Is genius in the genes?

Posted in SSZ Briefings  ·  July 5th 2016

 This was the title of a recent article in the Times Educational Supplement, written by leading neuroscientist Steven Rose, emeritus professor at the Open University. (1)

You will guess that, with our commitment to the growth mindset, all of us here at Study Skills Zone were interested to read this article.  And it then seemed only fair that we should prepare a Briefing for all our readers.

Some of the claims by Rose are worth repeating in full.
“… the question often phrased as ‘how much do genes and environment each contribute to any individual’s intelligence (or IQ)?’ is meaningless – the only possible answer is that each contributes 100%. Nature versus nurture is a false dichotomy: they cannot be disentangled in any person’s life history.”

The question which has been posed for most of the last century has been subtly different, he says: how much of the difference between individuals is down to genetics and how much to environment? He suggests that this question might in principle be answerable.

Nature v Nurture?

Human genetics reached a high point in 2003 with the sequencing of the 3 billion DNA bases that comprise the human genome. But this produced a shock for geneticists. The human body contains some 40 trillion cells, and some 100,000 different proteins, but only about 22,000 genes: roughly the same number as a fruit fly! They realised that there was no way such a small number of genes could “code” for all those proteins, let alone such complex behaviours as intelligence.

Scientists realised that they had been wrong to assume that there was a gene for intelligence. It was far more complicated than that: it seems that cells use lots of different genes as the child develops. A new science of epigenetics was born – the study of factors outside genes that can affect how the genes work.

Is genius in the genes?

However, when they started to look at all the genes, scientists assumed they might find half a dozen working together in the case of, for example, major diseases. But they found more than 200 genes connected with schizophrenia! Senior geneticists started to talk about a “black hole” at the centre of genetics.

A recent paper in the prestigious journal Science, signed by some 200 authors, describes a study of 126,559 individuals aimed at identifying genes associated with educational achievement. The result? Adding together all the genetic variants that they found accounted for only 2% of the differences in educational achievement: nothing to write home about!

Is genius in the genes? If it is, then it’s hidden in lots of them.

Home Environment Crucial

There was an interesting study in 2003 (2) which showed that children born into rich families inherited more from their parents than children born into poorer families. Rose concludes that the more their environment can be enriched – in all senses of that word – the closer children will be able to perform to their potential.

Steven Rose concludes by saying that you don’t need to do a gene scan to find out if a child is turned on by science: you could just ask them!

So, we here at Study Skills Zone still believe with Dr Carol Dweck that a child’s intelligence can grow with hard work and application. And study skills can help the child to work hard in the right way.

(1) Full article:
(2) Turkheimer, E, Haley, A, Waldron, M, D’Onofrio, B and Gottesman, I (2003) “SES modifies heritability of IQ in young children”, Psychological Science, 14: 623-28.

Back to blog home