promoting learning to inculcation of politically correct attitudes. In those days teachers did not argue that reading and writing was too hard for working class pupils.
            As for the swipe at phonics, it is the only method that is known to make readers of Downs Syndrome children with IQs of only 60. Make of that what you will.
            Apart from acceleration, there is a simpler method of making sure children in a whole class receive teaching that is suitable to their abilities; it is called streaming.

          • Gettingoldernow

            And when you are years ahead of the fastest stream?

          • David Drane

            I would agree with your response, so long as the streaming was fluid in so much as children in lower streams can move up and those whome are not trying in upper streams moved down. Borderline ‘C’/’D’ grade children should have access to both higher and lower papers in GCSE free of charge. Also artistic and emotional intelligence should have equal emphasis within the GCSE system and Micheal Gove should be sacked as Education Secretary with immediate effect.

          • Teacher (female-sorry chaps!)

            Of course streaming would have to be flexible and respond to individual progress, as it did when I was a pupil and when I taught in comprehensives. Are you aware how much entering pupils for exams costs schools? I suspect that entering pupils for both higher and lower papers would exhaust schools’ resources. It may be that parents should be expected to pay, if they want their children to sit all levels. Indeed, in Scotland before the Second World War pupils in grammar schools bought their own textbooks, a practice to which I see many advantages, as providing text books at public expense engenders little respect for them at great cost.
            How would you propose measuring ’emotional intelligence’? I would steer clear of this until the profession can get the basics like teaching of reading right first.
            It is my view that Gove is doing a very necessary job of cleaning out the Augean stables and actually hasn’t gone far enough. It would help all pupils and especially working class ones, if the grammar schools were reinstated with immediate effect. That alone would address the collapsed standards that the recent international report revealed. It would also allow smaller classes in comps to teach the less academic adequately so that their standards rose too. Teachers are not supermen and women, and need systems which enable them to teach. Mixed ability classes help the less able least of all and make teachers’ job boring as well as nigh impossible.

    • Jan Tishauser

      Sorry, my reply was not meant for you.

  • Fantastic primer to behavioral genetics and heredity, as well as the prospect of genetic screening and the ineffectiveness of parenting! I like it.

    This is very similar to my own post I’ve written on the topic, titled with the First Law of behavioral genetics:

    All Human Behavioral Traits are Heritable | JayMan’s Blog

    I will spread this one.

  • William Reid Boyd

    I notice the Spectator is using something other than ‘cookies’ to determine whether an online reader has used his limit of free articles. I know this because deleting cookies, which used to work, no longer lets you circumvent the issue. I don’t know what they can be using but I suspect it’s probably illegal, not that I frankly really care all that much but Edward Snowden type wannabes might like to research the issue.

    As for subscribing, I would be happy to subscribe if the Spectator offered a decent app for the Kindle Fire at a reasonable price. So far it hasn’t.

    • AlfTupperDarlin

      Fire up a new Chrome window in incognito mode and browse to your selected page there.

      • William Reid Boyd

        Cheers :).

        • Fergus Pickering

          I trust you realise you are making it more likely that the Spectator will cease to exist.and that what you are doing is stealing. Go straght to jail. Do not pass go.

          • William Reid Boyd

            I used to subscribe to the paper edition of The Spectator until I realised I could read it for free on the web. As I say I’ll subscribe if I can get it on my Kindle (so I can read it when I travel).

  • ClausewitzTheMunificent

    Interesting article, but fortunately, I happened to be reading something which makes me slightly skeptical about his results. Now, as a formal academic paper, I assume his results are based on a thorough statistical analysis of a relatively large sample population. However, and I do not doubt the fundamental truth of his argument, it might be worthwile highlighting the fact that group or large population behaviour is not always linearly dependent or even predictable from the characteristics of the individuals which it consists of. I think the Speccie is rather too easily over-awed by scientific ideas and tend to over-sensationalize them. For instance, who exactly is surprised by the “revelation” that IQ is hereditary? Of course Professor Plomin has provided us with further concrete evidence, but there is no good reason why this should not be the case in the first place. And it is but a short step from this to then claim that GCSE performance is (once motivation has been factored in) genetically determined. But this would be to accept a far too reductionist view of the very complex interactions of genes within our bodies and of individuals in their web of social relationships. The correlation is interesting undoubtedly, and I readily admit that I may be wrong and that the relationship may actually be that simple, but I think the Speccie should beware building up a detailed conclusion on a matter that is not yet settled and fully understood, though on the whole I tend to agree with their arguments. To be clear about scientific research may be beyond the capabilities of any non-specialist periodical, however, and the magazine probably did the best it could.

    • szopen

      That g is hereditary was pretty much proved before Plomin even started his research. Geneticists only provide new evidence. Read some Jensen for example.

  • William Reid Boyd

    One of Professor Plomin’s fellow travellers http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mainstream_Science_on_Intelligence was the late Professor J. Phillippe Rushton who plausibly believed that Islam was a genetic problem i.e Arabs were agressive and simple-minded by nature. On the other hand I believe he agreed with Islam about woman being intellectually inferior, so not all negative there. He also apparently believed that penis size in men was inversely correlated with intellegence: thus Asians with smaller willys are smartest while African with bigger dicks are dumber, we Europeans in between.

    • Your point, presumably, is that anybody who thinks that a human being’s genetic code has some significant influence on their brain structure, its chemical influences and, hence, its cognitive functioning must be a scumbag.

      What next, eh?

      We are all as wicked as Adolf Hitler because he, like us, thought that smoking cigarettes was bad for health?

      That would be a stupid thing to conclude, wouldn’t it?

      Furthermore, of course, both you and Professor Plomin are also “fellow travellers” – you both read the Spectator and you are both interested in the topic of genetic influences on the brain. So, being one of his fellow travellers, are you a scumbag too?

      My advice?

      If you’ve got any evidence to show us that Professor Plomin is wrong, then let’s see it.

      If you haven’t got such evidence then, well, what can I say?

      • William Reid Boyd

        No, that wasn’t my point.

        I happen to think it quite likely that there’s something genetic about Arabs, also that women are indeed measurably inferior in intellect, while I have my own private convictions about the relationship between penis size and IQ.

        I’m not the slightest bit interested in the topic of genetic influence on cognitive function and I don’t give a damn whether Professor Plomin is right or wrong. I do have a few reservations about the factor analysis of variance, notably the linearity assumption that struck me as quite unfounded when I read up on the theory some forty or so years ago. The so-called g-factor does strike me as elusive as the g-spot. Otherwise I have no opinon. It’s a debate that’s been going for the past 50 years since my student days and it no longer interests me.

        • Fergus Pickering

          If I were you, Mr Boyd, I’d keep your opinions to yourself about female intelligence. That way you will enjoy a longer, happier life. If the criteria of intelligence are all set by men then of course… You see what I am saying. My brother has a higher IQ than I do, but he’s an idiot…

          • William Reid Boyd

            You misunderstand me. I didn’t say I thought women are intellectually inferior. I have no reason at all in our enlightened society to believe anything of the sort, though of course it was a commonplace belief even quite recently (Charles Darwin believed it for example).

            What I said was that I didn’t doubt that you could measure a difference. Not quite the same thing.

            What we are talking about here is psychology. That’s not a science, any more than economics is or for that matter astrology is. AngryHarry above makes the breathtaking observation that after long thought he’s come to the conclusion it’s all about power. Well blow me down avec une plume …

          • Fergus Pickering

            Many apologies. I misunderstood.

        • Daniel Maris

          Who are these Arabs? Most “Arabs” are a mish mash of Arab, Turkish, Jewish, Berber, African and European genes.

          • William Reid Boyd

            I can’t get hold of a copy of Rushton’s lecture. Wikipedia gives a citation you can chase up if you like. As you must know, it’s quite common for people to postulate a genetic disposition towards aggression amongst the ‘Arabs’ (desert people in the popular imagination).

    • Fergus Pickering

      The Greeks knew this about penises. That is why their statues of the gods all have small dicks, something that was pointed out to me fifty years ago by an observant fourteen-year-old in Rome.

      • William Reid Boyd

        I’ve noticed that about their statues too. I’ve always thought it was something to do with their paederasty.

        • Fergus Pickering

          Do you know, I never thought of that. Against that theory I have the wisdom of the ages encapsulated into s verse by the great anon. If the censors will let me:

          Long and thin
          Goes right in,
          Never please the ladies.
          Short and thick
          Dos the trick
          And produces babies.

          • William Reid Boyd

            🙂 I’ve only seen a “short” version of that before.

            I’m not sure, but I think the Rushton I originally posted about was quite serious about his theory. Wikipedia reports that he used to give his students questionnaires in which he enquired of his male students the dimensions of their package. Course if he had been a prof at a proper college he needn’t have bothered http://www.nytimes.com/1995/01/15/magazine/the-great-ivy-league-nude-posture-photo-scandal.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm , another master research project of the social sciences (keep this away from Micky http://www.thedailymash.co.uk/politics/bring-back-judy-blume-says-michael-gove-2013060570884 BTW).

          • george

            Best to be ‘intact’, then. Hard luck, Anthony Wiener!

          • mikewaller

            I cannot help but think that the best response to the above is another schoolyard ditty:

            Long and thin,
            Covered in shin
            Red in parts,
            Goes in tarts.

            What is it?


            On the wider point, of course Plomin is spot on. Heritability is the central dynamic of evolution and what might be termed specific competencies ( i.e. the attributes that are central to a species evolutionary success) are likely to be exceptionally heritable. As we humans are opportunistic problem-solver, intelligence is crucial to what we do and should therefore be highly heritable. As to why education/good parenting has an effect in the early years, the answer might be no more than the more rapid realisation of a fairly fixed potential.

            What I have always thought is that amongst Hilter’s manifold crimes, putting this kind of thing off limits for may decades ought to be included. Very foolishly, Caucasians of a certain type have always majored on Black/White comparisons. What they have routinely ignored is that when inter-racial comparisons were acceptable, several Asian groups routinely outperformed Whites. In this context, it is noteworthy that when comparisons of academic success are made in London, it is said that only one group does better than poor Chinese children; and that’s rich Chinese children. No doubt culture plays a role here as does the fact that immigrants are a self-selecting group; but in my view innate intelligence is likely to be the dominant factor as Plomin has now shown.

            The huge geo-political implications of this are clear: any notion that the Chinese and other peoples are going to stick at making the simple stuff leaving the “clever” whites to make aero-engines etc. is strictly for the birds. That is why I weep for the coming generations of Britons

          • William Reid Boyd

            I certainly see the force of remark about ‘specific competencies’, but where we differ would be over the suggestion that there is something called ‘intelligence’ which is a specific competency and my attack would be based on the paucity of the mathematical model (factor analysis) underlying it.

            The most I would concede would be that there is a number (but I would suggest it is large number) of competencies that make up a cluster of competencies we loosely call intelligence. Indeed intelligence tests themselves measure at least three: numerical, visuo-spatial and verbal skills. As a trained mathematician I have highly developed arithmetical skills and happen to have well developed verbal skills as well, while, surprisingly for a mathematician, have rather poorly developed visuo-spatial skills, thus I’m unable to visualise a cube. However there are other intellectual skills, audition anongst musicians for example, that they do not attempt to assess.

            However I’m well past all that sort of thing (indeed lost interest as I remarked) and in any case this is really not the place to conduct that debate.

    • szopen

      Actually, you pretty much proved that you only have read Rushton’s critics, not him himself. E.g. while he did research on penis size, it was related to his research on race differences and his theory of r- or k- selected populations.
      But do not worry, most of people who criticize Rushton or Plomin never actually read his stuff, or if they read it, they have misunderstood it. You are not alone.

      • William Reid Boyd

        @szopen:disqus ” … you only have read Rushton’s critics, not him himself.”

        Indeed that’s so, as I did mean to make clear with qualifiers such as “apparently”. I can’t recall how I first came to read of him, but it wasn’t because of reading a critique of his work. Probably he was being ridiculed in some text or other.

        Was that stuff about Arabs also a result of his research on r- or k- selected populations?

        I am genuinely curious. For that matter are you able to justify the linear assumption made in factor analysis, on which the whole thing depends?

        • szopen

          I am not sure about the Arabs. I read Flynn, Lynn, Rushton, Pinker and so on only in my free time, as such I am not familiar with everything written by them.
          With the linear assumption, I think you ought to read one book (much harder that Jenkins), which I think was about factor analysis; If you’d be patient, I will find the author, the title and maybe even the pages by tomorrow.
          Sorry for the hostile tone in my first comment, BTW. I was mildly irritated and i shouldn’t let it show in my reply.

          • William Reid Boyd

            Don’t think I could manage a technical discussion of the linear assumption anymore :).

            But of course it ias a simplifying assumption without which the mathematics involved would be quite intractable, and all that flows from it, like so much of the statistical sciences, is more to do with developing rational decision-making processes than presenting an accurate description of reality. A similar situation exists in the assumption of a log-normal dsitribution for stock prices used in the Blck-Scholes option pricing model, an assumption which is known not even to be approximately true.

            For that reason alone the nature/nurture argument is quite sterile in the context of IQ scores (and not least because the analysis of variance is a somewhat techical topic in statistics – a GCSE A* grade just doesn’t cut it). Most people sounding off on the topic in fact don’t have the faintest idea what they’re talking about.

          • szopen

            Actually you probably know more about that than me 🙂 Anyway, I was mistaken; I was going to propose you Bartholomew’s “IQ facts, myths and fallacies” and then Jensen’s “G factor”, since I was quite sure they discussed the matter, but I was wrong. They both only discuss how to ensure that the “g” extracted is a true “g”, that is, that when the factor is extracted, there is really latent variable in the data (And I admit I was a bit lost when Jensen started to explain how to do it, and even more lost when Bartholomew explained it in more detail).

            However, I think that linear assumption (that the values are weighted sum of some factors) is quite reasonable. I mean, I can’t even start to imagine non-linear combination of factors represented in values of tests…
            Unless you think about something else and I have just made a fool of myself 🙂

          • William Reid Boyd

            Well, it’s 40 years since I studied this. There is a linearity assumption in there somewhere and it’s pretty arbitrary as i remember. But you’re quite right I’m sure when you say that you can’t imagine how one can proceed without that assumption; and that’s my point, that it’s a model that might not directly correspond to reality.

            I think alll of the so-called human sciences are like this and we are really into Foucault (I mean the French philosopher) territory in assessing their significance. As I say I really don’t think there’s much to be gained over quarreling about their veracity.

  • Baron

    The blue-eyed prof gets it only partly right. It’s generally accepted more of us are obese today than half a century ago. What come? Have the low-fat genes people left the West when post war prosperity was marching on?

    Genes mostly determine what we can become either in weight or intelligence or whatever. Nature kicks in and determines what we actually become.

    Place a baby born to high IQ people with a family of illiterate beduins who do nothing more but move around in sandy dunes, milk the camel, pray to Allah five times a day. When the child reaches 50, he will have an IQ close to a man of beduin parentage who has lived for 50 years with a high IQ couple.

    Which of the two would be happier though? That’s the question we should be asking.

    • Fergus Pickering

      I wouldn’t get mired in the IQ minefield if I were you, Baron. You can raise your IQ by twenty points simply by practising the tests.

      • Daniel Maris

        Absoutely IQ tests measure only the ability to do IQ tests. Our great great grandparents would be judged near imbeciles on current tests – but, clearly, they weren’t…they just had different life experiences.

        • szopen

          Wrong. spectacularly wrong. The g extracted from many different IQ tests (the more tests, and the more diverse, the better will be estimation of g) is correlated with, for example, how long a man will live, whether he will go to the jail, how much he will earn, his musical abilities, how fast he will learn new material and so on.
          What you are refering to (Flynn effect) is unknown whether it is related to actual g raise, or just IQ tests losing their powers to measure g.

          • Emil Kirkegaard

            Flynn-Lynn-Runquist effect is not g-loaded. It’s test training skills basically. Our grandparents were not retarded.

      • szopen

        No. You can raise your scores in a particular IQ test. But by doing that, this particular IQ test will lose its power in measuring your intelligence (it will become less g-loaded).

    • Daniel Maris

      God I hope the answer isn’t the family of illiterate Bedouins praying to Allah…perhaps you weren’t joking about converting to Islam…

    • Emil Kirkegaard

      “The blue-eyed prof gets it only partly right. It’s generally accepted
      more of us are obese today than half a century ago. What come? Have the
      low-fat genes people left the West when post war prosperity was
      marching on?”

      You are confusing within heritability with between group heritability (which Plomin said nothing about, since he knows what happened to Jensen when he did). Between group (nations) heritability for obesity is definitely not that high.

      • Baron

        Emil, Baron’s posting wasn’t particularly well articulated, and yours isn’t either. Say it again, please. The confusion is between what?

        • Emil Kirkegaard

          Just google it. Within group heritability vs. between group heritability.

          • Baron

            Merci, Emil.

  • GentlemanPugilist

    ‘…the diversity we see now in exam results isn’t going to melt away. In fact, in the best school, with excellent teachers and rigorous exams, a normal, randomly selected bunch of kids will see a greater spread of results, reflecting their inherited abilities. The little Plomins, rich and poor, will pull away. The other kids’ results will get better too, but the gap will grow.’

    Could that be why exams have become less rigorous over the years? Equality is only ever accomplished by debasing the superior, you will never be able to get all children to pass a hard exam. But if you make the exams easy enough, everybody will be able to pass them.

    Oh and James Watson, a Nobel winning scientist, was excoriated by the likes of Keith Vaz when he suggested that Africans might have inferior IQs to Europeans and Asians. So I think if IQ is linked to genetics it will not be made public.

  • Fergus Pickering

    A lot of words to tell us what we all knew already. But I suppose we didn’t know it ‘scientifically’.’An active model of education in which children create their own educational experiences’ is just gobbledegook isn’t it? Or can you explain what it means in simple Anglo-saxon?. And I would beware of building theories on the supposed meanings of Latin words, if I were you. The greater part of education is of course instruction. If you want a child to be able to do sums, or arithmetic if you prefer the Greek, I respectfully suggest you instruct him or her on how it is done.. .

  • alabenn

    You only have to look at what has happened thoughout the worlds populations, white European have been responsible for almost all the advances the world has made in the last 2000 years, the Chinese stopped advancing hundreds of years ago as did Indian and African people, Aborigines never much advanced at all.
    The advances we talk about are from our perspective so I am sure someone will work it round to Europeans having prevented advancement by others, therefore the World will be better without them, best breed them out of existence.

    • Daniel Maris

      It’s an interesting subject. Why has Europe been so spectacularly successful?

      Of course if you are looking at race, Ashkenazi Jews are punching way above their weight, though of course they have done so only since emancipation.

      Another interesting question is why a society like the Greeks suddenly burst into glorious life after for several hundred years doing not much. JUst look at their early, ugly pottery…then within a couple of hundred years you have the most exquisite vases being produced.

      Europe certainly was in the right place at the right time…looking at the big picture it certainly benefited from the original semitic pioneers based in Africa and Middle East – thanks to the easy communication routes offered by the Med (unlike sub-Saharan Africa which was separated by a huge and inhospitable desert). But it also enjoyed many benefits of climate which facilitated the growth of herding (again borrowed from the mid East) and grain agriculture.

      Most of Europe then had the great good fortune of NOT being invaded and subdued by the Jihadis (although they did have to struggle with the Viking menace).

      The European genius though only really comes to the fore with the development of humanism and then protestantism – especially movements of free thinking , compared with what went before.

      I think geography, history, economics, culture, and ideas are key.

  • sacicr

    Good teaching is of immense importance. A clever kid may have got his IQ at birth, but a bad school that does nothing about bullying and has a few bad teachers will be devastating to him/her.

  • Daniel Maris

    I’ve never yet met anyone who said “I’m glad I didn’t go to school…because it’s all down to genetics you know.”

    If it’s “all down to genetics” why were the underachieving mud hut dwelling Saxons and pillaging Vikings of these isles – who between 500AD and 1000AD produced little of note – some 500 years later creating peerless works of literature – not least the Shakespeare canon?

    • george

      Look to the Judaeo-Christian basis of our civilization, and our openness subsequently to the ancient Greeks (and Romans, who are less important), and you will find your answer.

  • Alantar

    Nice to see a balanced article on the subject.

    I’ll also note that understanding the genetic link to intelligence means we will also have a better chance of tweaking genes to make future generations more intelligent – though I suspect that there is already a lot more natural selection going on than is generally admitted.

  • Rita

    Then why did women used to have lower IQs than men on average, and now have higher ones?

    • Emil Kirkegaard

      There is no such change as you describe.

  • Morry2

    It’s sad to say, as a good left winger, that I have to accept that genetics is real and obviously does have an effect on the achievement of children. The problem is that IQ doesn’t always correlate with achievement as many intelligent children in state schools are left behind due to a lack of attention on them where as many mediocre children in private school get good results because they are pushed to their limits (they may get good results at GCSE and A Level but they find it hard whereas many children in state schools might get the same results with larger class sizes, more chaotic home life and lack of parental support and still find getting those results quite easy!).

    I used to be a teacher and know fine well that there are intelligent children and less able children with similar backgrounds and part of the problem here, again, is that teachers just don’t have the time to deal with the intelligent children properly.

    My wife took part in a Europe wide research programme through the hospital and under the auspices of the local university when she was pregnant, to do with thyroid activity and the intelligence of the child. Basically the idea was if you have low thyroid activity your child was more likely to be less intelligent. As part of the research my son had an IQ test at three years old, conducted in English a language we didn’t know he understood as he come from a Welsh speaking family and had only spoken Welsh until that time (it was agreed that we would translate for him but in the end we didn’t have to). He scored on the gifted child level and when he started nursery school the teacher said that she had never had a child like him in her class before (we chose not to tell her about the IQ test results until she told us that – she also wanted him to start learning to read at three/four years old as she was worried he would get bored with school as he was so far in advance of the other children). When he transferred to another school for primary education we were told that his language development was incredible (indeed another parent had bumped in to a teacher outside school and during the conversation he mentioned that his son was playing with our son a lot and she said that that would be good for his son as our son’s vocabulary was such that it would sometimes send them checking their dictionaries and his other skills were incredible).

    Here in Wales we now have a system where children are ranked against all the other children in Wales (in broad categories but you do get individual scores for the child as well). The mean score is 100 and 15 above and below is considered to be average, below that are two groups (below average and considerably above average), above 115 there are also two groups, above average and considerably above average. Our son fell in to the considerably above average group. To our annoyance the school doesn’t seem to want to do anything additional for him, despite the clear evidence since he was three years old that he has special needs due to his intelligence (and he finds school boring as much of what they are trying to learn he has already learnt from books at home reading with his parents – at his instigation and the type of questions he asks us such as ‘what is carbon’, at which point I explain about atoms and then he asks how they bond, what is smaller than them and how they can interact with each other – stuff I can’t answer and I don’t really know how to explain it to a 7 year old!). The special needs teacher in the school did tell me last year that she had been in to his class to assess the children who were having difficulties with reading and that she had got my son to read to her so that she would have a comparison with the best in the class – so she clearly knows his ability and his teacher in year one said that his first reaction when he heard about my son was ‘wow’ but still nothing is forth coming. This is the true problem of state education for the intelligent child, the lack of support and forcing them to do the same work as other less gifted children. Our son is very reluctant to write and the teacher feels he has problems with writing, he doesn’t really, he has problems with what they are asking him to write, he was very dismissive today about having to write a letter introducing himself to a made up person as he couldn’t see the point in that, he wants to design cars and write up what the car can do, including all the components (he does that at home as a past time for himself and to my mind that is more stimulating and interesting to him than writing fictitious letter to people who don’t exist but the school has tick boxes to be filled in and all the children have to do the same work!). He wants to write about science and do complex experiments (he says that science is his favorite topic but that it is far too simple for him and so boring in school).

    Is my son genetically intelligent, I think he probably is. We didn’t ‘hot house’ him, in fact far from it as I have always been a believer that children should play until they are about 6 or 7 and then start learning when the brain is truly ready. He has perplexed us many times and his mind has amazed us (he learned the alphabet when he was less than two years old by looking at the names of a company on a shop front and pointing at the letters and getting us to say them for him and then went through a very annoying phase of reading out car number plates for us and spelling out words on shops and basically everywhere he could. We didn’t set out to teach him the alphabet, he wanted to learn it and made us say it to him as he recognised that people could use it to read!).

  • Rihari_Wilson

    “So any way in which I’m like my parents or siblings is because of their genes, not because of how they brought me up? ‘Yes.’”

    To what would he ascribe the differences?

    What about gene regulation?

  • BeckonsAttore

    Don’t even get me started on those TED talks. People will realize their assumptions and ignorance in due time. Until people’s ignorance disappears there is no reason for me to debate against TED until people will actually start thinking again.

  • Paula Sharratt

    The trouble is that research into health, like language, is always doubled faced and edged. Create a category of classification, say like ‘Limiting Long Term Illness’ in the census in 1991 and that category will be simultaneously used by the market in social care and health research which will also use the category to further research into autoimmune disorders and genetics. That these census numbers, like Intelligence Tests, begin to be loaded with mathematical and algorhythmical possibilities rather than cultural and social sequencing grounded in a notion of a shared social ground, means that what we’re really looking at is an angry and indignant rationalisation of a socially static society by an elite. This elite doesn’t want to know that ‘the poor’ could be seen as suffering from a mass post traumatic stress syndrome: they’ve had forty years of rights and local connection snatch, so they have maladapted by over drinking and drugging, as simultaneously drugs and alcohol have become cheaper. Access to society the notion of what a personality and what a character is has been modelled on the aristocratic professional, rather than looking at what’s unique and good and constant in poorer communities and nurturing that. Children from these communities then are taught to copy, to get by, to survive in an alien environment, rather than value their own uniqueness. They’re always ‘in the wrong’ and don’t get the quality of communication connection they need to learn and grow and thrive. So if there are differences, remember that the system doing the analysing isn’t reciprocal, isn’t flexible, isn’t looking for anything other than its own pre-formulated understanding which is really about creating people who will always have low expectations and will know their place in the new techno aristocracy.

  • Arun

    Heritability is the fraction of variation of some attribute in a population in some particular set of environments that can be accounted for by genetic variation rather than environment. It does not say how much that attribute is determined by genes.

    To take an example from Cosma Shalizi, that humans have two eyes is almost totally determined by genes. Mutations that cause humans to have other than two eyes were highly deleterious and are quickly weeded out by natural selection. Variation in the number of eyes is almost entirely because of environment – accident, disease, etc.

    Thus the heritability of having two eyes is ZERO, even though the innate “number of eyes” is entirely genetically determined.

    Moreover, the heritability of some feature depends on the range of environments. The heritability of say, IQ, will be measured to be higher if one restricts one’s sample to say, upper middle class British people. It is lower – in fact it even goes to vanishingly small, when one considers the full range of conditions under which Britishers live. e.g., “Turkheimer (2003) found that for children of low socioeconomic status heritability of IQ falls almost to zero”. (Turkheimer,
    Eric; Haley, Andreana; Waldron, Mary; d’Onofrio, Brian; Gottesman,
    Irving I. (2003). “Socioeconomic status modifies heritability of iq in
    young children”. Psychological Science 14 (6): 623–8.).

  • Arun

    The author wrote: “Crucially, I suppose, what educationalists of a leftish bent must
    consider is this: if IQ is measurable (it is) and highly heritable
    (that, too), then the diversity we see now in exam results isn’t going
    to melt away. In fact, in the best school, with excellent teachers and
    rigorous exams, a normal, randomly selected bunch of kids will see a
    greater spread of results, reflecting their inherited abilities.”

    This is remarkably stupid for a number of reasons. I’ll mention two. Firstly, if we gave everybody exactly the same environment, then every trait would be measured to be 100% heritable, because there would be zero variation that can be attributed to the environment (since everyone has the same environment).

    Secondly, in the best school with excellent teachers, etc., a normal, randomly selected bunch of kids will see (a) a smaller spread of results and (b) a better set of results than in any other case (such as some kids in good schools and some kids in bad) because (a) the environmental differences have been greatly reduced and (b) the environment is the most conducive to everyone.

    Educationists of any bent have to wonder how such a scientifically illiterate and innumerate author could write for the Spectator on what appears to be a scientific subject.

    • Emil Kirkegaard

      The effect Plomin is referring to is the Mathew effect. Look it up. Environmental improvements increases variance because the smarter ones benefit more from it.

  • rtj1211

    A few questions for Mary Wakefield to answer:

    1. Do you marry a man primarily based on his O Level results or his social skills??
    2. Where in UK examinations do you test all the interaction skills called selling, negotiating, designing, prototyping, etc etc??
    3. What is the correlation between IQ and wealth??
    4. Which would you prefer, to live with a genius in a hovel or an average schmo in a 6 bed detached mansion in Hampstead??

    This whole argument is being distorted because no-one will ask the single most important question: what predicts life success??

    It certainly isn’t IQ.

  • Chris Waller

    Speaking as a former highly gifted child, I hated schooling and feel badly failed by it. Despite that, I eventually found my way into teaching in FE. I fully concur with Plomin’s findings. I cannot understand why there is so much hostility to his research. We have no problem accepting that people’s height is genetically determined so why so much huffing and puffing when the same is found of intelligence? That said, everyone will benefit from education, always providing it is directed towards ends that they deem worthwhile.

  • dalek1099dw

    To anyone who knew anything about Biology and wasn’t too arrogant knew that genes did account for the majority of who a person is (Intelligence,Behaviour etc) even the environment you are brought up in is just other people’s genes there is the natural environment and weather to put into this model but that part is very negligible.I am a bit worried by this because my mam and my dad are dumb so does this mean I will become dumb-now some idiot will come over and say that Plomin is wrong but then forget that its more complicated than my mam and dad because all of my father’s siblings were clever.I believe studies like this should put an end to this capitalist crap “I worked hard for my money you can do too” because no you didn’t your genes/(other people’s genes) did the work for you making you intelligent and even the attitudes of “working hard” and “being lazy” come directly from our genes, which makes it hard for several people to work hard, this is one of the key reasons why I believe a Communist society is the fairest, a society that recognises that those who don’t do well have a genetic disadvantage and makes sure that everyone gets treat equally and has enough money to survive on.

  • Catherine Birch

    I did very badly in school. everyone told me that was lazy, but I knew that I just didn`t have the ability to learn well. Even my parents couldn`t accept it though they were`nt very bright. I now know that it`s their fault for passing on their lousy genes!

  • Emmanuel Ezekiel

    Collectivists attack free enterprise, private property, and prosperity by claiming collectivism as the sole conduit for altruism while accusing individualists of being selfish and greedy.