Robert Plomin is ranked among the most influential living psychologists. He has received lifetime achievement awards from the Behavior Genetics Association, American Psychological Society, and the International Society for Intelligence Research.
In Plomin's recent The Edge interview, he reports that his lab at King's College, London has already identified a gene cluster that:
"explains almost 10 percent of the variance in tests of school performance. Those scores are about 60 percent heritable... Explaining 10 percent of the variance in the social and behavioral sciences is pretty good going…If you don't believe in genetics, you're going to have to argue with DNA. You can't just say, 'The twin study is no good,' or 'the adoption study is no good.' DNA is real…
For the first time, it will allow us to make genetic predictions for an individual…It's the difference between getting into university or not...
It's better to make policy based on knowledge than on fiction. A lot of what I see in education is fiction…Education is the last backwater of anti-genetic thinking... I want to get people in education talking about genetics because the evidence for genetic influence is overwhelming. The things that interest them—learning abilities, cognitive abilities, behavior problems in childhood—are the most heritable things in the behavioral domain. Yet it's like Alice in Wonderland. You go to educational conferences and it's as if genetics does not exist."
It's understandable that educators put their fingers in their ears and sing "la-la-la-la" to drown out the word genetics. It can make teachers feel impotent. Of course, that’s not true, any more than a car’s performance can’t be improved by tuning it up. In nearly all traits in all of the animal and plant kingdoms, both genes and environment matter.
In fact, teachers might benefit from realizing that they don't deserve to be the whipping boy for American students floundering near the bottom of developed nations in international comparisons. Teachers are dispirited—and quitting. According to a National Education Association study, almost half of teachers quit within the first five years of teaching. Of course, there are many factors but it certainly can't help for teachers to feel they're the Bad Guys.
Educational researchers and geneticists need to start talking, for example, with preeminent behavioral geneticists such as Robert Plomin and basic geneticists such as the man behind CRISP-R gene editing, Harvard's George Church. And then they need to start collaborating in their research.
Only then we can start to learn how an individual’s genetics affects his or her school performance. And that would enable schools to tailor education, as we’re now starting to do with individualized medicine: For example, a new genomic test predicts which breast cancer patients can skip chemotherapy. Would anyone argue that such genomic research shouldn’t be done?
Some might argue that it’s touchier with education because there is no explicit disease, although anyone who has struggled mightily through school might well feel it is a disease.
Other naysayers might fear that looking at the genetics of learning ability could lead to coercive eugenics.
But for me, such fears argue only for careful, ethical discussion of how to maximize the benefits while minimizing the liabilities. It certainly doesn’t call for educators—or psychologists—to put their fingers in their ears.