The Productivity Commission has recently put out a paper which suggests that inherited cognitive ability may contribute to educational gaps between students from rich and poor backgrounds – by perhaps as much as 20%. This has put the issue of possible genetic explanations of the differences between social groups in educational and more general social outcomes on the Australian social and political agenda.
In a third-rate piece of journalism, the concept of “rich genes” then received front-page coverage in the Herald-Sun, further coverage in Business Review Weekly, and a sharp rebuttal from Senator Doug Cameron. One of the authors of the report has now expressed disappointment that a small section of the report has been given such media attention, but the reality is that the report did list genetics as one of five factors which could contribute to gaps in educational outcomes. The paper recognised that this is a difficult and controversial area, but any emphasis on a role for genetic factors unfortunately plays to quite wide-spread tendencies to see genetic factors as important in social and ethnic differences in complex social phenomena, and to believe that they set a limit to how much equality can be achieved. The suggestion was bound to create waves.
The idea that class differences are based on genetics is not a new idea – there have in fact been several iterations of this controversial social argument, ranging from what is often called Social Darwinism and the eugenics movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to a peak in the racist fantasies of Nazi eugenics and the Final Solution. This history discredited these general ideas, and put a temporary halt to the overt propagation of ideas of this kind, but variations on these themes tend to rear their ugly heads from time to time.
A resurgence of similar ideas in the 1960s was associated with the US educational psychologist Arthur Jensen, who suggested that continuing gaps in educational outcomes between class and racial groups in the US were in part due to genetic differences in underlying cognitive abilities, based on very poor evidence. This was a time of acute racial tensions in the US, exemplified by the freedom rides which finally broke the back of segregation in the south. The idea that African-Americans and Hispanics could not cope with higher levels of education had little policy impact in the end, as it was overwhelmed by the trend towards greater racial equality which recently culminated in election of a African-American President, and by the trend towards greater participation in education by African-American and Hispanic groups.
In raising this issue, I do not want to suggest that the authors of the Productivity Commission paper are secret eugenicists, or that the Productivity Commission harbours a secret cabal of conspirators dedicated to promoting the idea that social differences are based on genetic differences. But, it is a matter of concern that the Productivity Commission has floated the idea that social differences may be significantly based on genetic differences in ability on the basis of exceptionally weak evidence, at a time when dealing with class and ethnic differences in educational outcomes is on the agenda thanks to Gonski.
The Productivity Commission paper quotes two research papers to support the importance of genetic differences, and it is worth quoting what they actually say to show just how weak the evidence is. One says:
Our central finding is that there is a very strong correlation between the cognitive development of parents during their own childhood, and that of their children. One strong reason why children from poor families on average have lower cognitive outcomes is because their parents do too. While we cannot hope to disentangle the complex interaction between genetic and environmental factors in determining this link, we do find that the strong connection between the cognitive development of parents and that of their children remains very strong, even after taking a very large number of environmental factors into account, which suggests a genetic component to this link.
What this means in somewhat simpler language is that they have no direct evidence of genetic factors, but because there is something they can’t explain, they assume that it is genetic. Not a very compelling argument.
The other says:
This finding raises important questions about the relevance of genetic inheritance in accounting for the gap in cognitive test scores between children from rich and poor families. This is clearly a controversial and complex topic. Our results do not suggest the strong complementarities between parental ability and other observed aspects of parenting that we had expected to find, and are tentatively suggestive of an important – albeit likely complex – role for genetic inheritance.
In simpler language, this means much the same, and has the considerable merit of admitting that the conclusion is a tentative suggestion, which obviously means that it very far from proven.
This is not the only line of scientific evidence that has been used to support the idea genetic inheritance of educational achievements. A common line of argument is based on twin studies, mentioned in passing in the Productivity Commission Report, which have demonstrated what is called high heritability for educational outcomes or capacities which might contribute to them.
Twin studies have a number of problems, since they are based on the assumption that parents treat identical (monozygotic) and non-identical (dizygotic twins) in the same way, and have other contestable features which are well documented in the scientific literature. But ignoring these complexities for the moment, all lines of evidence that support the idea that variations in complex cognitive capacities (such as reading) and complex social behaviours, and even complex diseases, are significantly based on genetic variations have hit a major stumbling block, which is that scientists have overwhelmingly failed to find the genes and genetic variation which match their expectations, except for very extreme cases of dysfunction. And this is the ultimate test, because everything else is based on unproven assumptions and modelling.
This problem, the failure to find relevant genetic variation, has come to be known as missing heritability, and has been extensively discussed in the scientific literature – most notably in the prestigious scientific journals Nature, Nature Genetics and Public Library of Science – Genetics. The research field of complex trait genetics knows it has problems, even if some are in denial, but the kindest interpretation of the Productivity Commission report is that its authors do not understand the area at all.
And the evidence then faces an even further difficulty, because in the rare cases where a small but defined genetic contribution has been demonstrated to a complex trait, it has never been shown that the genetic differences are significantly associated with race/ethnicity and social class. In the case of race/ethnicity this is not surprising, because the genetic evidence shows that human ethnic groups overwhelmingly share common genetic backgrounds, where the variation within ethnic groups is greater than the differences between groups. In all probability, this is true for class differences as well.
The paper carries a disclaimer that it does not necessarily represent the views of the Productivity Commission, but putting these ideas into print has given them some status. If Productivity Commission believes that the idea that genetic differences between social groups make a major contribution to the educational gaps between children from high and low SES back-grounds or different ethnic groups is relevant to current policy debates, then it needs to say this very clearly.
And it can start by clarifying whether it believes that 20% of the gap between outcomes for children from high and low SES groups and between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students is genetic in origin, and what limits that idea puts on the aspiration of the Gonski reforms to eliminate the influence of a child’s background on their educational achievements. And then it can produce the evidence on which it bases this conclusion, and the debate can begin.
And if it doesn’t, then it also needs to say this very clearly. Flying a genetic kite in the areas of social and ethnic differences and disadvantage is highly irresponsible.
To be fair to the Productivity Commission paper, it also raises a number of well-documented factors which are known to influence outcomes, and places a lot of emphasis on the importance of family circumstances, the support received by disadvantaged people and the communities in which they live, and crucial importance of interventions in the early childhood years and the early years of schooling. The Gonski school funding reforms can certainly build on these. There is plenty room for action in these areas, provided that there is funding to support them, without in any way indulging in poorly founded genetic fanatasies.
This is a crucial area of policy in Australia at the moment. The Gonski educational funding reforms, which attempt to address educational disparities associated with socio-economic status, are likely to be a key policy difference between the major political parties at the next election. And the idea of closing the gap in educational achievements between Indigenous students and non-Indigenous students has, justifiably, almost iconic status as a policy goal in Australia.
There is no evidence that genetic differences make any contribution to ethnic differences in complex behaviours and cognition, whatever the Pauline Hansons of the world think. In contrast, our current knowledge of the shared genetic heritage of all human groups suggests that the policy debate needs to be on the educational and broader social policies which can turn the desire to close the social gaps in educational outcomes and life chances into a reality, and on how to provide the funding to achieve these goals.
Dr. Ian Morgan
Ian Morgan is a former President of the Australian Council of State School Organisations, and a long-standing member of Save Our Schools. He is Visiting Professor both at the Australian National University in Canberra and the Zhongshan Ophthalmic Center in Guangzhou, China, where he works on the environmental factors that control the complex trait of myopia.