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Your DNA determines how far you’ll go in education

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Pupils at Williamwood High School sit their exams on February 5, 2010 in Glasgow.
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Pupils at Williamwood High School sit their exams on February 5, 2010 in Glasgow.
If you want to know how likely your newborn child is to do well at school or go on to university, scientists may be able to tell with a simple DNA swab. Writing for The World Weekly, David Hugh-Jones introduces his latest research on the subject.
T he graph below, which comes from a new paper by me and my co-authors, shows the proportions of each of five groups in the UK that go to university, or leave school with A levels, GCSEs or no qualifications at all. There is some serious inequality here: about half of the top group go to university, less than 20% of the bottom group. What might these groups be? Social classes? Rich versus poor? North and south?

In fact, they are defined purely by genetics. The top group contains people whose educational attainment, as predicted from their DNA, is in the top 20%, the bottom group is the bottom 20%, and the others are those in between. I’ll spare you the details of how the prediction is done, but it is calculated from DNA alone. Give me a swab from the inside of your child’s cheek, and I’ll tell you how likely she is to go to university.
The age of genomics is coming. In 2000, the human genome was completely sequenced for the first time. It cost about a billion dollars. Since then, the cost has fallen astonishingly fast. Today, an assay chip can tell which of a million common mutations you have, for the cost of a restaurant meal. And we are getting ever better at predicting social outcomes from this data. Twin studies tell us that about 20-40% of the difference between people in educational attainment is genetic. So far we’ve captured far less than half of that. In future versions of the graph, differences between the groups will be steeper still.
This research is a challenge to egalitarians. Prime Minister Theresa May called it a “burning injustice” that white, working-class boys were the least likely group to go to university. Well, whose fault is it exactly? Genes are passed down from parents to children. If the children of poor parents don’t get on in life, maybe they, like their parents, don’t have what it takes to succeed.
Maybe Mother Nature, not society, is the unfair one.
This reaction is premature. First, all these genetic pathways lead, at some stage, through society. For instance, obviously, our graph could not have been drawn in a world without universities. And the genes for education aren’t necessarily giving you a big brain. Suppose being tall or good-looking gets you more attention from teachers – there’s evidence for similar effects in the labour market – so you end up doing better at school. Then, genes for height and looks will be predictive of your education and they will be part of the score our graph uses. Of course that wouldn’t stop us trying to change society so that tall, handsome people didn’t get unfair advantages.
Second, genetic does not mean unchangeable. There is a famous example of this: myopia, which is mostly genetic, can be cured simply by wearing spectacles. Maybe there are equally simple ways to help people who do badly in school. Genetic research could help us find them.
There’s a subtler fact, too. Genes are biologically fixed at birth. But how you got your genes – how mum met dad – was a social process. For example, assortative mating, where genetically similar people marry each other, can increase genetic inequality. If everyone pairs off at random, their kids will all be quite alike, but if smart people only marry smart people, then the next generation will have some kids with very good genes, some with bad genes, and a lot of inequality. But how much “sorting out” there is depends on how society is organised. Levels of assortative mating have gone up in the US in recent years, because society changed so that people spent more time with others of similar backgrounds. With enough political will, it could change again.
All this said, the age of genetics is not good news for egalitarians. Even in a perfectly meritocratic society, where children inherited no wealth or social advantages from their parents, they’d still get a genetic hand-me-down. The word meritocracy, remember, was first coined in a dystopian sci-fi satire from the 1950s. In it, a smug elite, sure of its natural fitness to rule, is roiled by the disappointed masses who have realised that a level playing field still gives them no chance of success. 
David Hugh-Jones
The World Weekly
08 September 2016 - last edited 08 September 2016