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Christian Gertenbach

Note: If you are reading this, please also kindly take the time to go read my piece in rabble.ca that puts this in a larger – and more disturbing – context. It turns out that the blogger that I write about here was recommending white supremacist websites. I am further concerned that he is slated to speak at a conference in Toronto in November. 

 

Why Educators have Nothing to Learn from Behavioral Genetics

There’s really no point in reading this unless you’re frustrated – or fascinated – with David Didau’s recent takes on behavioral genetics. Seriously.

David Didau’s speculation about what behavioral genetics might mean for school has, and don’t excuse his gendered stereotype, “excited quite a bit of handbag clutching” because “it’s not popular to go about attributing children’s success or failure to who they are rather than what they experience.” And who are children? In What Causes Behavior?, he tells us that “the mountains of evidence that have piled up in favour of genetic causes for behaviour as opposed to environmental ones is solemnly impressive.” Thus, “it seems as if schools and teaching may matter a lot less than we would like to believe.”

While I’m against singling out schools as failing society because we also need broader sets of social and economic policies to address inequality, I’m really against white dudes minimizing the role that schools can play in our lives because they’ve been reading up on behavioral genetics.

Several years ago, I had sworn off reading Didau as the reasonable objections that many people were making about the lack of scientific evidence behind learning styles blossomed into a full-fledged scientism, the kind of hegemony that privileges scientific discourse as the most prestigious and true. I also grew tired of the predominantly dude/bro genre that would reveal how ‘everything you know about education is wrong’ or the ‘secret of literacy’ (both titles of books by Didau).1I am troubled that the ResearchED movement might spread to Canada

But last night in my twitter feed, someone was fascinated by one of his articles, and for some reason I clicked. The scientism has only flourished. Didau tells us that, “If you dismiss the scientific method then there are no grounds for your beliefs to be questioned…..This seems awfully familiar when surveying the landscape of education debate. On the one hand there are those who are interested in discussing and debating evidence and how children think and learn, and what might be the most practically effective ways of running school systems, and on the other hand are those who believe in the primacy of feelings and intuition.”

Never mind that there is no one thing called ‘the scientific method’. I once heard someone ask, what method do paleontologists and astrophysicist share? Didau doubles down on the harmful gendered stereotypes with his opposition of cool and logical scientific reason as the foundation for all debate with ‘feelings and intuition’. His earlier efforts to examine his gender bias have not paid off.

While I’m not going to dwell on the more general damage done to education by scientism and heavily gender-biased approaches to discourse here, they form an important context for Didau’s central claims:

“Contrary to much popular wishing thinking, shared environmental effects like parenting have (almost) no effect on adult’s behaviour, characteristics, values or beliefs. The reason we are like our parents and siblings is because we share their genes.”2Didau adds the caveat: “Extreme neglect or abuse before the age of 5 will likely cause permanent developmental damage as will hitting someone in the head with a hammer at any age.

And that in the context of schools, Didau argues that:

“an individual’s behaviour will be, for the most part, unaffected by this experience [school culture] when outside the school environment. It also suggests that attempts to teach character in the belief that such lessons will endure into adulthood are likely to be a waste of time.”

Didau draws on the field of behavioral genetics, especially the book The Nurture Assumption by Judith Rich Harris. As a field, behavioral genetics relies on twin studies to estimate the heritability for traits, indicating “the extent to which the differences in the appearance of the trait across several people can be ‘accounted for’ by differences in their genes”.3As David S. Moore, The Dependent Gene p.39 Apparently, GSCE scores are 58% heritable, according to a summary table Didau provides. The original article states, “The significance of these findings is that individual differences in educational achievement at the end of compulsory education are not primarily an index of the quality of teachers or schools: much more of the variance of GCSE scores can be attributed to genetics than to school or family environment. “4”They are not studies in experimental genetics; rather, they are measures of technical heritability.”

But heritability estimates are not what they seem. As Ned Block puts it, “Some years ago when only women wore earrings, the heritability of having an earring was high because differences in whether a person had an earring were ‘due’ to a genetic (chromosomal) difference. Now that earrings are less gender-specific, the heritability of having an earring has no doubt decreased.” This example comes from Block’s (1996) scathing critique of The Bell Curve, which made racist claims about intelligence.

So, the ‘shared’ environment that Didau asserts has almost “no effect” on adults would be the environment that identical twins plausibly share when they grow up: they eat the same breakfast, they are treated the same by their parents and teachers (you can see where this breaks down already). Yes, the ‘shared environment’ can’t explain the variation in traits within a population, but that does not mean that it doesn’t play a crucial role in the causal story about how traits develop in the individual: nutrition and parental care matter for development.5Moreover, twin studies themselves have come under heavy criticism.

Didau runs into confusion when he mistakes the behavioral geneticist’s statistical claim that shared environments do not account for much variation in populations with the developmental biologist’s causal story about how environments and genes work in concert rather than isolation. While at some points Didau gives a more accurate and nuanced picture, his overarching claim that the debate has been settled “in favour of genetic causes for behaviour as opposed to environmental ones” reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of developmental biology.6Heritability is not a fixed value and does not apply to individuals. It is not an attempt to sum up the percentage to which we can attribute the effects of your genes on your behaviour, rather it is a probabilistic statement about the chances that genes and environments contribute to the differences between one person to another within a population. Do Schools Matter Less than we think …We also don’t really know what difference epigenetics might make. The environment interacts with our genes in all sorts of subtle and profound ways.

As Evelyn Fox Keller explains the current state of knowledge about development,

“Not only is it a mistake to think of development in terms of separable causes, but it is also a mistake to think of the development of traits as a product of causal elements interacting with one another. Indeed, the notion of interaction presupposes the existence of entities that are at least ideally separable—i.e., it presupposes an a priori space between component entities—and this is precisely what the character of developmental dynamics precludes. Everything we know about the processes of inheritance and development teaches us that the entanglement of developmental processes is not only immensely intricate, but it is there from the start.”

 

The Dream of Perfect Heritability

 

Didau spins a “counter-intuitive truth” for us: “as access to education becomes more equitable, children experience less and less environmental differences. In a truly equitable system, all of the differences between children would be due to heritability.”

In a case where all differences are due to heritability, it signals the sameness of environments, not that environments are equitable. If I give every plant the exact same amount of sun, water, and nutrients – or every child whole-class instruction, on the same novel, with the same exam question – then by definition, environmental variation cannot account for any variation in outcomes.

Does perfect heritability mean that all differences are genetic? Absolutely not. If the sameness in environment constituted a discriminatory system, then yes, differences in outcomes would be heritable but not genetic. All children could have access to the same zero-tolerance behavior policies and curriculum. However, since those behavior policies target Black and Brown children, and the white and gender-biased curriculum provide students of color with no representations of people like them succeeding, we will get variation in our educational outcomes. This would produce something like the heritable – but not genetic – patterns of inequality that we do in fact see. Evelyn Fox Keller explains how this works in relation to heritability claims about IQ:

“For example, skin color (like sex) is genetically transmitted, but there is no reason to believe that either is biologically linked to IQ. The measurement of high heritability might simply reflect the fact that skin color (like sex) provokes certain expectations that are themselves transmitted from generation to generation—not biologically, but culturally, or environmentally. It has been shown that such social expectations can have dramatic effects on performance (i.e., on measures of IQ). So IQ might be passed on from generation to generation, but here the mechanism of transmission is mediated not by causal factors that (like genetic or more generally biological factors) are internally transmitted from parent to child, but rather by causal factors (cultural biases) that are socially handed down through the generations. In other words, we cannot predict the technical heritability of a trait even when it is known to be genetic, and we cannot predict whether a trait is genetic even when it has been shown to have high heritability.”

 

I’m not even sure why heritability estimates would matter to educators. As David S. Moore, a professor of psychology, puts it in his book The Dependent Gene, heritability “estimates continue to be of use to both farmers and Nazis (or, eugenicists, more broadly)”, and so “the rest of us can – and should – ignore these numbers completely and still rest assured that we are not overlooking any useful information”.7220 Now, I take Didau at his word when he says he’s not into eugenics and it would be absurd to confuse him with the people marching for white supremacy, so please don’t comment about how you think that’s what I am saying. But that doesn’t mean that focusing on behavioral genetics and heritability doesn’t play a part in a larger ideology, regardless of what we intend.

Focusing on heritability keeps with the broader scientism as a way of avoiding the messy social sciences. And because science pretends to speak from a neutral and objective standpoint, why would we need to hear from Black feminists or any other groups that would challenge the way power and privilege operate not only in society, but inside the ideals of science itself?

Ultimately, statistical data about standardized subjects replaces the need for conversations about culturally relevant pedagogy. And rather than construct tables of heritability scores, we need to construct images that help us understand what Gloria Ladson-Billings calls the education debt we owe to those who have been oppressed:

“The images should remind us that the cumulative effect of poor education, poor housing, poor health care, and poor government services create a bifurcated society that leaves more than its children behind. The images should compel us to deploy our knowledge, skills, and expertise to alleviate the suffering of the least of these.”

 

Note: If you are reading this, please also kindly take the time to go read my piece in rabble.ca that puts this in a larger – and more disturbing – context. It turns out that the blogger that I write about here was recommending white supremacist websites. I am further concerned that he is slated to speak at a conference in Toronto in November. 

 

References   [ + ]

1. I am troubled that the ResearchED movement might spread to Canada
2. Didau adds the caveat: “Extreme neglect or abuse before the age of 5 will likely cause permanent developmental damage as will hitting someone in the head with a hammer at any age.
3. As David S. Moore, The Dependent Gene p.39
4. ”They are not studies in experimental genetics; rather, they are measures of technical heritability.”
5. Moreover, twin studies themselves have come under heavy criticism.
6. Heritability is not a fixed value and does not apply to individuals. It is not an attempt to sum up the percentage to which we can attribute the effects of your genes on your behaviour, rather it is a probabilistic statement about the chances that genes and environments contribute to the differences between one person to another within a population. Do Schools Matter Less than we think …We also don’t really know what difference epigenetics might make. The environment interacts with our genes in all sorts of subtle and profound ways.
7. 220
I footnotes