Nature trumps nurture in exam success: GCSE results ‘mainly determined by genes,’ says landmark study of twins

Nature trumps nurture in exam success: GCSE results ‘mainly determined by genes,’ says landmark study of twins December 12, 2013

As a teacher and a denier of libertarian free will, this is a fascinating study, reported by The Independent:

Conclusion that teachers are less important than biology sparks outrage, as researchers call for national curriculum to be abandoned in favour of personalised lesson plans

Genetics has a more powerful influence on pupils’ GCSE exam results than teachers, schools or family environment, according to a new study published tonight.

Researchers from King’s College London found that genetic differences account for 58 per cent of the differences between pupils’ GCSE exam scores – while environment (home or school) only accounted for 29 per cent.  They also found boys’ results were more likely to reflect their genes than girls.

The bombshell conclusion is bound to thrust the debate over the role of genetics in education back to centre stage – just two months after Michael Gove’s outgoing senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, told his boss he believed genetics outweighed teaching when it came to determining pupil performance.

He also arranged a meeting between the Education Secretary and leading geneticist Professor Robert Plomin, one of the authors of the new research, to discuss the issue.

In a 250-page “private thesis” – which has since been made public, Mr Cummings argued that the link between intelligence and genetics had been overlooked up until now in the education system.

The controversy was fuelled when London Mayor Boris Johnson appeared to suggest more resources should be devoted to the education of those with high IQs, arguing: “Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species has an IQ below 85 while about two per cent have an IQ above 130.”

The influence of genetics on intelligence has been almost a taboo subject in education policy circles for years following the publication of a book nearly two decades ago in the United States, The Bell Curve by Robert J.Hermstein and Charles Murray, suggesting there was a link between race and intelligence.

As Dr John Jerrim, from LondonUniversity’s Institute of Education who has conducted research into the impact of genes on children’s reading ability, put it genetic research has often in the past “been linked with right-wing political views”.

Today’s research acknowledges  the danger of “a deep-seated fear  … that accepting the importance of genetics justifies inequities – educating the best and forgetting the rest”.

However, it adds: “Depending on one’s values, the opposite position could also be taken, such as putting more educational resources into the lower end of the distribution to guarantee that all children reach minimal standards of literacy and numeracy.”

The study, based on  11,117 identical and non-identical twins, shows that a child’s genes are a more important indicator of educational performance across all the core subjects – accounting for 52 per cent of the difference in scores in English, 55 per cent in maths and 58 per cent in science.

“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,” the report says.  “Much more of the variance  of GCSE scores can be attributed to genetics than to school or family environment.”

The researchers compared the exam performance of identical twins who share 100 per cent of their genes with non-identical twins who share on average 50 per cent of their genes.  They argued that – if identical twins’ exam scores were more alike than those of non-identical twins -the difference was due to genetics rather than environment.

They added:  “A remarkable finding is that the estimates of heritability and shared environmental influence do not differ substantially across diverse subjects.  The humanities subjects have the lowest estimate (40 per cent) and science subjects the highest.”

The researchers said that a previous study which showed strong genetic influence on performance in the early years had been “surprising” but it was even more so to find such a strong link at GCSE level. “The surprise stems from thinking that, as these subjects are taught at school, differences in educational achievement are primarily due to differences in teaching,” they added.

Nicholas Shakeshaft, lead author of the paper and a PhD student at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, said: “Children differ in how easily they learn at school.  Our research shows that differences in students’ educational achievement owe more to nature than nurture.”

The researchers argue that it could be expected that countries with a “one-size-fits all” national curriculum – as the UK has – might yield higher heritability estimates than countries with a more flexible system.

However, they add that “one major misconception” of their findings would be to conclude genetic influences “diminish the importance of schools”.  “The differential impact between good and bad schools is not great,” the report adds, “but the difference between schools and no schools is likely to be enormous”.

Instead, the findings argue an individually tailored approach to a child’s education is more likely to combat any lack in performance due to genes rather a universal, one-size-fits-all approach to the curriculum.

Earlier, Dr Claire Haworth, from WarwickUniversity and deputy director of the twins programme, argued genetics should be covered in teacher training – especially if it helped trainees to explain variations in the way different children learn.

Improving the understanding of genetics in schools was key to dispelling some of the myths around the science.




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  • pboyfloyd

    Hmm. Oh well, you knew I agreed with you on this anyways, right?

  • labreuer

    Is the measure of intelligence a good one? For example, does it measure artistic ability, ability to organize humans into productive groups (e.g. Francis Collins & the Human Genome Project), etc.?

    I would also ask whether this 58% is perhaps a relic of not teaching very well. If one were to accept this number as gospel truth, one might be accepting contingently true facts (contingent upon society and culture) as necessarily true facts. One of the roles of philosophy seems to question such things. :-)

    • articulett

      does it measure artistic ability, ability to organize humans into
      productive groups (e.g. Francis Collins & the Human Genome Project),

      Nope– it measures things like pattern recognition and how quickly a person can grasp an idea and extrapolate it to other situations– it’s correlated with math and verbal ability and how well a person will do on academic achievement tests troughout life. It’s also correlated with irreligiosity– as I.Q. goes up, supernatural beliefs/religiosity go down. People with higher IQs tend to like learning more– they tend to squeeze more learning out of their experiences in school than others. Just as some kids are more socially gifted,athletic, musically gifted, or attractive– some kids have a higher I.Q. and will always beat their peers on these types of tests no matter how much those others study. Just as people can certainly do things to improve their looks– genetics will always play a strong role..You can only build on what you have. More education is not the answer for raising I.Q.(though it’s excellent for maximizing what you’ve got) –Encouraging smarter people to reproduce just might be– as well as making contraception freely available to everyone. But those with higher I.Q.s tend to spawn the least– perhaps because they can extrapolate other peoples experiences, costs, etc. and make sure they don’t have more children than they want and can provide for.

      IQ is a very good predictor as to how well people will do in school. People with lower I.Q. tend to greatly overestimate their intelligence and abilities; whereas, people with higher I.Q.s are more aware of what they don’t know and are more likely to correctly hone in on or to underestimate how they score in comparison with the rest of the population (everyone thinks they are above average– but those who are above average are right.). I’m quite sure Francis Collins has a very high I.Q. as do most scientists– the majority of whom are atheists… this is especially true among the most accomplished scientists. Religion encourages people with lower IQs to have lots of children (go forth and muliply… god won’t give you more than you can handle); whereas, Scientists conclude the world is overpopulated– they tend to have fewer kids and encourage family planning.

      • Good stuff, Angela.

        If I could add to that, @labreuer:disqus.

        I would never expect a Spectrum ZX computer from the 80s to run Office 2010. It couldn’t do it.

        I have many children in my class with cognitive difficulties and disadvantages. Well, it’s usually a spectrum. That means that the children who struggle don’t struggle because ‘they just didn’t get it’ or ‘they chose not to understand’ or some other meaningless statement. The ones in my class who might have once been called ‘thick’ have particular issues; most notably, working memory issues. They have an inability to remember consistently from moment to moment or lesson to lesson. This can manifest itself even more particularly, such as in maths or english (dyscalculic or dyslexic tendencies). These are neural scenarios based on genetic blueprints. The children who really struggle and who really fly will generall always struggle and always fly (though there is some variability and plasticity).

        It is often about making connections, and particularly in the abstract. Certain children can do this naturally, others never seem to be able to. That is often what signals intelligence and attainment, along with many other factors.

        • labreuer

          My faith leads me to believe that not only ought these children be accorded respect, but that they are indispensible:

          On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.

          (I asked a Hermeneutics.SE question on this passage, although I wasn’t impressed by the response.)

          Because I’ve found other passages I consider ‘connected’ to be valid, I choose to trust this one, to act as if it were true and then see if life ends up better, worse, or unchanged. This led to an interesting thought re: autism. Autistic children do something to adults that normal children do not: they force the adults to try and discover what the autistic children want and desire, instead of trying to force their children into their own image of them. I think it’s extremely important to not try and create others in one’s own image.

          • Sure, but when they are given a set of cards which disable them from being able to feel empathy, a massively important sentiment required for morality and moral action, you have to question God’s fairness.

            Have you read my post on the fact that autistic people are less able to freely love God due to them being predisposed not to believe in a personal deity due to the inability to intersubjectively empathise? God really is unfair!

          • labreuer

            Does it completely disable empathy, or does it make it harder to learn? It was extraordinarily hard for me to learn to socialize with other people, which meant I had zero solid friends until after college. The cost of learning how to socialize was high, but I did benefit from it: I analytically learned structure to socialization and friendship that others merely take for granted, and thus understand less deeply. It seems to me that autistic people could probably go through the same kind of process, and emerge with the same kind of knowledge.

            I have not read that post, but I’m likely to disagree with your conclusion. Nobody empathized with me for the first twenty years of my life; I know that people’s willingness and/or ability to empathize is limited and most tend not to try and expand it. I believe God creates some people to challenge the status quo; it can be extremely hard on such people, but the reward can also be extremely high. Most people are happy with society which doesn’t fit some people; they see this as a problem for the few who don’t fit. I sometimes see this not-fitting as a problem with society.

          • Aah. Empathy in neurotypical people is intuitive. It is not learned. It has to be cognitively learned in many autistics. This is the point.


            The point is that autistics are dealt cards which mean they are predisposed not to freely love God. This is empirically true.

          • labreuer

            I guess I don’t insist on ‘fairness’ in the way that you do. I think God designed the world such that we need each other, and that we suffer when we do not properly fulfill these needs for one another. There is such a thing as “taking things for granted”; when some are forced to learn something cognitively instead of intuitively, this tendency is thwarted and I think that is good.

          • So here’s the issue. God cannot redress the balance in heaven since compensation is not justification.

            Thus if things are unfair on earth such that people have unequal access to God’s love, then this is unfair, period.

            People have unfair access. God is unfair.

          • labreuer

            How do you define ‘unequal access’? Not everything can be compared this way. If God allows some to feel his love in one way and some in another, is that wrong?

            Your bit about “redress the balance in heaven” would seem to be predicated upon something like:

                 (1) It is never acceptable to suffer before that suffering is rewarded.

            And yet, when stated this way, the premise is seen to be ludicrous.

          • Do not confuse compensation with moral justification. If I punched you in the face and broke your jaw, giving you $10,000 afterwards does not make the act of punching you good, as per theistic morality.

          • labreuer

            Your example is synthetic—$10,000 is in no way a ‘naturalistic’ consequence of broken jaw. A more realistic scenario is understanding why you broke my jaw. If I deserved it, it might “snap me to attention” as it were, showing that yes, I really was sinning against you. I might give you money or something else, to make it clear that I admit fault. If I did not deserve it, it would likely reveal something wrong with you, and be an opportunity to understand it and try to heal it. If you chose to give me $10k, it could be an admonition that you knew you were hurt, and let that hurt be spread to others instead of containing it and getting the proper help for healing.

            A better example would be a mother warning her child to not touch the hot stove, the child touches the hot stove, and then learns that mother was right and ought to be heeded more often. My theology of the Fall, which is Irenaean and not Augustinian, holds that failure to heed God’s voice is the reason we seem so terrible at fighting evil.

      • labreuer

        some kids have a higher I.Q. and will always beat their peers on these types of tests no matter how much those others study.

        I have no disagreement with this obvious fact. But what meaning does it hold? For what purpose are “these types of tests” designed? Does our society need more than a certain number of thusly-talented people?

        IQ is a very good predictor as to how well people will do in school.

        No disagreement here, but you aren’t questioning whether schools are adequately preparing the great variety of people a society needs, or whether they mostly focus on a very narrow slice, leaving the rest out to dry, as it were.

        I recall seeing an RSA Animate YouTube clip on how schools tend to destroy creativity; the example used was “How many uses can you think of for a paper clip?”, asked at several different age levels. The older the child, the fewer uses he/she could list. There are many jobs were very little creativity is desired on the part of the employers, so such a crushing of creativity will serve some people well.

        Religion encourages people with lower IQs to have lots of children

        Do you have any evidence which shows causation and not simply correlation? I know that religiosity also inversely correlates with wealth, and that wealth inversely correlates with birth rate.

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