Behavioral Genetics:

Why We're Different
Robert Plomin [6.29.16]

What we're trying to do in behavioral genetics and medical genetics is explain differences. It's important to know that we all share approximately 99 percent of our DNA sequence. If we sequence, as we can now readily do, all of our 3 billion base pairs of DNA, we will be the same at over 99 percent of all those bases. That's what makes us similar to each other. It makes us similar to chimps and most mammals. We're over 90 percent similar to all mammals. There's a lot of genetic similarity that's important from an evolutionary perspective, but it can't explain why we're different. That's what we're up to, trying to explain why some children are reading disabled, or some people become schizophrenic, or why some people suffer from alcoholism, et cetera. We're always talking about differences. The only genetics that makes a difference is that 1 percent of the 3 billion base pairs. But that is over 10 million base pairs of DNA. We're looking at these differences and asking to what extent they cause the differences that we observe. 
ROBERT PLOMIN is a professor of behavioral genetics at King's College London and deputy director of the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience.
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If you look at the books and the training that teachers get, genetics doesn't get a look-in. Yet if you ask teachers, as I've done, about why they think children are so different in their ability to learn to read, and they know that genetics is important. When it comes to governments and educational policymakers, the knee-jerk reaction is that if kids aren't doing well, you blame the teachers and the schools; if that doesn't work, you blame the parents; if that doesn't work, you blame the kids because they're just not trying hard enough. An important message for genetics is that you've got to recognize that children are different in their ability to learn. We need to respect those differences because they're genetic. Not that we can’t do anything about it.
 It's like obesity. The NHS is thinking about charging people to be fat because, like smoking, they say it's your fault. Weight is not as heritable as height, but it's highly heritable. Maybe 60 percent of the differences in weight are heritable. That doesn't mean you can't do anything about it. If you stop eating, you won't gain weight, but given the normal life in a fast-food culture, with our Stone Age brains that want to eat fat and sugar, it's much harder for some people.
We need to respect the fact that genetic differences are important, not just for body mass index and weight, but also for things like reading disability. I know personally how difficult it is for some children to learn to read. Genetics suggests that we need to have more recognition that children differ genetically, and to respect those differences. My grandson, for example, had a great deal of difficulty learning to read. His parents put a lot of energy into helping him learn to read. We also have a granddaughter who taught herself to read. Both of them now are not just learning to read but reading to learn.                                 
Genetic influence is just influence; it's not deterministic like a single gene. At government levels—I've consulted with the Department for Education—I don't think they're as hostile to genetics as I had feared, they're just ignorant of it. Education just doesn't consider genetics, whereas teachers on the ground can't ignore it. I never get static from them because they know that these children are different when they start. Some just go off on very steep trajectories, while others struggle all the way along the line. When the government sees that, they tend to blame the teachers, the schools, or the parents, or the kids. The teachers know. They're not ignoring this one child. If anything, they're putting more energy into that child.                                 
It's important to recognize and respect genetically driven individual differences. It's better to make policy based on knowledge than on fiction. A lot of what I see in education is fiction. In education, part of the reason people shy away from genetics is because they think it's associated with a right-wing agenda. It's so important to emphasize that scientific facts are neutral. It's the values that you apply to them that should determine policy.                                 
If there are, as I'm certain there are, strong genetic influences on individual differences in learning to read, a right-wing agenda might say, "We could save a lot of money by just putting money into the very best kids, because it won't take much and they'll go sailing off." It's a silly policy because you don't need many Newtons to create calculus or the big advances we've had in science, but a society depends on intellectual capital, which involves much broader intellectual infrastructure than a few geniuses. My values suggest the opposite from the right-wing agenda. It's called the Finnish model in education. It's the idea of saying, in a technologically advanced society we need to ensure that all citizens reach some minimal level of numeracy and literacy. We need to put the resources into the lower end to make sure they don't fall off the low end of the bell curve. To participate in society you need a certain level of literacy and numeracy. You can take the same data—that genetics is important—and your policies, depending on your values, could be very different.                                
Those are the big issues that I am confronted with when I talk to people in education. On the whole, I don't even bother talking to them about DNA because we're still at a level where even considering the possibility that differences between children in their ability to learn could be genetically influenced is like clinical psychology thirty years ago. If you talked about genetics, they hated it. They'd say, "Well, that's the end of clinical psychology. If it's genetic, we can't do anything about it." You'd say, "No, no, no, that's wrong." In fact, by identifying genetic differences, you might be able to create therapies that work especially well for certain people. It's the same thing in education.                                 
Education is the last backwater of anti-genetic thinking. It's not even anti-genetic. It's as if genetics doesn't even exist. I want to get people in education talking about genetics because the evidence for genetic influence is overwhelming. The things that interest them—learning abilities, cognitive abilities, behavior problems in childhood—are the most heritable things in the behavioral domain. Yet it's like Alice in Wonderland. You go to educational conferences and it's as if genetics does not exist.

I'm wondering about where the DNA revolution will take us. If we are explaining 10 percent of the variance of GCSE scores with a DNA chip, it becomes real. People will begin to use it. It's important that we begin to have this conversation. I'm frustrated at having so little success in convincing people in education of the possibility of genetic influence. It is ignorance as much as it is antagonism.


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