Approx Reading Time-11What do our genes say about us, and are we slaves to our predetermined genetic makeup? Which has the bigger effect; nature or nurture?


A glance across the recent exploits of the Western hemisphere can make you throw your hands up in the air, questioning the intelligence of the supposed evolutionarily advanced human race. From Trump, to Brexit, to climate denial, it’s got me thinking: are we stupid or something? And is it our fault?

Never has the world had as much access to the amount of information we have access to. Yet the future historic moments of 2016 have shown us that in the face of solid evidence and facts, people behave against truth grounded in scientific research and expert opinions. Is our education system broken? Are parents not raising their children to make informed decisions? What if the problem isn’t a lack of education but grounded in our very genes?

Which has the bigger effect; nature or nurture?

If we are slaves to our predetermined genetic makeup then should we even bother trying to educate everybody? Recently, The Australian and SBS both published figures stating that genetic determinism is responsible for 75 percent of success in maths, reading and spelling in an individual, and only five percent of performance can be attributed to effective teachers and pedagogies. Why then should we not focus the resources and funding allocated to education to where we know it’ll be effectively spent?

Make the smart kids smarter and not waste time or energy on the rest?

We often see the role of our genes, what nature has supplied us, as that which arguably determines the things about ourselves that we are born with to which we cannot control; our height, temperament, ethnicity, sex or health. Alternatively is it our environment, or how we are nurtured, that can change fundamentally how we act and evolve who we are as a person?

Also on The Big Smoke

Studies have shown that our genes have an effect on areas of our lives that are unexpected and surprising. For example, did you know that there is a biological theory that has found that criminality has a heredity basis? In 1993 Adrian Raine published an article called The Psychopathology of Crime: Criminal Behaviour as a Clinical Disorder, which looked at the intergenerational transmission of criminal behaviour in the children of criminals. The findings stated that the average concordance rates in genetically identical twins were 52 percent compared to fraternally genetic twins, which was 21 percent. In a separate study, Kevin Beaver found that adopted children with a criminal lineage are also more likely to become involved in criminal activities than adopted children with non-criminal biological parents. No “crime gene” has been discovered as of yet, but there seems to be a correlation.

Even a person’s sense of mental well-being has been linked to a genetic predisposition. David Lykken and Auke Tellegen in a 1996 study suggested that up to 80 percent of a long-term sense of well-being is heredity. Again in a study of twins, 40 percent of the variability in positive emotionality, 55 percent variability in negative emotionality and a 48 percent variability in overall wellbeing is linked to a genetic predisposition.

The Olympics are also just around the corner. Let’s look at how genetics can predetermine success in the physical arena. If you think that all people are created equal, take some time and read David Epstein’s book The Sports Gene. Epstein recounts examples of humans who are innately superior in the athletic field with naturally occurring genetic mutations, which allow people with minimal training to dominate their chosen sport, become world champions and win multiple Olympic medals. Or the evolutionary advantage that Kenyan and Ethiopian runners have because of their physical appearance. The Kalenjin tribe in Kenya, where the majority of the best runners in the country come from, have the most advantageous physical proportions of being shorter with longer legs on average than other people. This genetic ratio means that on average Kalenjins are physically 450 grams lighter, which equates to eight percent less energy consumed per kilometre by the runner.

A study found adopted children with criminal lineage more likely to become involved in criminal activities than adopted children with non-criminal biological parents. No “crime gene” has been discovered, but there seems to be a correlation.

In all my studies into psychology, criminology and education, there is always a fact that the experts remind us of when considering genetics. Genetics can be thought of more as an indication of capacity than anything else. The one thing that separates us from animals is our ability to rationalise and justify. If we looked at the facts based on the most successful athletes from around the world we may not even bother to try, but Australia is known as one of the most successful countries in the world in the sporting realm. We consistently leave our global mark in the athletic domain. We don’t just lock people up because their parents are criminals. We constantly look for ways to better our well-being through mindfulness, meditation and learned optimism.

Intelligence is nothing different. Neural plasticity is one of the greatest areas of neural science being studied at the moment. Todd Sampson’s Redesign My Brain series demonstrated just how easy it is to improve for cognitive capabilities. Every person has the capacity to learn and succeed in education. In many situations, the only limitations we have are the ones we place upon ourselves. On average, with each new generation, IQ scores have been significantly increasing since the 1930s. At many times I look at the world around and despair when people do things in the face of facts and intelligence, and regularly I find it hard to understand. But then I am inspired by the human race that we don’t let ourselves be held down by our limitations. We don’t have wings. So we flew to the moon. We don’t have gills. So we dove to the deepest depths of the ocean. Microscopic germs killing us. Medicine.

When looking at the spectrum of intelligence, there are many aspects to consider like socioeconomics, gender and ethnicity. These seem like they can be linked to genetics, and problems stem from many hereditary factors. Given the opportunity and resources though, it is surprising how much success an individual can achieve. Are we limiting our kids by projecting our own insecurities onto them? Are we giving them opportunities to learn from their failures, or sheltering them from learning experiences by being “helicopter parents”?

Do we stop trying because it’s just too hard?

As Mr Miyagi says: “There are no bad students, only bad teachers.”



Share via