individual genetics, group environments

Suppose we take a group of children and decide to have a jumping competition. We are going to see how high they can jump and, to continue the analogy, we are going to make the stakes in this jumping competition incredibly high, enough to largely determine their future job and wage. We also decide, thanks to prejudice, to disadvantage some of the children in this jumping competition. We fit them with weight belts to make jumping harder. We likewise advantage another group by giving them special springy shoes that make it easier to jump high. With different groups thus given an advantage, disadvantage, or neither, we are now set to hold our jumping competition.

As would be expected, we find that as a class those with the weight belts perform below average and those with springy shoes perform better than average. However, we do find that some children buck the expectations. Some students who wear weight belts are so gifted at jumping that they are among the highest jumpers. Likewise some students are so lacking in natural jumping ability that they don’t jump very high despite wearing the springy shoes. For these students, their genetic gifts heavily influence their outcomes, even though the difference from the average for their group is environmental. This is what I mean when I say that individual outcomes can be genetically influenced even while group outcomes are the product of the environment.

The analogy is obvious, of course. These advantages and disadvantages are the race and class disadvantages faced by students of color and poor students. In our academic system we observe group differences between students of different races and economic classes, but we also are aware of systemic inequalities in the environment of the children in those classes. The average performance of students in these groups is thus a product of those environmental factors, while the performance of any individual is a product of a mix of their environment and their genetic gifts.

So a few points here. Again, both group environmental differences and individual genetic differences can live side by side, and this is the contention of my book, which argues that racial (and other) achievement gaps are the product of systemic racism etc but also that individual students are profoundly influenced by their genetic parentage. There are poor Black students who get into every Ivy League school in the country and there are rich white kids who flunk out of high school. These exceptions don’t negate the trends, but they do demonstrate the importance of natural ability.

Now: some will ask, what about training the students to jump? What’s the influence of a good trainer? I would never say that a jumping trainer, or a teacher, has no influence. There is certainly some part of the variance in jumping/education that is attributable to training. But genetic influence matters for explosive athleticism and for academic ability1, and yet we have essentially no consideration for this fact in our public educational discourse. And my book argues in part that we have vastly overstated the influence of teaching on student academic outcomes when compared to genetics, largely because we have no policy mechanism to address genetic differences. (We are, once again, searching for our keys not where we dropped them but where the light is.)

Another important point to make is this: when the systematic environmental differences are removed, the influence of genetics will increase. Precisely because I don’t believe in a genetic explanation for the racial and class achievement gaps, I believe that once the environment is equalized, the racial and class achievement gaps will close. (That is, when we eliminate the influence of white supremacy, we will eliminate the achievement gap.) But once we equalize the environment, which is currently suppressing the performance of Black and poor students, the influence of genetics on individual student will be heightened, as the dampening effects of environment will have been removed. So now we’ll see a racially representative academic landscape where Black students attend Harvard at numbers equal to their proportion of the country, to pick one dynamic, but where the gap between a gifted Black student and a Black student without academic gifts will only loom larger.

Many people would see that world – where the races are represented proportionally in our various educational metrics like SAT scores and graduation rates – as one where educational justice has been achieved. And given the success pipeline in this country it’s likely we’d see improved representation of Black and Latinx people as surgeons, judges, politicians, etc. Some would declare victory. But the question is, what about that other category of student being left behind, the untalented students? Their struggles would be less stark than the racial achievement gap as they would look like all different kinds of people. But they do, and would, suffer terribly in our system. What about their interests? Why is there no national movement to help them? Why are there hundreds of dissertations about the black-white achievement gap but not the gap between the talented and the not? Where are the think tank white papers written in their defense?

When I was pitching my book I referred to it as my “prayer for the untalented.” And it’s exactly that perspective that I’m trying to force into the national educational conversation, the influence of natural talent and our moral duty to minimize the damage done to those who lack it. They are the poorest served by our system, and it’s time we began to speak out in their favor.

  1. Note that in both cases the genetic influence is profoundly polygenic and we have no meaningful ability to associate specific genes with a given increase in performance – meaning there’s no worries about designer babies beyond those that we’re already having due to assortative mating