Under the Hood

Genes And Intelligence: It's All Or Nothing When It Comes To Academic Success In All Subjects

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Research suggests general intelligence is much more hereditary than previously believed. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Pretty early on, it’s assumed that children will learn they have more of a natural flair for either math and science or writing. But these labels may be misconceived. According to a recent study, the set of genes that play a role in a person’s academic aptitude don’t discriminate when it comes to the subject. Your difficulty in one specific class is most likely the result of environmental factors, not your personal lack of skill.

The idea that genetics influence our intelligence isn’t new. Previous research has shown that children’s success in the core subjects of English, math, and science are largely inheritable. However, for this study, researchers from King’s College London investigated how genes factored into an individual’s ability to succeed in other subjects. In order to determine this, the team analyzed genetic data from 12,500 twins — about half were identical — and compared it to their scores on standardized tests in English, math, science, humanities, a second language, business informatics, and art.

Results showed that genetic predisposition accounted for 54 to 65 percent of the differences in the children’s scores in all subjects, according to a press release. Meanwhile, outside factors, such as the children’s home and school environment, accounted for 12 to 21 percent of the score differences, the researchers found. These results suggest that all areas of academic performance are influenced by the same set of genes.

“There’s a general academic achievement factor. Children who do well in one subject tend to better in another subject and that is largely for genetic reasons,” the study’s first author Kaili Rimfeld told The Guardian.

The team believes their findings will help create personalized education programs that identify where students are having trouble learning, and ensure that each child is able to reach their academic potential. Past research has suggested that providing one-on-one guidance to children who lack the natural ability to do well in school can help them compete with students who are academically talented. Finding the genes associated with learning difficulties could give teachers the tools necessary to provide help as early as nursery school, ensuring that all children have the best chance at succeeding.

The study results also suggest that the idea some of us just aren’t “math people” is all in our heads and based more on differences in curiosity, determination, and memory than a general lack of aptitude. “People may think that they’re good at one subject and bad at another, but in reality most people are strikingly consistent,” Robert Plomin, the study’s senior author, told The Guardian.

Having a genetic predisposition for academic success does not mean that children are born with an understanding of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. As Rimfeld explains in a piece for the NewStatesman, genes can only make learning easier and more enjoyable for a child. The student still has to put in the work to get their grades.

Still, there are some experts who take the study’s results with a pinch of skepticism. According to John Hardy, a professor of neuroscience at University College London, studies that involve large data on twins can be flawed. “Twin studies are a mainstay of behavioral genetics, but they make a simple assumption that is unlikely to be true — that is that we treat identical twins the same as we treat non-identical twins,” Hardy told The Guardian. “These results are interesting, therefore, but by no means definitive and it would be unwise to make educational decisions based on these data.”

Source: Rimfeld K, Kovas Y, Dale PS, Plomin R. Pleiotropy across academic subjects at the end of compulsory education. Scientific Reports. 2015.

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