Writing about the link between genes and educational attainment can be dangerous, as the psychologist Arthur Jensen discovered. After publishing a paper in the Harvard Education Review in 1969 entitled ‘How much can we boost IQ and scholastic achievement?’ he was compared to Hitler and, for a time, had to be accompanied to work by bodyguards. Last year, the political scientist Charles Murray, who addressed this subject in The Bell Curve, was attacked by a group of student protestors at Middlebury College and a female colleague who tried to protect him ended up in hospital.
Jensen and Murray both strayed on to the live rail of black-white IQ differences, but even those who steer well clear of that can get into difficulty. At the beginning of the year, I was accused of being a ‘Nazi’ after an article I’d written for an Australian magazine in 2015 about the deepening link between IQ and socio-economic status was dug up. My sin was to include a solution to this problem that I labelled ‘progressive eugenics’. It was a million miles away from what is commonly understood by ‘eugenics’, but few people bothered to read the piece. The fact that I’d used the E word was enough to damn me. ‘With his views on eugenics, why does Toby Young still have a job in education?’ thundered Polly Toynbee in the Guardian. A few weeks later I didn’t.
So kudos to the science journalist Philip Ball for daring to venture into this territory. He’s written a long piece in the New Statesman entitled ‘The IQ trap: how the new genetics could transform education’ that, among other things, talks about the rapid progress that has been made in the last 12 months in identifying the genetic markers linked with intelligence via genome-wide association studies (GWAS). These studies, often involving hundreds of thousands of people, aim to identify loci throughout the genome associated with an observed trait, such as the number of years spent in full-time education. This is an exciting development since, until recently, behavioural scientists had to rely on family studies, twin studies and adoption studies to demonstrate that differences in general cognitive ability are linked to genetic differences. Soon they will be able to point to actual genetic variants (tens of thousands of them) that explain more than 10 per cent of the variance in IQ – expected to rise to 30 per cent as the datasets get larger. These findings make it nigh on impossible for anyone to claim that intelligence differences are all to do with nurture and nothing to do with nature. Blank slate fundamentalists are beginning to look more and more like flat-earthers.
By the standards of most journalism on this topic, Ball’s piece is remarkably well-informed. It’s particularly brave of him to tackle this subject since his attempt to write about it in Prospect a few years ago provoked a lot of criticism and he had to publish some ‘clarifications’ afterwards. Stuart Ritchie, a psychology lecturer and the author of a book on intelligence, described Ball’s Prospect piece as ‘one of those articles proving that a small amount of genetics knowledge is dangerous’. Other experts have said similar things about my attempts to get to grips with this complex material.
In the New Statesman, Ball discusses some of my articles on genetics and is gracious enough to describe a blog I wrote for Teach First about the impact of children’s DNA on exam results as ‘rather accurate’. Teach First removed that post and apologised for publishing it, saying it was ‘against what we believe is true and against our vision and values’ – a small taste of the controversy that was to engulf me in January. He also points out that the piece I wrote for the Australian magazine three years ago does not, in fact, make me Dr Mengele:
To read some media reports of his 2015 article on ‘progressive eugenics’, you might imagine he was advocating eradication of the IQ-deficient poor. On the contrary, he was pointing to the possibility that de facto eugenics might arrive soon in the form of people using genetic screening of embryos in IVF to select for those with the best intelligence profile. When such technology arrives, said Young, it should be made available freely to poorer people to avoid a widening divide in intelligence between the haves and have-nots. Indeed, he said, it should then be welcomed as a means of raising the intelligence of the whole of society – surely a morally valid goal?
It’s rare for anyone to give me a fair hearing on this subject so I’m loathe to criticise Ball. But his generosity deserts him when he tries to summarise my views about the policy implications of the link between DNA and academic attainment, i.e. that children’s genes account for between 60 and 70 per cent of the variance in GCSE and A-level results. He says I favour ‘a sink-or-swim approach that will (he believes) let the most able rise to the top: a philosophy far more suited to the instincts of the right’. That’s emphatically not what I believe and he made a similar mistake when trying to summarise the views of Dominic Cummings in his Prospect piece. (See Dom’s response here.) I have argued many times that all children should be taught the best that has been thought and said, regardless of background or ability, and the four schools I’ve helped set up embody that philosophy. If a child is struggling as a result of this approach, he or she is given additional help, not taught a less challenging curriculum or allowed to ‘sink’.
One of the most common accusations made against those of us who point out that IQ is a stronger predictor of a person’s life chances than their parents’ socio-economic status, and that IQ is about 50 per cent heritable in adolescence, rising to 80 per cent in adulthood, is that we’re right-wing Social Darwinists, appealing to these facts to justify extreme levels of inequality. So it’s disappointing to see Ball repeating that smear. I’m actually more sympathetic to the opposite point of view: the fact that the distribution of material wealth is linked to the distribution of genetic wealth – and we’ve done nothing to deserve our genetic endowments – is an argument for more redistributive taxation, not less (although not a knock down argument, as I explain in my Australian piece). As the philosopher Alan Ryan put it, ‘A belief in the importance of inherited differences need not lead to apocalyptic conservatism.’
What are the implications for education policy? Most psychologists and geneticists who engage with this subject, going back at least as far as Jensen, think that once we have accumulated more knowledge about the link between genetic differences and individual differences in behaviour, intelligence and personality we can start to design personalised learning programmes for each child based on his or her innate proclivities, thereby maximising their potential. Ball summarises this view as follows: ‘This would not be about the vague and contested notion of “learning styles”, but a more rigorous analysis of how certain genetic profiles respond better to particular types of problem or environment.’
I’m not a fan of personalised learning and took part in a debate on this point with Kathryn Asbury, a senior lecturer in psychology in education at York and co-author of a book called G is for Genes. You can read her contribution here and mine here. This is the gist of my argument:
One of the reasons I favour a largely undifferentiated curriculum, in which all children are taught the same core body of knowledge up to the age of 16, is because I share ED Hirsch’s belief that introducing all children to the best that has been thought and said, and teaching them to value logic and reason and evidence-based argument, is the best way of instilling a sense of common culture and purpose, as well as creating a shared framework in which political disputes can be resolved. It is a way of mitigating the risks associated with multi-culturalism and democratic pluralism. More broadly, vigorously promoting the values of the Enlightenment is the best bulwark against the darkling plain of anti-Enlightenment movements, whether on the far left or the far right.
I suspect the popularity of the ‘personalised learning’ recommendation among the experts in this field – as well as Philip Ball – is partly because they don’t want to antagonise their left-wing colleagues. After all, who could object to maximising a child’s potential? Ball’s article is essentially saying, ‘Don’t worry fellow liberals, the scientific understanding of the link between genes and academic attainment need not cause us any sleepless nights.’ Indeed, he chastises me for presenting this material as posing a challenge to the progressive orthodoxy in education. ‘[T]he debate would be better served by turning to more serious minds than those of incontinently provocative liberal-goaders,’ he says.
But some of the implications of the latest genetic research are guaranteed to provoke and goad liberals, however diplomatically they’re couched, just as the findings of earlier generations of intelligence researchers were furiously contested by the left. Take the debate about why poor children under-perform in standardised tests. One of the most common criticisms of grammar schools is that only a tiny percentage of the children admitted to them are on free school meals (FSM) – just 2.4 per cent, according to a recent report. That is cited as evidence that their admissions arrangements are biased in favour of middle class children; the argument being that, if they were fair, their FSM admission figures would match the percentage of FSM children in England’s secondary schools as a whole (12.9 per cent in 2016-17). But that criticism assumes that IQ is distributed randomly among England’s schoolchildren, which we know isn’t the case. At present, children on free school meals make up six per cent of high-attaining children at the age of 11 as measured by their performance in Key Stage 2 tests (i.e. children likely to pass the 11+). True, that’s more than double the percentage currently admitted to grammars – and we should do our best to address that – but it’s lower than you’d expect if the distribution of cognitive ability was genuinely random.
The standard progressive explanation for the under-representation of children from disadvantaged backgrounds among high-performers on standardised tests is that various environmental factors conspire to impede their cognitive development – poor nutrition, chaotic home life, low parental expectations, etc . – and a number of policies have been introduced to compensate for this. That’s one reason left-wing intellectuals have been so hostile to intelligence researchers who suggest there’s a strong genetic component to how children from different backgrounds perform in tests, although nurture clearly plays a part as well.
So it’s naïve to imagine that these same people won’t object to the latest findings of behavioural scientists, using GWAS data, which point to the same conclusion. I recently co-authored a paper with Robert Plomin, whom Philip Ball correctly describes as ‘one of the leading experts on the genetic basis of intelligence’, looking at the differences in exam performance between pupils attending selective and non-selective schools. We found that the higher the socio-economic status of a child’s parents, the higher that child’s polygenic score for years of education (one of the genetic markers linked to intelligence). Similar discoveries have been made in Australia and New Zealand. Not surprisingly, one of the most hostile responses to the paper was by Eric Turkheimer, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and a leading critic of the view that differences in children’s cognitive ability are strongly influenced by their genes. He particularly didn’t like the finding about middle-class children’s polygenic scores. (You can read that paper here – I was one of several-co-authors and made a very minor contribution.)
More generally, I don’t expect the left to abandon its environmental determinism without a fight, even though it’s now scientifically indefensible. The nub of the issue was identified by EO Wilson, the Harvard biologist who attracted the ire of left-wing scientists in the 1970s when he suggested that sociology and Darwinian biology could be combined to explain many facets of human behaviour:
When the attacks on sociobiology came from Science for the People, the leading radical left group within American science, I was unprepared for a largely ideological argument. It is now clear to me that I was tampering with something fundamental: mythology. Evolutionary theory applied to social systems is an extension of the great Western traditions of scientific materialism. As such, it threatens to transform into testable hypotheses the assumptions about human nature made by some Marxist philosophers. Its first line of evidence is not favourable to those assumptions, insofar as most traditional Marxists cling to a vision of human nature as a relatively unstructured phenomenon swept along by economic forces extraneous to human biology. Marxist and other secular ideologies previously rested secure as unchallenged satrapies of scientific materialism; now they were in danger of being displaced by other, less manageable biological explanations.
That same view of human nature – that all human differences can be explained away with reference to economic and historical forces and have no basis in biology – underlies many current progressive orthodoxies, such as the belief that gender is a ‘social construct’. Indeed, this Durkheimian notion of human beings as entirely the product of their social environment underlies the post-modernist critique of contemporary bourgeois society, with its ‘hetero-normative’ values and oppressive ‘patriarchal’ hierarchy. Like Marx, post-modernists believe that man’s true nature is reducible to the totality of social relations, that individuals are nothing more than the embodiments of particular class-relations and class-interests, and that everything comes down to the struggle for power. I wouldn’t expect an uncritical acceptance of the new genetics from that quarter.
Many eminent behavioural scientists have long maintained that individual differences in intelligence and personality are linked to genetic differences – and have been vilified for it by their left-wing colleagues. But this latest evidence surely decides the debate in their favour. It’s now just flat out wrong to think that varying levels of ability and success are solely determined by economic and historical forces. That means it’s a dangerous fantasy to think that, once you’ve eradicated socio-economic inequality, human nature will flatten out accordingly – that you can return to ‘year zero’, as the Khmer Rouge put it. On the contrary, biological differences between human beings will stubbornly refuse to wither away, which means that an egalitarian society can only be maintained by a brutally coercive state that is constantly intervening to ‘correct’ the inequities of nature. Seen in this light, it’s not surprising that nearly every hard left socialist experiment has resulted in the suppression of free speech, the imprisonment and torture of political dissidents, economic stagnation, mass starvation, etc. The standard response from Marxist apologists for Stalin and other Communist dictators is to say you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. To which Orwell retorted, ‘Where’s the omelette?’
Philip Ball may point to the above and say, ‘What’s that if not a Darwinian defence of inequality?’ But I’m not advocating survival of the fittest or trying to justify the current Gini coefficient in Britain and America. I think it’s indisputable that the body of knowledge that’s been built up by behavioural scientists in general, not just behavioural geneticists, threatens some of the core tenets of progressivism – one reason academics working in these fields are targeted by left-wing hate mobs. But that doesn’t means the findings of evolutionary psychologists, sociobiologists, cognitive neuroscientists, biosocial criminologists, and so on, inevitably lead to Alan Ryan’s ‘apocalyptic conservatism’. On the contrary, I think they’re compatible with a wide range of political arrangements, including – at a pinch – Scandinavian social democracy. (You can read a lecture I gave on which political viewpoints are threatened by the behavioural sciences, and which aren’t, here.) But progressive liberals are going to have to do some serious re-thinking once they move beyond the fingers-in-ears phase and take on board the work that’s being done in these fields, particularly the new genetics.
I interviewed Charles Murray about this for a Radio 4 documentary I presented last year and he thinks we’re only a few years away from some kind of collective nervous breakdown by the left. In particular, he’s concerned that once left-wing intellectuals finally let go of environmental determinism they may veer too far in the opposite direction and embrace gene editing technologies like CRISPR-Cas9 to try to create the perfect socialist citizen:
I think that we will see the intellectual orthodox blank slate stuff go by the wayside by 2025. Because if you follow what’s going on in genetics and in neuroscience, it's happening so fast that I think by 2025 any sociologist that tries to write about what causes what without taking genes into account will no longer be able to be taken seriously. I think it's on its last legs. It's a decade away from being blown up by genetic advances. But once that happens, it's going to be very interesting to see the reaction. You have right now a lot of cognitive dissonance whereby people in academia are saying things they don’t really believe. It's slowly becoming apparent to them that there's a great deal of tension between what they're saying out loud and what they want to believe, and what’s true. And when that rubber band is let loose it's going to snap back way too far in the other direction if we’re not careful.