Writing about the link between genes and educational attainment can be dangerous, as the psychologist Arthur Jensen discovered. After publishing a paper in the Harvard Education Review in 1969 entitled ‘How much can we boost IQ and scholastic achievement?’ he was compared to Hitler and, for a time, had to be accompanied to work by bodyguards. Last year, the political scientist Charles Murray, who addressed this subject in The Bell Curve, was attacked by a group of student protestors at Middlebury College and a female colleague who tried to protect him ended up in hospital.
Jensen and Murray both strayed on to the live rail of black-white IQ differences, but even those who steer well clear of that can get into difficulty. At the beginning of the year, I was accused of being a ‘Nazi’ after an article I’d written for an Australian magazine in 2015 about the deepening link between IQ and socio-economic status was dug up. My sin was to include a solution to this problem that I labelled ‘progressive eugenics’. It was a million miles away from what is commonly understood by ‘eugenics’, but few people bothered to read the piece. The fact that I’d used the E word was enough to damn me. ‘With his views on eugenics, why does Toby Young still have a job in education?’ thundered Polly Toynbee in the Guardian. A few weeks later I didn’t.
So kudos to the science journalist Philip Ball for daring to venture into this territory. He’s written a long piece in the New Statesman entitled ‘The IQ trap: how the new genetics could transform education’ that, among other things, talks about the rapid progress that has been made in the last 12 months in identifying the genetic markers linked with intelligence via genome-wide association studies (GWAS). These studies, often involving hundreds of thousands of people, aim to identify loci throughout the genome associated with an observed trait, such as the number of years spent in full-time education. This is an exciting development since, until recently, behavioural scientists had to rely on family studies, twin studies and adoption studies to demonstrate that differences in general cognitive ability are linked to genetic differences. Soon they will be able to point to actual genetic variants (tens of thousands of them) that explain more than 10 per cent of the variance in IQ – expected to rise to 30 per cent as the datasets get larger. These findings make it nigh on impossible for anyone to claim that intelligence differences are all to do with nurture and nothing to do with nature. Blank slate fundamentalists are beginning to look more and more like flat-earthers. (To read more, click here.)