I am a little bit late out of the starting blocks, but last week’s (August 5) entire issue of The New York Times Magazine was devoted to a single article, “Losing Earth: The decade we almost stopped climate change. A tragedy in two acts,” by Nathaniel Rich, with remarkable (and depressing) aerial photographs by George Steinmetz. If you read nothing else, read the Epilogue, which about sums up what a botch we made of the solution during the years 1979-1989. And, by all means, look at the photographs and read the captions.
But recently, a consortium of nearly 100 authors has discovered over 1200 genetic variants that apparently are associated with “educational attainment,” measured as number of years in school. I have read the article, and I confess that much of it may as well have been written in Greek. I have, however, managed to glean a few facts from the article, as well as a Times article by Carl Zimmer and an unsigned article submitted by the University of Colorado.
In particular, the consortium genotyped approximately 1.1 million people and isolated 1271 variants that correlated significantly with number of years of education. The subjects were exclusively white people of European descent; this restriction was necessary to obtain a relatively homogeneous sample. The genes that were isolated are mostly related in some way to the development of the brain or to communication between neurons (see the Abstract and Figure 3 of the Nature Genetics paper).
Using an aggregation of many tiny genetic weights, the authors calculated a polygenic score for individuals. A person with a high polygenic score probably achieves a higher educational attainment than a person with a low polygenic score. A subset of the authors are at pains to point out (FAQ 3.4) that the polygenic score predicts only about 11 % of the variation in educational attainment, and it should not be used to predict the educational attainment of an individual. After all, they say, in the white European population, 89 % of the variation in educational attainment is the result of other factors. Unless I misunderstand, though, some of that variation is very probably due to genes yet undiscovered, in which case the 11 % figure will probably rise (Robert Plomin, a distinguished psychologist and geneticist now at King’s College, London, estimates that half of the variation of intelligence is heritable, but nowhere near all the relevant genes have been discovered. Intelligence is not the same as educational attainment, but, analogously, nowhere near all the relevant genes have been discovered. The present study, incidentally, also predicted 7-10 % of the variance in cognitive ability).
Research into intelligence and particularly into the heritability of intelligence is so controversial, particularly among my fellow leftists, that the day after Mr. Zimmer’s article appeared, the Times ran an article with the forthright title Why progressives should embrace the genetics of education, by Kathryn Paige Harden, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. Professor Harden’s article raises the specter of eugenics and notes that such “thinking is not safely in the past,” and she is certainly right that we have to be on our toes. Nevertheless, she claims that we should ask, “How can the power of the genomic revolution be harnessed to create a more equal society?” and provides 2 responses:
(1) Genetic studies such as the Nature Genetics paper will demonstrate that success is largely a matter of luck, and they will show “that everyone should share in our national prosperity, regardless of which genetic variants he or she happens to inherit.” As My Wife and Harshest Critic might say, “Should is a bad word.” A modern eugenicist, I am afraid, will draw precisely the opposite conclusion. The modern eugenicist will also ignore the flat statement in FAQ 3.5, “that polygenic scores of individuals from different ancestry groups cannot be meaningfully compared [italics in original].”
Studies of the heritability of educational attainment, intelligence, or “success” can be extremely dangerous.
(2) If we know from the polygenic score how much of a person’s educational attainment is due to genetics, then we will know how much is due to other factors, and we can concentrate on them. I think that is a much sounder argument than (1).
I am afraid that Professor Harden may be whistling past the graveyard when she continues,
Talking about including genetics as a variable in statistical models doesn’t have the same dark allure as eugenic proposals to screen embryos or assign children to schools based on their genotypes,
and I hope she is right when she adds,
But the widespread use of polygenic scoring in research aiming to understand how environments shape children’s lives will yield big payoffs for knowing how to maximize a child’s potential. We can’t change someone’s genes, but we can try to change how she grows up.
At any rate, the cat is out of the bag and the genie is out of the bottle. We can no longer argue about whether to do such research, but we certainly need to discuss what to do about it and avoid the temptation to use it to ill effect.
Acknowledgments. Jonathan Kane first alerted me to the Nature Genetics article. Emily Willoughby, one of the co-authors of the article and a sometime PT contributor, commented astutely on this post.
Photograph by Mark Sturtevant.
Photography contest, Runner-up.
Mr. Sturtevant’s splendid picture of 2 damselflies dining is the runner-up in the photography contest, with 12 votes. He will be awarded an autographed copy of Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails) by Matt Young and Paul Strode (Mr. Rice declined that book and was awarded another). Honorable Mentions will be displayed without comment every 2 weeks.
Yesterday, August 1, was the anniversary of the birthday of Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet. Who? Perhaps a relative of the artist Monet? No, someone better-known by his title, the Chevalier de Lamarck. Lamarck was, as far as I can tell, the first major evolutionary biologist. He not only argued that life had evolved, but he put forward a proposed mechanism that would explain why living things became well-adapted. It involved two forces: a proposed inherent complexifying force, and the effects of use and disuse of organs. That would lead to adaptation, if these changes were passed on to the next generation by inheritance of acquired characters. That kind of inheritance was assumed by everyone to exist – Lamarck did not invent it – but we now know better.
If he had lived, Lamarck would now be the ripe old age of 274. Lamarck and Lamarckism have good Wikipedia pages, so I will not try to explain his thought further here. But below the fold, a few additional comments on his work:
After nearly 600 days in office, the Trump administration has appointed a director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy: Kelvin Droegemeier, vice president for research at the University of Oklahoma and a former vice-chair of the governing board of the National Science Foundation. According to my confidential sources, the American Institute of Physics and Science magazine, Dr. Droegemeier, who has also been a science advisor to the governor of Oklahoma and to Representative Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma, is a very solid choice.
Dr. Droegemeier is a meteorologist whose research focused on supercomputers and atmospheric modeling, primarily of thunderstorms. He founded 2 NSF centers while at the University of Oklahoma.
John Holdren, a former director of OSTP, told Science, “He has experience speaking science to power.” Dr. Holdren also told Science, perhaps with some understatement, that Dr. Droegemeier has “a big challenge ahead of him. … I look forward to seeing what he’s able to accomplish in a very challenging circumstance.” Indeed, the optimists among us can only hope with Rick Anthes of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research that he may be at least “a small voice of reason.”