My Blue Genes

The Double Helix

My Blue Genes is the name of a fictional company sponsoring the podcast in the play Genealogy written by Joe Queenan and myself and presented as taped here in less than perfect fashion when it premiered at Broom Street theater in Madison WI this past November. shows like Finding Your Roots inspired Joe and I to write this play about the consequences of discovering the genetic connections in your ancestry. But the rise in interest in genealogy , which one character claims is now the second most popular hobby in the United states, is not the only way that our culture has paid increased attention to genetic issues.  And in some ways, genetic determinism and meritocratic illusions delusions stand as obstacles to seeing the value of changing not discarding testing in education. Let’s address those two over the next few days before heading into some possible solutions to the currents state of educational testing.

Haworth on heritability of intelligence

Don’t see the connection to testing or your own personal history? Look at the chart again. If we believe a chart like this (from this site but you have to scroll down), then why bother with creating tests that will help learning instead of just presenting the slightly blurry snapshot of present knowledge and skill possession that the current dominant assessment practices do?

This is an argument with deep and tangled roots. It is framed as this author named it “…the debate over whether intelligence is largely genetically or largely environmentally determined is actually irrelevant in the context of group differences.” But he went on to get to the point that matters to me: “The real issue is whether intelligence can be changed, an issue that does not at all go hand in hand with the issue of heritability. Many inherited characteristics are changeable, and conversely, many environmentally acquired characteristics are extremely resistant to change. The political nature of this dispute has had serious consequences in the attitudes of psychologists toward important and useful constructs like academic aptitude, which seems in some quarters to have been rejected because of its partially hereditary character and its presumed imperviousness to change. However, several studies have shown that under appropriate conditions aptitude and intelligence can and do change. These studies have important implications for the future performance of minorities in this society.”

These are the first two paragraphs of a 1988 article by William Angoff, who remains one of the most significant figures in educational measurement history. The article was entitled The Nature—Nurture Debate, Aptitudes, and Group Differences. Thirty-four years later the same concerns abound. The connection with testing arises from a fear that our test scores are simply an extension of our genetic inheritance and, therefore, we’re stuck. Angoff presently sought to address those concerns. Part of his conclusion was that, “aptitude is subject to change if the conditions are right—if, as suggested earlier, the cognitive training begins early in life and continues for an extended period through the formative years and beyond, and if it is carried out in a continuously supportive and motivating atmosphere.” But there are many who today loudly and in some cases authoritatively dispute Angoff’s supposition.

When I discovered this article a few years ago while working on a project in the research and development division of ETS, the references to Robert Plomin startled me. That man has been around for a long time!

And here is Plomin again in the Vox article about how ‘Around half the variance in IQ can be explained by genetics’ cited in y’day’s post:

“Intelligence researchers Robert Plomin and Ian Deary suggest (genetics becoming more predictive of IQ with age) may be due to what’s known as “genetic amplification,” a process in which “small genetic differences are magnified as children select, modify and create environments correlated with their genetic propensities,” they write in a 2015 literature review. “

Plomin has lots of fans. Richard Hanania finds Plomin very persuasive here.

Bridget Queenan did not.

In 2019, Plomin’s latest book as is usual with his publications caused controversy. That was the case when he had been an advisor to the government in the UK, a speaker at many conferences, and generally an influencer in political circles. He’s a real Ted talk kind of guy when it comes to genes and he has some very definite opinions. Bridget wrote a review of that book that tore at what she saw as some inconsistencies in its arguments. Here’s the first line of that review:

If a nuanced, literary approach to the complex science of human heredity isn’t your style, Robert Plomin’s Blueprint will be right up your alley.”


Bridget continues:

“Blueprint is a self-admitted “sales pitch about a new fortune-telling device that promises to transform our understanding of ourselves and our life trajectories.” Plomin promises “a novel perspective on equal opportunity, social mobility and the structure of society” based on the findings of behavioral genetics. There is, in fact, nothing novel here. Blueprint manages to be both a rambling and yet entirely predictable rebranding of determinism with a few charts, numbers, and DNA base pairs thrown in.”

But then she gets down to details:

“By studying twins reared together or apart, Plomin has found that people who are genetically similar are similar in other respects. If your twin is tall, you are more likely to be tall. If your twin is a bad student, you are more likely to be a bad student. If your twin develops Alzheimer’s disease, you are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. Genes matter, for anyone who hasn’t been paying attention for the last century or so.

Plomin now wants you to believe that he can look at your DNA, use some high-school statistics to calculate your “polygenic score,” and thereby “tell [y]our genetic fortune.” This assertion is, at best, naïve and, at worst, deliberately misleading. By far the best chapter in the book, “Gene-hunting” is a history of the repeated failed attempts to find the genes that explain the mind. Even armed with a complete knowledge of every single base-pair in your genome, we cannot (yet) tell you exactly how your body and your mind will behave.”

If Bridget ever gives up neuroscience, I think she’s got a future as a knife thrower. Again, my biases are all over the place here. Like Bridget but not anywhere near as well-informed or phrased, I believe that Plomin and others ignore evidence contrary to their premise of the primacy of genetic heritability. One of the reasons why this matters in my personal history of testing is that those promoting this point of view are often but not always politicized going back to the infamous Bell Curve of Murray and Herrnstein what are the politics? If everything is inherited then why are you bothering to try and change things? Angoff saw this as a danger when he wrote his article in 1988.

Queenan saw the same danger just 3 years ago:

For those with other politics, Blueprint may arm you with the conviction that we can do away with the welfare state, with the anemic trappings of social justice, equal opportunity, public schools, and universal health care, because we are our genes, our outcomes are fixed, and there’s nothing to be done but embrace the natural order of things. However, (Plomin’s) book will have provided you with no substantial evidence to support this conclusion. If anyone at the dinner party knows the first thing about genetics, statistics, neuroscience, human physiology or history, you will be laughed out of the room.”

The only quibble I have with Bridget in this assertion is that she assumes that the people at the dinner party don’t have an agenda that guides their selection and application of genetics, statistics, neuroscience, etc.  Most dinner parties I attend have an agenda as a side dish.

And right now, the views of behavioral geneticists are more assertive than ever. Contrast, Razib Khan’s take with Bridget’s:

“Twin, adoption and DNA-level studies on millions of individuals consistently demonstrate that just about all human traits, from height to intelligence and personality, owe at least some, often much, of their variation among individuals to genetic influences – not to be confused with genetic determination”

Science doesn’t stop just because there is a dispute about how things work. If anything, that disagreement proves an accelerant to very forceful research findings. That’s nt to say there are not more neutral observers and research agendas interested in the phenomena such as Paul Thompson’s has done “We have a major funded effort to determine how our genes affect brain structure, function and fiber connectivity. Genetic brain maps, in particular, can show whether we inherit patterns of brain structure from our parents, and if so, to what degree. We especially want to understand which parts of the brain are most strongly determined by our genes.” Thompson’s study also found that genetic factors played a big role in brain speed and that smart people literally do think faster. Obviously, this level of neuroscience raises issues for assessment and education but does so in a less direct manner.

A more pointed course of behavioral genetics is associated with Paige Harden, one of the more celebrated figure on the ‘genes rule’ side. Harden noted in this paper: “Genome-wide association studies (GWASs) have identified specific genetic variants associated with complex human traits and behaviors, such as educational attainment, mental disorders, and personality. However, small effect sizes for individual variants, uncertainty regarding the biological function of discovered genotypes, and potential “outside the-skin” environmental mechanisms leave a translational gulf between GWAS results and scientific understanding that will improve human health and well-being. We propose a set of social, behavioral, and brain-science research activities that map discovered genotypes to neural, developmental, and social mechanisms and call this research program phenotypic annotation. Phenotypic annotation involves (a) elaborating the nomological network surrounding discovered genotypes, (b) shifting focus from individual genes to whole genomes, and (c) testing how discovered genotypes affect life-span development”

And Harden along with co-author Belsky deserves credit for taking a more cautious approach to what can be said are the influences of genes on our lives acknowledging that “Despite the accelerating pace of GWAS discovery, heritabilities of human traits and behaviors largely remain black boxes.” ”Black boxes: as OED states “A device which performs intricate functions but whose internal mechanism may not readily be inspected or understood.” The use of this ‘black box’ term must be deemed essential given that so many explainers of not just genetics but also of learning speak and write as if we knew what was going on in these domains when what we mostly can specify with any certainty are simply the inputs and outputs. How the ‘sausage’ of our lives is made still remains partly a mystery.

Such compunction eludes many people who deserve respect for other endeavors. For example…

In reviewing Freddie’s book Cult of the Smart, , Scott Siskind of Astral Codex fame went further:

DeBoer reviews the literature from behavioral genetics, including twin studies, adoption studies, and genome-wide association studies. All show that  differences in intelligence and many other traits are mostly due to genes, not shared environment. This requires an asterisk – we can only say for sure that the contribution of environment is less than that of genes in our current society; some other society with more (or less, or different) environmental variation might be a different story. But at least here and now, most outcomes depend more on genes than on educational quality. Schools can’t turn dull people into bright ones, or ensure every child ends up knowing exactly the same amount. But that means some children will always fail to meet “the standards”; in fact, this might even be true by definition if we set the standards according to some algorithm where if every child always passed they would be too low.”

Freddie posed clear caveats about some of these statements referenced from his book before and after its publication that he “was not an expert in genetic science”, but the directionality of Siskind’s conclusion is consistent with what deBoer argued in his writing. This contrasts with Harden’s sentiments as described in a New Yorker profile this last year. “Polygenic scores remain poor predictors of individual outcomes—there are plenty of people on the low end of the spectrum for educational attainment who go on to graduate studies, and plenty of people on the high end who never secure a high-school diploma.” But… Harden still believes that “If people are born with different genes, if the genetic Powerball lands on a different polygenic combination, then they differ not just in their height but also in their wealth.” And the difference in intelligence — conveyed in her mind principally by genes — is a booster rocket to attaining that wealth.

I know too much to say I know certainly which of these conclusions is correct. My suspicion is that the behavioral geneticists go too far, which is why tomorrow I want to bring Cecilia Heyes into the conversation.

1 thought on “My Blue Genes

  1. Marianne Talbot

    I followed the link to Vox ( ) and was especially struck by chart number 4: a comparison of IQ scores for a group of 90-year olds, compared to their scores on the same test taken at age 11 (quite the longitudinal study). Whilst I don’t quite disagree with the overall analysis that IQ seems pretty stable over the individuals’ lifetimes, there are some quite crazy-looking outliers. What about the person who scored in the sixties at 11, but only at about 20 at 90? That is a huge difference – what could possibly explain such a difference? And equally worth investigating would be the person who scored in the teens at 11, but in the forties at 90 – again, how could such a big leap be explained? What were the educational and life experiences of these individuals? Did they take assessments along the way that could have predicted such changes in their IQ? I haven’t yet looked for the source research but will do – it might be a fascinating read. Thanks for all this food for thought, T.J., it is much appreciated. By the way, I note that Angoff calls this discussion of nature-nurture a ‘dispute’ despite the title of his paper referring to a ‘debate’. I don’t think we’ll be solving this one any time soon.

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