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Physicist, Startup Founder, Blogger, Dad

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

New Statesman: "like it or not, the debate about whether genes affect intelligence is over"

Science writer Philip Ball, a longtime editor at Nature, writes a sensible article about the implications of rapidly improving genomic prediction for cognitive ability.
Philip Ball is a freelance science writer. He worked previously at Nature for over 20 years, first as an editor for physical sciences (for which his brief extended from biochemistry to quantum physics and materials science) and then as a Consultant Editor. His writings on science for the popular press have covered topical issues ranging from cosmology to the future of molecular biology.

Philip is the author of many popular books on science, including works on the nature of water, pattern formation in the natural world, colour in art, the science of social and political philosophy, the cognition of music, and physics in Nazi Germany.

... Philip has a BA in Chemistry from the University of Oxford and a PhD in Physics from the University of Bristol.
I recommend the whole article -- perhaps it will stimulate a badly needed discussion of this rapidly advancing area of science.
The IQ trap: how the study of genetics could transform education (New Statesman)

The study of the genes which affect intelligence could revolutionise education. But, haunted by the spectre of eugenics, the science risks being lost in a political battle.

... Researchers are now becoming confident enough to claim that the information available from sequencing a person’s genome – the instructions encoded in our DNA that influence our physical and behavioural traits – can be used to make predictions about their potential to achieve academic success. “The speed of this research has surprised me,” says the psychologist Kathryn Asbury of the University of York, “and I think that it is probable that pretty soon someone – probably a commercial company – will start to try to sell it in some way.” Asbury believes “it is vital that we have regulations in place for the use of genetic information in education and that we prepare legal, social and ethical cases for how it could and should be used.”

... Some kids pick things up in a flash, others struggle with the basics. This doesn’t mean it’s all in their genes: no one researching genes and intelligence denies that a child’s environment can play a big role in educational attainment. Of course kids with supportive, stimulating families and motivated peers have an advantage, while in some extreme cases the effects of trauma or malnutrition can compromise brain development.

... Robert Plomin of King’s College London, one of the leading experts on the genetic basis of intelligence, and his colleague Sheila Walker. They surveyed almost 2,000 primary school teachers and parents about their perceptions of genetic influence on a number of traits, including intelligence, and found that on the whole, both teachers and parents rated genetics as being just as important as the environment. This was despite the fact that 80 per cent of the teachers said there was no mention of genetics in their training. Plomin and Walker concluded that educators do seem to accept that genes influence intelligence.

Kathryn Asbury supports that view. When her PhD student Madeline Crosswaite investigated teachers’ beliefs about intelligence, Asbury says she found that “teachers, on average, believe that genetic factors are at least as important as environmental factors” and say they are “open to a role for genetic information in education one day, and that they would like to know more”.

... But now it’s possible to look directly at people’s genomes: to read the molecular code (sequence) of large proportions of an individual’s DNA. Over the past decade the cost of genome sequencing has fallen sharply, making it possible to look more directly at how genes correlate with intelligence. The data both from twin studies and DNA analysis are unambiguous: intelligence is strongly heritable. Typically around 50 per cent of variations in intelligence between individuals can be ascribed to genes, although these gene-induced differences become markedly more apparent as we age. As Ritchie says: like it or not, the debate about whether genes affect intelligence is over.

... Genome-wide polygenic scores can now be used to make such predictions about intelligence. They’re not really reliable at the moment, but will surely become better as the sample sizes for genome-wide studies increase. They will always be about probabilities, though: “Mrs Larkin, there is a 67 per cent chance that your son will be capable of reaching the top 10 per cent of GCSE grades.” Such exam results were indeed the measure Plomin and colleagues used for one recent study of genome-based prediction. They found that there was a stronger correlation between GPS and GCSE results for extreme outcomes – for particularly high or low marks.

... Using GPSs from nearly 5,000 pupils, the report assesses how exam results from different types of school – non-selective state, selective state grammar, and private – are correlated with gene-based estimates of ability for the different pupil sets. The results might offer pause for thought among parents stumping up eyewatering school fees: the distribution of exam results at age 16 could be almost wholly explained by heritable differences, with less than 1 per cent being due to the type of schooling received. In other words, as far as academic achievement is concerned, selective schools seem to add next to nothing to the inherent abilities of their pupils. ...

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