Somerset Times

Intelligence: Environment Over Genetics

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Somerset Times Edition

Week 5,
Term Four, 2016

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Many research papers (even the new ones) have suggested that academic performance, reading ability and IQ have a genetic basis. Thus reinforcing the particularly popular notion that we are stuck with the intelligence we are born with and its our genes holding us back.

That being said, there also seems to be just as much evidence to show how effective ‘environmental interventions’ can be for educational benefits.

Kenta Arichi and Catherine Gerrard, Academic Captains, with Dr Michael Brohier, Deputy Headmaster

Firstly, we need to delve back into what role our genes actually play to contribute to intelligence. Some genes may alter brain chemistry so that they are better adapted to learn. Others could be behavioural differences, allowing some people to prefer stimulating environments. It is thus likely that the genes of intelligence are not as simple as flicking a switch and instead, acted upon by the environment. Hence, the genetic basis for intelligence is equal parts about one’s nurture and one’s nature. Rather than going through a bunch of research papers, let’s do a bit of a thought experiment. Imagine two groups of children who have different versions of an ‘intelligence gene’, let's call it Gene X. Children with one version of this gene have an obsession and love for the smell of book pages, while the other children cannot stand the smell of new books. Hence, these children would be expected to actively avoid reading books. However, the first group of children will read hours upon hours and more likely to attain better reading scores due to their exposure to more books. So, indirectly, researchers would label this gene for reading ability, when in actuality it was a gene for smell preferences. This preference for a different environment helps reinforce the idea that environment can play the final role in generating the different reading scores.

Clearly, it can be difficult to discern the cause of intelligence when it comes to certain genes creating environmental preferences. With more and more genetic research done by the year, we must not forget some of the issues with prematurely identifying a gene for intelligence (uninfluenced by the environment). Back in the 1960s geneticist Arthur Jensen criticised the Head Start education programme which offered compensatory education to children from disadvantaged backgrounds and particularly bridge the divide between black and white American students’ academic results. Jensen claimed that the programme was futile given the genetic basis of intelligence. From a contemporary context, this is ludicrous and obviously intelligence differences between racial groups have been debunked. Instead, the difference in intelligence can be better explained due to environmental differences (including the prejudice some minority groups face).

Clearly, even to this day, we still have a lot to learn about intelligence in order to create an education system which caters to all and unlocks our full potentials. In the time being, I think what we can all take away from this is to begin to accept and rethink the notion that intelligence is something we are born with. If we can begin to debunk this idea, then maybe people of all backgrounds can begin to actively seek to break their supposed limitations and grow before the conclusive research comes out.

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