Why Scientists Will Never Find “The Gene” For Academic Success

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In a paper published earlier this week in the journal Science, researchers report that they have found three robust regions in the human genome that are tied to educational attainment, writes Paul Voosen in the Chronicle of Higher Education. But the links they found were “microscopic,” Voosen notes:

“How small? For perspective, the largest link they found could account for only 0.022 percent of the variation in the subjects’ educational advancement, drastically smaller than the largest genetic influences found for, say, height, where one gene might explain up to 0.4 percent of the variation. Over all, the genome variants the researchers surveyed could explain, combined, 2 percent of their subjects’ educational success.

The most important lesson for the public is this: There will never be a ‘gene for educational success’ or a ‘gene for entrepreneurship,’ just as there will never be a ‘gene for intelligence’ or a ‘gene for personality.’

‘You just shouldn’t believe anything that says it’s the “gene for education,”‘ says  Daniel J. Benjamin, an associate professor at Cornell University and one of the authors of the paper.

That’s true for pretty much any human trait, down to height and weight, but it applies doubly so for socioeconomic outcomes: ‘The effect for any gene is going to be vanishingly small.’

This is old news for genetics researchers, who have been wrestling with that reality for the better part of a decade. Genes are great at predicting what proteins the body will make, but they are far, far removed from human behavior, and every step along the way, their influence is weakened by a host of environmental factors. There is no linear chain that runs from, say, genes to personality to educational success; when such connections exist, they form, at best, a dense web.

Even the parts of educational success that can be tied to genetics—given a larger sample of one million people, Benjamin expects the number could rise from 2 percent to 12 percent or so—can still be deeply influenced by the environment.

The authors of the Science article are quite explicit about what lessons public-policy experts should take from their work: none at all. Given the limited genetic influence, even if Benjamin and company do tick it up to 12 percent, it’s unlikely you’ll ever be able to predict people’s educational future with their genome sequence.

And the environment will always influence those genetic connections. Imagine if you ran a genetics study of college-completion rates 100 years ago, Benjamin says: ‘You’d find a very strong effect of the number of X chromosomes you have on whether you’ve completed college.'” (Read more here.)

Excellent points to keep in mind the next time you see a headline about “the gene for X” . . .


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