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Swimming in the Educational Gene Pool? How Far Can Children Go With the Genes They Have?

Posted: 10/08/2012 4:15 pm

It seems so sci-fi! First there were educational toys, then educational apps and now educational genes. A recent paper published in the journal Developmental Psychology finds that there are three genes associated with academic achievement. Florida State University, Professor Kevin Beaver headed the team reporting that certain forms (alleles) of the genes DAT1, DRD2, and DRD4 predicted the level of education individuals would reach. Imagine genes in a Petri dish telling whether you were going to get your high school diploma or graduate from Harvard Law (OK, not quite that level of precision). So does this mean you should run out and have your children's genomes sequenced, which by the way is getting cheaper and cheaper? Will submitting your genome be a requirement in the preschool and college admission's process? NO! As even these researchers remind us, genes are not destiny. Just because something has a genetic basis doesn't mean it will come to pass.

Take health for example. Many of us carry genetic potential for heart disease or cancer. It was in our family tree. But we don't just throw in the towel and wait for the disease to strike. Instead, we alter the environment in ways that reduces risk by exercising and avoiding that buttery popcorn at the movie theaters that tastes so so good.

When it comes to IQ or educational attainment, people are often willing to jump on the genetic bandwagon and think that genetics completely determines our future. Yet, what Professor Beaver said in an interview with the American Psychological Association was perfectly clear: "No one gene is going to say, "Sally will graduate from high school' or 'Johnny will earn a college degree."

Having genes for educational attainment just increases the probabilities. Remember Mendel's pea plants? The plants raised in strong and healthy environments grew taller and heartier than those -- with the same genetic potential -- that were raised in less healthy environments. And even some of those plants raised in terrible environments did well. So it is with our children.

The genetic profile gives us a starting point from which we can strengthen our potential to succeed or waste it. When we were growing up there were a lot of brilliant immigrant grandparents who never made it to college. And today colleges are flooded with first generation successes who went "beyond" their genetic odds. In our day, they used to call those overachievers.

True, we can't change our genes. We can, however, provide the kinds of interventions that help people become those overachievers.

The kind of data that Beaver presented is extraordinary and it helps us better understand the human blueprint. It also comes with a warning sign to those who think that biology determines our life path. Some might take this data in unintended ways concluding that low-income children just cannot rise above the poor educational experiences we give them. Why spend public dollars if they will be biologically squandered? As more and more of our kids are sliding into poverty, this wrong-headed belief has serious implications for our human capital -- the next generation.

To maximize everyone's genetic potential we need to provide the best education we can -- both in and out of school -- for kids of all economic stripes. Better environments make for better educational attainment as the writer David Kirp has talked about in his aptly titled article, "After the Bell Curve."

So, be the first one on your block to know that science has uncovered genes that predict the educational level people can reach. But also be the first ones to know that such clear-cut predictors only occur in the movies -- not in reality. Our educational attainment is a mix of our biology and what we do with it. Let's help all children reach their highest potential and not blame them for the genetic pool they swim in. Genes are not destiny.

 
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