No genes for literacy

A report on new research

The idea that poverty is passed down from generation to generation in our genes is the last refuge of scoundrels. For a conservative elite, it is clearly convenient to claim that welfare and education spending make no difference because poor people are intrinsically feckless. It also allows them to imagine their own wealth and status is part of the natural order.

No wonder, then, that Michael Gove and his adviser Dominic Cummings began courting the genetic determinists. They favoured the ‘behavioural genetics’ of Robert Plomin, whose questionable methods ‘demonstrated’ that school success was mainly genetic. Cummings even envisaged identifying the most gifted 1 in 10,000 and training them to rule the world! (see Bad Science, Worse Politics

This goes back a long way. Herrnstein and Murray’s book The Bell Curve was a prop to racism and anti-welfare politics. They famously argued that “the tendency to be unemployed may run in the genes of a family about as certainly as bad teeth do now.” (A contradictory argument, surely: being too poor to pay the dentist matters as well.) To improve the national gene pool, they recommended deterring poor people from having children by making them go hungry and homeless. Murray described the poorest 10 percent as “white trash… sitting at home in their undershirts drinking, and they really didn’t care anyway.”

Some behavioural geneticists argue that reading ability is inherited. They have even identified which genes, but a new study by John Jerrim and colleagues demolishes their argument (British Educational Research Journal Feb 2015).

Jerrim’s team have matched these “literacy genes” – supposedly two for reading success and one mainly responsible for reading disorders – with a large population born in 1991-92. They set out to investigate any possible genetic reason why children from more advantaged families tend to score higher on reading tests.

Firstly, they discovered a limited relationship between these three genes and reading scores. More importantly, there was hardly any evidence that the genes were distributed according to socioeconomic status, as measured by parental occupation. In fact, possession of genes that supposedly put a child at risk of good or poor reading appears to be random. The conclusion: “these genetic factors can account for just 2-3% of the socio-economic achievement gap.”

This doesn’t prove that scientists can never find genes for academic ability, but they are proving extremely elusive. Astronomical amounts of money have been spent hunting the snark.

In fact, one of the most illuminating discoveries from genetics research is that genes do not directly transmit particular characteristics and types of behaviour: they need to combine and interact in complex ways, and are switched on and off and dramatically modified in their actions by environmental factors.


Suggested reading:

A more detailed critique of theories of genetically transmitted intelligence can be found in “The zombie theory of innate IQ”, Education for Liberation, April 2014 (copy do download at

Clyde Chitty’s book Eugenics, race and intelligence in education shows the damage done by such theories. See also a book review by Danny Dorling for the potential impact on education

and Steven Rose writing in the TES


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