We can't ignore the evidence: genes affect social mobility

Why do so many people fail to accept the overwhelming evidence that genes contribute to academic achievement and thereby social status, asks Jill Boucher
November 14, 2013
“The politically correct (scientifically incorrect) claim that genes do not significantly contribute to academic attainment is damaging” ©Bob Thomas/Corbis

A bon mot that recently came my way and which I rather like is: “If you’re not angry, you haven’t been paying attention.” I get angry about many issues, and try hard not to pay attention to those that I can do absolutely nothing about, or know nothing about apart from what I may pick up from the media (an unreliable source). I do, however, pay attention to, and get irritated by, much of the discussion of social mobility. This is something I do know a bit about from my own research into neurodevelopmental disorders, learning abilities and disabilities; and which I have reasons to feel strongly about from my experience of adopting two children. My irritation recently led me to write a letter to Prospect (published in the November issue), as a result of which I was invited to write this article. I demurred at first, arguing that I lack qualifications in any of the critically relevant disciplines such as sociology, education, and behavioural genetics. Eventually, however, I agreed to write a personal opinion piece from the viewpoint of a reasonably well-informed outsider and adoptive parent.

Why do discussions of social mobility get under my skin? In the first place, I greatly dislike the polemical nature of what easily becomes a sterile nature versus nurture mud-slinging match. For example, a Guardian article on a recent much-publicised paper on education by Michael Gove’s advisor, Dominic Cummings, associates claims of a genetic contribution to academic achievement with eugenics and Nazism. The article stated: “genetic explanations for social mobility are now the preserve of the right,” and suggested that the evidence offered by Cummings of a genetic contribution to academic achievement implies that “human fate is sealed at birth.” This is nonsense! Moreover, it is inflammatory nonsense, all the more regrettable to me because it was written by a journalist whose work I generally admire. The nativists (one can’t call them naturists) can be just as polemical. Steven Pinker, for example, a noted and vociferous nativist, is quoted by Cummings as writing that: “The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness.”

I have for years deplored the adversarial nature of much academic debate in my own field of psychology, what I call the “either or” kind of argument, where if my theory or model is right yours must be wrong. In most hard-fought academic controversies the truth lies somewhere in between, and it is generally more fruitful to try to reconcile the evidence and arguments on both sides. In the case of the nature versus nurture debate relating to social mobility, I find it hard to understand why a substantial group of people, including many influential educationalists and sociologists, fail to accept the overwhelming evidence that genes contribute to academic achievement and thereby social mobility. The relevant evidence is hardly new (see, for example, the summary of the results of twin and adoption studies in Michael Rutter and Nicola Madge’s 1976 book Cycles of Disadvantage. For a concise summary of recent evidence, see the endnote on p194 of the Cummings paper.) No one disputes the contributions of environmental factors, and the interesting and important questions now concern the relative contributions of genes and environments; how certain genes and environmental factors interact; and how the contributions of favourable environments may be maximised. We also, in my view, need to consider to what ends it is desirable to maximise each individual’s potential, an issue I will touch on at the end of this piece.

Polemic commonly involves misrepresentation, knowing or otherwise—and this, also, is irritating. When I first read reports of the Cummings paper, I understood him to have argued that early intervention programmes such as Sure Start should be scrapped and education funding concentrated instead on the most gifted children (hue and cry on both counts from elements of the media). What in fact Cummings says is that Sure Start programmes, like the much longer established and better researched Head Start programmes in the United States, boost a child’s score on intelligence tests only in the short term. However, Cummings goes on to note that at least some early intervention programmes have been shown to produce long-term gains in employment, wages, health, criminality and so on, possibly associated with improved self-control. From this he argues for putting money into high-quality research into early intervention programmes such as Sure Start, to identify what works and why. Nothing objectionable in this, surely? Regarding Cummings’s argument for creating special classes or schools for the most academically gifted children, it has long been argued that giftedness should constitute a special educational need (SEN) with as much claim on the public purse as any other SEN. The fact that no government has yet acted on this argument makes it important that influential figures such as Cummings should repeat it.

A second reason many or most discussions of social mobility get under my skin concerns the unthinkingly self-righteous, hypocritical and ultimately damaging political correctness of those who deny that genetic inheritance contributes to academic achievement and hence social status.

“Self-righteous” because to argue for equality of academic potential implicitly places one in the nice liberal-minded, pro-the-underdog camp, fastidious about “demeaning” individuals by suggesting that they might be less intelligent than some others. At the same time it justifies labelling those who argue against equality of academic ability as potentially “fascistic” and a legitimate target of abuse (as above). Cummings remarks that “those working at the cutting edge in genetics are understandably reluctant to involve themselves in contentious debates.” Indeed, Robert Plomin, the eminent behavioural geneticist, to whom I once mentioned an idea for a piece of research predicated on the assumption of innate differences in academic potential, responded: “You must have a death wish!”

The political correctness that pervades discussions of social mobility is “hypocritical” because the popular press avidly reports claims that there are genes for everything from religiosity to homosexuality to criminality. And we all make remarks such as, “Sophie is very bright, whereas Tim is not so bright,” (nice but dim). Sophie and Tim may both have been brought up in the same privileged home, but whereas Sophie wins her place at an elite university, Tim…. (well, the example I had in mind might get me into trouble, so I won’t give it). And before the nurturists get at me: yes, I do know the difference between shared and unshared environments; that is, that the childhood experiences of siblings, even of twins, are far from identical. The point that I am making here is not about the unquestionable role of environmental factors in determining academic outcomes, but that words such as “bright” and “able” are commonly used in everyday conversation to refer to innate capacities.

The politically correct (scientifically incorrect) claim that genes do not significantly contribute to academic attainment is damaging for all sorts of reasons. In particular, it places a huge and unjustifiable load of responsibility on education. Politicians and newspaper leader writers and columnists then make whipping boys of teachers, schools and universities, blaming them for not heaving more children up the social mobility ladder. This is not, of course, to deny the vital contribution of education to academic achievement and upward social mobility; nor to deny that there is a great deal of room for improvement. But setting well-nigh impossible goals for some children, then berating teachers for these children’s educational “failure” is unconstructive, as well as damaging to morale. Some children are irremediably slow learners—surely we all accept this, even if the causes of generalised learning difficulties are complex and contentious? Some other children have markedly uneven aptitudes and abilities, or “specific learning difficulties.” These can occur for a variety of reasons including genetic inheritance, but also adverse environmental factors that impinge on the developing brain in utero (such as maternal drug or alcohol abuse, poor diet, stress or depression, certain infections) or at birth (prematurity, low birthweight). The trick is to identify those children whose below-average performance on key academic indicators can be significantly improved by good teaching, as opposed to those for whom the hurdles—or perhaps particular hurdles in, for instance, reading, writing, spelling or maths—should be lowered. One of my adopted sons could no more have reached a C grade in GCSE maths than I could jump over a five-bar gate—but his ability to solve spatial problems has always been starry.

A personal anecdote illustrates how the resistance to accepting that genes contribute to academic abilities can be damaging to individuals. The social workers responsible for placing adoptive children with my husband and me made much of the importance of trying to match for eye and hair colour, but looked shocked and disapproving when we suggested it might be more important to try to match for likely intelligence (I had by then read the book by Rutter and Madge, referred to above). Matching for academic potential, as indexed by educational level and socio-economic status of biological and adoptive parents, should have been possible back in the late 1970s. But we couldn’t afford to be seen as stroppy by the social workers, so we did not press our point. As we subsequently found out, mismatching for academic potential did make things just that bit more difficult, most importantly for our children. For us high-achieving parents, it was sobering to see how even children of average ability, or an uneven scatter of abilities, may struggle at school, rarely achieving top marks in core subjects, however hard they try.

Another irritating effect of the political correctness that pervades discussion of social mobility is that one has to edit one’s language. In particular, it is wise to avoid using the term “intelligence,” let alone that red rag acronym IQ. Newspaper reports of Cummings’s paper predictably provoked at least one letter to a newspaper recycling the stale claim that “IQ is [only] a measure of… the ability to pass IQ tests.” To which I would respond with the questions: “What set of abilities might you consider to contribute to the ability to perform well on authoritative IQ tests such as Raven’s Matrices or the Wechsler Scales? And what bearing might these abilities have on a child’s ability to do well at school?” Precisely to avoid this kind of discussion, I sometimes substitute “academic aptitudes” in place of “intelligence.” In the context of social mobility and its precursors, this phrase is actually very appropriate in that it implies not only that several different cognitive abilities contribute to academic achievement. It also allows for the well-established fact that certain personality variables such as conscientiousness, motivation, and self-discipline and self-control also contribute.

Still on the subject of language: why is it that “social mobility” is almost invariably assumed to refer to upward mobility? Is downward mobility so undesirable, even shameful, as to be unmentionable? In his informative and interesting article “The social mobility myth” (Prospect, October), Philip Collins wrote: “...a political consensus has arisen in which stalling social mobility is seen as a distinct problem”—assuming that readers understand he is referring to “upward social mobility.” (Indeed, stalling downward mobility might be trumpeted by politicians as an achievement rather than a problem.) Collins also discusses the chances “of a given person escaping their class origins,” and “the percentage of the population who make it from one class to another” (my italics). For sure, those in the lowest socio-economic status bands would almost certainly prefer not to be there, and most of the rest of us might feel quite pleased with ourselves if we moved to a status band one up from that of our parents. However, is life really so dreadful in the middle echelons that we want to escape it? Personally, I don’t want to be a tycoon, over-paid celebrity or member of the landed gentry. And suppose that Tim-nice-but-dim, having benefitted from the small classes and intensive coaching provided by a modest independent school, nevertheless drops down the social scale in comparison with his parents; but works hard, pays his taxes, and is a model husband and father. Is this so deplorable?

This brings me to what I most dislike in discussions of social mobility: the value system that is assumed and never to the best of my knowledge discussed. According to this value system, wealth and social status are the pre-eminently desirable goals, and education is only praiseworthy to the extent that it enables individuals to pass more exams, get to higher-ranking universities, earn more and thus achieve higher socio-economic status. When teachers and schools are vilified for not getting children from deprived backgrounds into Oxbridge (and yes, I feel passionately about getting such children as high up the academic ladder as possible, and I do accept that schools and universities could do more to achieve this) the adage that often flips into my mind is: “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” I do, of course, instantly reject any comparison between less “able”/“bright”/“intelligent” children and sows’ ears. But I have taken pleasure recently in turning this saying on its head by wondering whether silk purses—equated with honest, unselfish responsible kind people—can be made out of sows’ ears—equated with greedy, selfish and unscrupulous bankers, tax accountants, chief executives and the like.

Finally: when we talk glibly of “maximising every child’s potential,” perhaps we need to think more about “potential for what?” and “to what ends?” Certainly we need wealth creators, potential Nobel Prize winners, and probably very many more computer whizz kids than our education system is producing at present. But we also need good lorry drivers (my older son is one), chefs (my younger son is one), care workers, cleaners, gardeners, bricklayers. And would we not all want our adult children first and foremost to be happy, well-liked and respected, people to be proud of, whether they clean windows for a living or work as a surgeon or barrister? Upward social mobility is not the only criterion for making a success of one’s life, and certainly not the most important, either for individuals or for society. If this were more widely accepted, there might be more balanced coverage of this issue.