‘Hereditarian’ science seeks to link genetics to cleverness and could have profound changes on the social policy debate. That would be wrong
Humans are fascinated by the source of their failings and virtues. This preoccupation inevitably leads to an old debate: whether nature or nurture moulds us more. A revolution in genomics has poised this as a modern political question about the character of our society: if personalities are hard-wired into our genes, what can governments do to help us? This is a big, creepy “if” over which the spectre of eugenics hovers. It feels morally questionable yet claims of genetic selection by intelligence are making headlines.
This is down to “hereditarian” science, a field dominated in this country by Robert Plomin, a psychologist at King’s College London. His latest paper claimed “differences in exam performance between pupils attending selective and non-selective schools mirror the genetic differences between them”. With such a billing the work was predictably greeted by a raft of absurd claims about “genetics determining academic success”. What the research revealed was the rather less surprising result: the educational benefits of selective schools largely disappear once pupils’ innate ability and socio-economic background were taken into account. It is a glimpse of the blindingly obvious – and there’s nothing to back strongly either a hereditary or environmental argument.