“Substantial” Genetic Influence on Choice of A-Levels

Your genes play a key role in deciding whether you decide to take A-levels and which subjects you decide to take them in:

We have previously shown that individual differences in educational achievement are highly heritable throughout compulsory education. After completing compulsory education at age 16, students in England can choose to continue to study for two years (A-levels) in preparation for applying to university and they can freely choose which subjects to study. Here, for the first time, we show that choosing to do A-levels and the choice of subjects show substantial genetic influence, as does performance after two years studying the chosen subjects. Using a UK-representative sample of 6584 twin pairs, heritability estimates were 44% for choosing to do A-levels and 52–80% for choice of subject. Achievement after two years was also highly heritable (35–76%). The findings that DNA differences substantially affect differences in appetites as well as aptitudes suggest a genetic way of thinking about education in which individuals actively create their own educational experiences in part based on their genetic propensities.

This result would surprise and probably alarm many Germans, but they won't hear about it. One of the problems with the insular clique of German mainstream journalists is the blinders they wear. The majority studied sociology, German literature, comparative literature, political theory, history, philosophy, or some other liberal-arts subject. There, they learned plenty about Kant and Mann, but nothing about economics, the military, or hard science.

I think this explains why German journalism on these areas is often terrible. Conditioned by their highly moralized culture and the ideological slant of liberal-arts education, they immediately seek out the underlying moral 'lesson' to be drawn from nuclear research, or the Higgs boson, or gene therapy, etc. They may spend a few paragraphs actually explaining what is going on from a scientific perspective (often getting key things wrong), but before they're even done with that, they start reciting their tired old platitudes (this is what mankind gets for trying to play God, nature's way is always the best, human dignity is the prime directive, etc.) and canned Lessons of History™.

And that goes triple for genetics. If they did learn anything about genetics in their seminars, it was usually accompanied by stern, moralizing lectures about how the Nazis used genetic pseudo-science to justify genocide. The result is a nearly-unshakable belief in the discredited 'blank slate' theory of human variation (i.e., that it's all caused by nurture, not nature). Anyone who points to the ever-growing mountain of evidence that genes play a crucially important role in human personality, achievement, and behavior is automatically assumed to be a crypto-eugenicist until proven otherwise.

I don't have a solution to this problem, but I suppose scholarships and training programs for aspiring science journalists might be something to think about.

7 thoughts on ““Substantial” Genetic Influence on Choice of A-Levels

  1. Of course, one could also turn it around and say that most leading economists spent too much time reading Hayek and Friedman during their university years, while failing to see reality outside their dorms… Or that biology students should have read a bit more Locke, Wollstonecroft or Adorno/Horkheimer. And I don’t know to which university you’ve been, but “the military” is not part of any curriculum, it’s not as if law, business or biology students have much to do with that either (I guess political scientists and historians actually know more about this than the IT nerds). What you’re doing here is perpetuating the childish undergraduate playground debates of MINTies vs. humanities/the arts – which is generally regarded as silly already by second year students at uni, not to even mention people outside academia. I know that this binary thinking is gaining ground among conservative thinkers these days, but it’s not leading anywhere. And the notion that “mainstream journalists” are all coming from the humanities is absurd. Some of the leading feature writers (like Dietmar Dath or Constanze Kurz) came from other subjects.

    As for the genes, it’s just a historical fact that continental Europeans made terrible experience from a purely functional, la science pour la science approach to science: the experiments on humans during the Nazi years, the absolute fetish of technology and the subordination of humans to science in the Soviet Union/Eastern Bloc. In totalitarian systems, science didn’t take into account the human factor. That’s why there’s a healthy scepticism regarding these things. Put simply, the ideas of Gobineau or Spencer eventually led to the Holocaust and the archipelago Gulag. On the other hand, Anglo-Saxon countries never had that totalitarian experience and therefore have a somwhat more ‘innocent’ relationship with these things. Now, I’m not a Luddite. But in the end, you always need both sides. Innovations in technology have to be flanked with moral debates about the outcomes as well – remember that Einstein quote about the nuclear bomb?


  2. Indeed, it is one of the great questions of today why supposedly educated people are so ignorant about this topic. The results have been coming in at increasing speed since the 1970s; in 1995, Judith Rich Harris wrote a popular book about the topic (which was translated into German, but didn’t make much of a splash); and anyone who goes looking for these results can easily find them online these days.

    It is one of the great questions because this is a topic that supposedly almost everyone cares about: Why do people – including *your* children – turn out the way they do? This is what differentiates behavioural genetics from quantum mechanics and many other topics one might name. And that is why I don’t think Doctor Benway’s point above about “undergraduate playground debates of MINTies vs. humanities/the arts” applies.

    I guess you’re making a good point regarding journalists. On top of that, I would think that many non-journalists have been socialized into thinking that genetic explanations of human behaviour imply that Auschwitz was fine; hence, they can’t be right.

    Steven Pinker gives roughly this explanation while focusing on the English-speaking world, so I’m not sure this is a specifically German problem.


  3. Gene-environment interactions exert an influence on phenotypic intelligence, and depending on the social environment, differences in phenotypic intelligence influence other behaviours (or not). So what’s the news? (By the way, the notoriously silly indication of percentage points should instantly alarm consumers of such science news).

    The more interesting issue is how measured intelligence and the abilty to deal with complex and abstract tasks has vastly increased over 100 years, while the gene pool has not changed much, cf. Flynn effect.


  4. The percentages are specifically identified as estimates, and are common in this area. You are aware of Nature’s reputation, I presume?

    As for genetic influence on phenotypic intelligence, you presumably accept this as an obvious, proven fact, and probably also accept the estimates that identify intelligence as 50-80% heritable. But I guarantee you absolutely that you will find tens of thousands of German journalists who are either not aware of these facts or hotly dispute them. I have met dozens of educated Germans who would call you, Museumswächter, a racist and eugenicist for merely stating that intelligence exists, is a meaningful concept, can be measured, and is influenced by genes. All of these assertions are still controversial in Germany, and not just among cranks. The briefest web search proves this.

    It’s the old 180-degree switcheroo when it comes to proof of something that conflicts with someone’s worldview. First, it’s “that’s outrageous and completely false”. Then, after the evidence becomes irrefutable, the instant transformation to “So what? That’s old news. Everybody has always recognized that. Yawn.”


  5. Also, the Flynn effect is almost certainly explained by better nutrition, access to higher education, the need to adapt to more abstract environments, etc. Most of that low-hanging fruit has now been picked, and evidence suggests the effect is slowing down, meaning that individual and group differences in intelligence are increasingly reflecting genetic, not phenotypic factors.


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