Tag Archives: intelligence

Genes, Intelligence and Jumping to Conclusions

Statue facepalmLast Wednesday morning on his Newstalk Radio show, Pat Kenny had his weekly science slot with resident expert Luke O’Neill, Professor of Biochemistry and Academic Director of the Biomedical Sciences Institute at Trinity College Dublin. The chosen topic for discussion was genes, intelligence and the education system. (It begins at 31 minutes into this podcast).

The discussion was littered from start to finish with misrepresentations and misinterpretations. Given Professor O’Neill’s stature as an internationally renowned immunologist who has done a great deal to make science accessible to the general public, we were very disappointed that he was so casual about his remarks and that he had so little understanding of the science behind the topic he had chosen to present. In our last post, we discussed the application that Kenny and O’Neill saw for this study within our education system. Here, we look at the “science” upon which their conclusions were based.

For his opening remarks, Prof O’Neill stated “You’re born with a particular set of genes that sort of govern intelligence to some extent. And a big study just came out. 10,000 twins were assessed, which is a good group to look at ‘cos identical twins who are separated at birth and you can follow them in schools and so on and it’s 60% genes and 40% environment is what governs your ultimate intelligence. And for some subjects like maths it’s 70% genetic. So no amount of schooling, almost, is going to help someone who doesn’t have the genes to be mathematical.”

In 1994, Robert Plomin, Professor of Behavioural Genetics at King’s College London, began the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS), a longitudinal study of all twins born in England and Wales between 1994 and 1996. They are not all identical and none was separated at birth. In December 2013 an interim study was published, looking at the GCSE results of the twins who have now turned 16:  Strong Genetic Influence on a UK Nationwide Test of Educational Achievement at the End of Compulsory Education at Age 16. This, we presume, was the subject of Luke and Pat’s discussion.

As stated clearly in the study title, it was looking at GSCE results, or academic achievement rather than intelligence and, to quote Plomin himself, “GCSEs aren’t a great measure of what we would normally call academic intelligence.” So, this wasn’t actually a discussion of intelligence at all, something which is vastly more nuanced and complicated than GCSE grades and IQ scores.  Prof O’Neill casually sidestepped this and then went on to confuse the term heritability with inherited. The two are not the same.

The concept of heritability belongs to the field of genetics and can be quite tricky for a non-expert to get their head around. Heritability is a measure of the extent to which differences in the appearance of a trait within a particular group of people, can be explained by a difference in their genes. It refers to the group, not to the individuals and it does not refer to the passing down of a trait from parent to child. It is incorrect to say that if intelligence is 0.6 heritable, then 60% of a person’s intelligence is inherited from their parents and 40% is due to the environment.

Achillea growth in different environments

In the 1940’s, scientists Clausen, Keck and Heisey studied the growth of the yarrow plant, Achillea. In one experiment, they took seven Achillea plants and made three clones of each. One of each clone was planted at coastal height, one at mid elevation and one higher still, at the timberline.

In the diagram to the left, the seven clones are ordered from left to right according to their growth at the lowest elevation. The second line shows them in the same order at middle elevation and the top line shows them at the highest elevation, the timberline. The three clones of each plant are shown directly one above the other.

Comparing the clones of the same plant vertically across the three different environments, although each is genetically identical, their growth is very different. The difference in height cannot be explained by any difference in their genes, therefore height is almost 0% heritable.

Now compare the seven different plants at each elevation (horizontally). Here, the environment is the same for all the plants, so the difference can only be explained by the difference in their genes. The very same trait, height, is almost 100% heritable in this scenario.

You might also notice that the relative heights of the different clones is not always the same. For example, the plant on the far left is the tallest at sea level and at the timberline, but the plant in the middle, is the tallest at the mid level.

So, you cannot take the heritability of a trait as measured in a particular group of people in a particular setting and then apply the result to any old group of people you fancy and in any environment. Bear in mind also, that it is unlikely in the extreme that maths ability, or any other ability, is controlled by one or two genes. So, to extrapolate the results of Plomin’s study to say that anyone is born with the “wrong genes” for maths or any other subject, and that no matter how hard they work at it, they are wasting their time, is absolute nonsense.

It is this sort of misunderstanding that leads to the fixed mindset that prevents too many of us from trying new things or persisting in the face of difficulty. We may not all have the potential to be geniuses, but given the right “environment” and the right attitude, any of us can be perfectly competent at far more than we might think. It is a great disservice to our children to lead them to believe that they will never be good at something because they were born with the wrong genes.

Pat and the Professor versus Genes and the Gifted

Lada vs LamborghiniLast week’s science slot on Pat Kenny’s radio show on Newstalk featured a discussion between Pat and his regular guest Professor Luke O’Neill from Trinity College’s Biomedical Sciences Institute. The topic was genetic research into human intelligence, an interesting and potentially controversial subject. We had several problems with this slot which we intend to highlight over the next while, but in this post, we take issue with some of Pat Kenny’s comments about why bright children shouldn’t be given the same support as other children. This is one of the most pervasive myths about gifted children and one which we continue to try to dispel.

In the course of the discussion, Pat said: “So if kids with high intelligence are growing up in what you might call underprivileged surroundings, their brain power will probably pull them out of their difficulties or else turn them into master criminals but they’ll use their brains somehow. But those who don’t have that kind of brainpower will end up consorting with other people of not so much brain power and their lot will not get better.”

Professor O’Neill responded by saying “Well that’s the sad truth and this is a horrible truth, nobody likes to think of intelligence just being genetic you see, because that can give rise to all kinds of problems later, and there’s eugenics and things but that does seem to be the evidence.” He explains this by using the analogy of different car engines using the same petrol, engines representing the genetics and the petrol the environment – the performance of the cars will be different, the more efficient the engine the better the performance even if they all get the same petrol.

Pat goes on to suggest that “so…. you could let the smart fellas, if you like, look after themselves. All your resources should go into the less smart people to give them the opportunities in life that they can enjoy?”, a point agreed to by the Professor who later goes on to say that with the right funding in education “you can tailor the education to specific kids needs and that benefits that kid hugely”. Well that sounds like a great idea, tailoring education to meet each child’s needs. But wait, they mean to exclude gifted children, because their “engines” are already powerful enough, and we need to hold them back until the less powerful “engines” catch up?

The casual disregard for gifted learners or those with “high IQ” is feeding into a stereotype which we work hard to dismiss. We listened in astonishment as they seemed to say that the ideal education system is one in which individualised learning is available for all except the really clever ones who will be able to “look after themselves”. They appeared to be claiming that as the research now shows that “genes (for intelligence) will emerge”, we can justify exclusion of equal provision for these children within the education system in order to redress the balance in favour of less “brainy” children.  What a discriminatory suggestion! It is as preposterous as suggesting that children who struggle in an academic environment should be sidelined while those with more “brainpower” as Pat calls it, would be supported to reach their potential. I doubt many educators in Ireland would agree with either system, but Pat and the Professor really thought they were on to something based on incorrect interpretation of brain research and a large dose of wild extrapolation.

It is hugely disappointing that two well-regarded professionals, both from a scientific tradition, would peddle this populist nonsense and feed the stereotype that giftedness is enough of an advantage that these children should be almost artificially held back by withholding educational resources until other children have “caught up”. In fact, gifted children are at risk if their abilities are not recognised and supported like any other child’s. Gifted learners from disadvantaged backgrounds are particularly in need of support for several reasons, among them issues such as  family and social problems, lack of expectation, lack of educational support or tradition in the home, or lack of financial resources to support extra activities such as CTYI. Research from the Centre for Academic Achievement in Dublin City University shows that putting a robust support system in place is of enormous benefit not just to the individual students, but for their families, schools and fellow pupils. Supporting highly able children from disadvantaged backgrounds opens up possibilities and potential that they are unlikely to find if left to “look after themselves” as Pat and Luke suggest. It is simply wrong of them to advocate such a thing based on a very shallow understanding of the research referenced on the show and no regard at all for pedagogy.

Every child, every single one, should be able to expect the support that they need to succeed. Gifted children need as much support as any other child to reach their potential, they will not simply make it on their own, and have even less chance if their needs are wilfully ignored. Dr. Colm O’Reilly, director of CTYI and Ireland’s leading expert in gifted education and research said in a RTE documentary in 2010: “We tend to have the attitude of ‘well, sure it’ll all work out in the end’. For a lot of them, it doesn’t work out in the end and they end up underachieving greatly, and what do we say then? ‘Well, they weren’t that smart to begin with’. I can’t agree with that. The reason they underachieve is because we never did anything for them in the first place, to allow them to fulfill their potential”.

As the Professor says, tailoring an education to an individual child is indeed of great benefit to that child. Would that we had the resources to do that in our schools, but they are stretched to almost breaking point by cutbacks these days. To suggest however, that some children should be effectively ignored in favour of others, is against all educational principles and is discriminatory and misguided. Pat and the Professor should research their topics before launching a broadside at gifted children and their futures.