The genetic advantage of the (other) 1 percenters

The genetic advantage of the (other) 1 percenters
By Anjana Ahuja September 14, 2016 6:29 pm

The science suggests that we are not born blank slates, however much we wish it were otherwise

Society has various names for them: the 1 per cent, the outliers, the geniuses, the super-smart and the gifted and talented. They are the kids who impressively outperform their peers in school tests.

Several “talent-spotting” university programmes in the US have been tracking where high-achieving teenagers end up — and the results challenge the fashionable notion that greatness comes merely through dedication and practice. Instead of the evidence showing that those who succeed are made not born, it suggests the upper tiers of society are stuffed with achievers who were born then made. This points to success as the result of hard work built on a nugget of early cognitive advantage.

One of the longest-running longitudinal studies of clever children is the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, initially based at Johns Hopkins University. The 45-year old study, now based at Vanderbilt University, has unearthed about 5,000 individuals who showed an early talent for numerical reasoning and/or verbal reasoning.

Johns Hopkins also opened a talent programme to young adolescents who scored in the top 1 per cent in university math and English: its alumni, Nature reports, include mathematician Terence Tao (who reportedly started studying Boolean algebra aged seven), tech stars Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Sergey Brin of Google and the musician Lady Gaga.

But this illustrious roll call might simply represent outliers among outliers. How can we gauge more generally whether childhood aptitude is a guide to success? That is the question that Jonathan Wai, a psychologist in the Talent Identification Program at Duke University, set out to answer. He looked at five subsets of the US elite: Fortune 500 chief executives, federal judges, billionaires and members of the Senate and House of Representatives. He discovered that in each group those in the top 1 per cent of ability, ranked by school test scores, were over-represented. Some might have been advantaged by attending leading schools or by tiger parents. Still, Mr Wai argues that environment alone cannot account for the statistics on success; that is why he suggests that experts are “born, then made”.

Which brings us to a controversial question: if high achievers begin their ascent in the cradle, what role do genes play? Robert Plomin, a professor of genetics at King’s College London, has cross-correlated exam scores with individuals’ “polygenic scores”. In July, he revealed that these scores — obtained by looking at 20,000 genes — could account for 10 per cent of the variation in academic attainment at 16. High polygenic scores were associated with top grades (As and Bs) and a strong chance of continued education; students with low scores attained Bs and Cs and were less likely to stay on at school.

That study, described by Prof Plomin as a “tipping point” in thinking about how genes affect learning, was largely ignored by policymakers, who constantly argue that we should future-proof our economies by encouraging the best and brightest intellects to flourish. The dilemma for politicians, and society, is this: the science suggests that we are not born blank slates and, however much we wish it were otherwise, giftedness and talent do not seem to be equally apportioned.

That is not to throw up our hands and suggest that only the genetically blessed deserve to succeed. Those small academic differences rooted in our genes — a missed grade, say, which leads to a low-paid job instead of college and thus an exit from education — too often become the forks in the road that lead to different outcomes in life. It is not in the gift of educators and politicians to change our genes, but it is in their power, through providing education and opportunity, to build more roads to success for the 99 per cent.

The writer is a science commentator

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016.


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