Sunday 8 December 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

I have written here before about what I have come to call “genetic determinism”. This is the theory that seeks to explain human beings’ socioeconomic success in life through their genetic inheritance. Or the opposite: failure to do well because of their DNA. In my opinion this analysis is reductive and narrow-minded. Recently I thought of it again on the back of an article and a speech.

To the speech first. Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, was in hot water a few days ago once again for claiming that the reason some people struggled in life was because of their low IQs. We will not even go into the IQ test that Mr Johnson failed publicly on a radio phone-in less than a week later after his speech. Suffice to say that the person who runs one of the most important cities in the world does not know the price of a one-way ticket between Angel and London Bridge. Scrape the surface of his address, though, and you will find Boris’s comments very dangerous, which is usually the case with the “blond menace”. Behind his bonhomie and (faux) gaiety hides a ruthless and ambitious politician. On picking on minimum-wage workers, Boris replayed a theory espoused by a new current of scientists and specialists. The one that aims to convince policy-makers, educators and politicians that genes contribute significantly to a person’s academic achievement and later success in life. Moreover, supporters of this proposition suggest creating special classes of schools for gifted and talented children.

What will determine his future: nature or nurture?
This leads me to the article. Under the contentious title We can't ignore the evidence; genes affect social mobility, psychologist Jill Boucher recently rose in defence of the likes of Dominic Cummings, advisor to Secretary of State for Education in the United Kingdom, Michael Gove. Cummings has been a key figure in many of Gove latest school reforms (and U-turns). He is part of the Tory agenda of segregating students between achievers and non-achievers. What struck me about Boucher’s article was that she used her two adopted children as examples of what academic potential – or lack of it thereof – could do to a young person’s future. I confess that when she said how one of her sons “could no more have reached a C grade in GCSE maths than I could jump over a five-bar gate” made me cringe. I hope that neither of them reads her feature.

Both Boris and Jill ignore many factors in a child’s life, especially during her/his early years: they barely mentioned parents or carers and their influence. Environment was brought up by Jill, but as a passing comment, when it is actually one of the most important elements in a child’s education. The role that domestic finances play in a family’s aspirations was conspicuous by its absence.

The danger of brushing aside all these aspects is that we enter an either/or territory. We begin to see our offspring as, either the sporty type, or the arty type, the studious type or the naughty type, instead of seeing their personality as free-flowing, open-ended and adaptable. Another negative consequence is that focusing on genes gives parents (ironically, those responsible for children’s genes) an easy cop-out. The knock-on effect is that schools, then, have to fill up the gap where at-home learning should go.

However, whilst it is hard to find a redeeming feature in Boris Johnson’s speech, Jill Boucher’s article, by contrast, finishes with a very good reflection and one which I would like to share with you today, regardless of whether you decide to click on the link I provided above and which takes you straight to her essay. Jill criticises the language used when politicians talk about social mobility. It is always “up”, she states. And working class people are forever aspiring to become middle-class ones and moving “up” the ladder. I agree with her that the value system we currently have in our society places too much emphasis on wealth and social status. Not everyone wants to be a banker, doctor, engineer, teacher or lawyer. Some people are happy being football coaches, youth workers or road-sweepers. They, too, deserve our respect and admiration. Regardless of their genetic make-up.

© 2013

Next Post: “Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana”, to be published on Wednesday 11th December at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. I am afraid that I DO think that one's inherent talents have a lot to do with success in life.

    However, I know of no way in which we can assesss which inherent talents might be useful to any specific person or indeed to society. Therefore it is stupid to base any policy on that. The priority has to be giving every child the chance to do best what they can do. And if they are academic, I think it is totally wrong and cruel to deprive them of gifted classes and academic educations.

    It is glaringly obvious that we cannot predict how society will change, though, so focusing on IQs is mad, we are not preparing to live in the 1950s world of stable jobs, good training, liberalism, etc.

    My wish for today's kids is that they could take opportunities, manage money, work together, do practical stuff - woodwork, cooking, plumbing, childcare - and be brave, persevering, tough and kind. That kind of stuff enables people to cope with most of what life throws at them.

    Not sure what the Borises of this world would do if they suddenly lost their advantage of class and money - fail IQ tests for sure. But my suspicion is that opportunists, self promoters and people who trample over others will remain with us - you can rely on genetics for that!

  2. Oh, by the way, I left out of my list that I would like to see the intelligent kids of today given the chance to develop their thinking skills and mental "muscle". Those are the people who would take the intellectual steps that can bring whole countries forward, not just look after themselves. And it is best if they are taught to think about the pros and cons, learn about precedents and see other points of view, in a way that only rigorous academic education can do.

  3. I literally became nauseous on reading this article of yours, Cuban. My god, did that buffoon really say that? and yet I'm not surprised.

    This is nothing more than the old Aryan master race nonsense. DNA is just a fancier word of it. Disgusting.

    I've always believed that what money someone makes has absolutely nothing to do with whether they're a success at life. Boris, however, will never understand that because he's a typical Tory. Anyone with less money than him is worthless in his eyes.


  4. Jenny, I like your comment. It turns out that we both are singing from the same hymnsheet.

    Whilst I think that nurture has a bigger role to play in a child's development (I was taught from an early age by my parents, especially my dad, that it was OK to be good at sports AND the brainy stuff), coming from a family where members have excelled in particular fields also helps. My two children are very good at art, both visual and performing. They have on my wife's side a singer songwriter musician as a grandmother; a grandfather who used to sing flamenco; two uncles who are brilliant artists in their own right and a third uncle who was a famous singer in the early to mid 80s in the UK. On my side, my dad's a pianist, I am a semi-professional dancer and my mum has co-written songs. You could say, then, that my children have been influenced by this genetic onslaught. However, without the love and care we have provided for more than fifteen years and the opportunities they have had, I don't think they would have flourished the way they have so far.

    Jai, yes, the clown opened his big gob again! And he was shut up even by the leader of his party. And to think that some people would like Boris Johnson to become PM.

    Have a great week ahead! :-)

    Greetings from London.

  5. As a teacher I hate this debate about how certain children will never do well ect, its so outdated and been proven wrong a million times! It is not my experience of working with young people whatever background or IQ they have. To be honest I think this IQ thing is just lazy thinking. Lazy because everyone learns in different ways, and it takes time to work with people to find out what their strengths are. You cannot have one test for everyone that will determine how intelligent people are thats totally unrealistic, if you find out how people learn and what ignites their flame then you can use that flame to tecah them anything! I'm utterly appauled that Jill Boucher would say that about her own child, what a God awful woman!!

  6. I agree with your thoughts And desagree with the thoughts of basing children's education taking into account inhereted talent if there's any. I consider every kid must have the same oportunities.
    war of classes or class division is behind all this movements to change education systems in Spain too.
    I'm really angry about it.
    Greeting Mario. Hugs

  7. I am thankful that I was born and grew up in different times with very different ideas. My childhood was mostly spent in hospital so schooling was virtually non-existent. My family was, shall we say, ordinary. Both parents worked because they had to - war years, you know. I have never taken an exam in scholarly subjects, yet somehow I managed to achieve. To my mind there is far too much put on kids of today and my wish is the same as Jenny's, that they should be allowed to achieve in their own way without the stigma of 'background' to influence them.

  8. I find that kind of attitude extremely limiting. Every person on Earth has talent(s) unique to themselves. Everyone will excel in something, given the appropriate encouragement. And I honestly believe that background and DNA has very little to do with the outcome.
    Perhaps Boris should live in the "real" world for a while. I wonder how he would fare without his wealthy background to carry him through life...:/

  9. What a nut job, some people are really out to lunch and don't eve realize it, which makes them sadder than the crap they try and put off as fact.

  10. Those of us who actually work with children will tell you that a solid family life and opportunities for growth and exploration will contribute a great deal to the child's success. We can't deny that genes will affect our health, our basic looks, even some innate talent. But, without good health care, great schools, supportive families our lives would be miserable.

  11. An interesting post.

    Boris doesn't take account of most IQ tests being written by white, educated men - instantly disadvantaging young people with different cultural values. Nor has he read any neuroscience - there is increasing evidence of the importance of early attachments, stimulation etc - and this has nothing to do with parental 'IQ' (for want of better measurement) and more to do with the quality of their early parenting.

    And I agree totally that constructing social differences as 'up' or 'down' is fundamentally destructive.

    And yes, I want to smack Boris.

  12. The nature/nuture question again. And, I believe that both are hugely important and the nurture question is one that we can (and should) continue to work on. I come from a family where only maths/science skills are valued. As a direct consequence I was in my thirties before I realised that I am not stupid.
    Incidentally, I read a memoir of Boris's family, written by his father. My goodness there are some shall we say 'unusual' elements in it.

  13. Im. Agree with Ygraine all people in hearth
    has talent and w
    Would be excel in something! And I can see in my twins ( a biy and a girl).they are adopted and for me they are a miracle and a mistery:)

  14. the problem is there is one track to success and talents are not nutured or grown in focuses on the skills it will take to join the working class....those that can afford it go to private school where they can be tracked...but that is a small portion of the population....we teach to a test now that controls funding, if they pass the test then all is great...

  15. The "heredity vs. environment" argument probably was a point of contention the first time Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal joined forces to discuss student grades at Bedrock High School. Remember Fred Flintstone?

    My remark is only partly facetious because it seems to be one of those never-ending debates. If success or failure simply comes from genetic determinism, how does one explain the inconsistencies often found within a single family unit? Why did Tom become a successful doctor while his brother, Jerry, never finished college and cannot hold any job? Why is Mary a happily married mother with a career while her sister, Judy, has been divorced three times and had her children taken away from her?

    From my point of view, science might answer these questions some day, but not any day during our lifetimes.

    There also is what I would call the "dumb luck" factor. No matter how good or how bad an individual child's parents, neighborhood and school might be, there is no absolute way to determine if he/she will end up as a saint or a sinner.

    When all is said and done, however, it seems logical to think equal opportunity increases the chance for a successful life.

    Well done, CiL. Your post is thought-provoking and provocative.

  16. Rosaria's comments echoed my own thoughts. There are some worrisome minds in charge of too much.

  17. This is just another re-hash of the old nurture vs. nature argument. Yes, DNA may account for proclivity, but without nurture (i.e proper parenting) and opportunity, natural, possibly superior, ability may never fully develop. I consider that a terrible loss for all of society. People who bray the loudest about how important DNA is tend to be and elitists blue bloods. It's absolutely delightful that that pompous jackass didn't excel on that IQ test.

  18. i would like to add... what would we do in a world with only doctors and bankers and engineers... who would plaster the streets we walk on or repair the bathroom faucet when it's broken....i find it frightening how academic titles are put on the golden stairs... and i def. have more admiration for a shoemaker who's a good craftsman and does a good job than for a banker who's just there because his father had connections with a friend of a friend and somehow they managed to get a degree and get their son this job... ugh... you see... i can get emotional about this...smiles

  19. subjects like this has no true answers and no gudelines to follow.

  20. Amen! Convincing and proper!

    ALOHA to YOU
    from Honolulu
    Comfort Spiral

  21. Agreed - there's more to us than just genes! And, as you say, people in what we might consider to be more humble jobs can still be the happiest people on earth.

  22. Genes don't determine all. Environment doesn't determine it all. I think for any individual it is a combination that determines the person's lot in life. Interesting discussion all around.

  23. Many thanks to you all for your wonderful comments.

    Have a nice rest of the week.

    Greetings from London.

  24. Hi, Thank you for your very interesting article. I agree with Jenny--I tend to think that genetics play a very large role in our make-up and to some degree in our abilities and predilections. That said, I think the span of possibility that each person has (for good and Ill) is huge, even within certain genetic frameworks and very unique and that nurture can play also a tremendous role in what is developed (again for good or ill) and what is strengthened and what is chosen. I also agree that some of the genetics side have a strange sort of cop-out in which they just assume that someone's genetics are "bad" or in which they do not emphasize the strengths and the developmental potential that are always there. In general, in the West, I think there could be a little more emphasis on how each person/child can, through nurture, develop their innate possibilities--maybe some will have to work harder, for others some things may come more easily--(but likely not all--as everyone has their struggles for sure), but there is so little concentrated emphasis on education. All the testing stuff is terrible, but that said, it is also very patronizing to have compromised standards for different groups, and very unfair to them too. Anyway, all interesting. Thanks. k.

  25. Well said! No matter how blessed you might be in your genes, if you don't have a good education and a nurturing environment, you won't flourish. Nature vs. nurture is science and sociology, but it shouldn't be used by politicians to keep the less fortunate down.

  26. Well said Sarah the key is inspiring folks to be the best they can be and find their own path

  27. I think it's broadly true that everyone is better at some stuff and worse at other stuff - but whether that's genetic or environmental or (seems most likely) a mixture is a debate I don't have the facts to really engage in!

    My complaint about the previous Labour govt's policy of "50% to go to university" was that it undermines non-academic learning by labelling it as "worse" than the things you can do degrees in. Or it changes the meaning of a degree, so you can now do a degree in plumbing or tourism or landscaping... but that just means everyone has to pay tuition fees rather than some of the older methods of learning, like apprenticeships (where you would get paid rather than having to pay for the training). So I couldn't agree more with your final point! I'm studying for my PhD, but if I'd prefer to spend the rest of my life baking (I'm still deciding on this one), is that so bad?!

  28. I agree with you, Rachel. Too much emphasis on higher education. What if students want to opt for something else? Does that not count?

    Many thanks to everyone for their comments.

    Greetings from London.

  29. I think David Cameron is one of the 'thickest' politicians around and he had all the advantages of a 'good' education. I don't know what that proves though, is it in the genes? I know he got a first class Oxford degree but he shows no signs of being very intelligent. Like Boris!
    I agree with you that the value system we currently have in our society places too much emphasis on wealth and social status. Humanity should have progressed to higher aspirations by now...the aspiration to make this world a better place for example. Not everyone wants to be a banker, doctor, engineer, teacher or lawyer. Some people are happy being football coaches, youth workers or road-sweepers. They, too, deserve our respect and admiration. Regardless of their genetic make-up.

    Where would we be without the lowest paid? Take them away and society crumbles. Don't get me started...........

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