Is Being Good at Science a Genetic Trait?

A recent study indicates that success in certain subjects may be a matter of nature, not just nurture.

A high school freshman walking into her first day of algebra class is no blank slate. As a baby, she may have gotten good exposure to the right stimuli to help her learn to count as a 2-year-old. She might have done well enough in grade school to give herself the mathematical building blocks for algebra. But a new study indicates that more of her academic success may reside in her genes than previously thought—and not just those that affect intelligence.

“Evidence shows that genetic influences on differences in children’s educational achievement are substantial,” says Eva Krapohl, a doctorate student in psychology and neuroscience at King’s College London and the lead author on the paper. But others in the field disagree with the authors’ conclusions and believe that a child’s environment and teachers are the factors that make or break her long-term success.

In the study, published in a September issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers looked at the performance of over 6,000 sets of twins on the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), a standardized test taken by 16-year-old students in the United Kingdom. The question the researchers wanted to answer was: How much of a role do genetic traits play on students’ achievement? They administered a survey to the twins, 35 percent of whom were identical twins with the same DNA. The rest of the twins were fraternal with 50 percent genetic similarity, some same-sex twins and others twins of the opposite sex. The researchers assumed these twins had been raised together with similar upbringings and schooling.

Previous studies have shown that innate intelligence plays a big role, but the researchers wanted to address the influence of other genetically influenced traits, such as personality, health, and behavior problems. They found that intelligence played the largest role, but the other eight categories of factors were important, too—in fact, much more important than previously anticipated. “The main finding is that, although intelligence accounts for more of the heritability of GCSE [test scores] than any other single domain, the other domains collectively account for about as much GCSE heritability as intelligence,” the study authors write.

But Judy Johnson, an educational psychologist based near Los Angeles, thinks that the authors’ conclusions are overstated. Most people in the field of educational psychology subscribe to the theory of multiple intelligences, which can be inherited, Johnson admits. However, she adds, “In terms of achievement, attachment theory has much more to do with a student’s engagement with teachers, school, and cognition.” Through studies that have looked at students in school and beyond, researchers have found that those children that form bonds to some sort of caregiver are more successful in their academics, behavior and careers.

“I think it’s a stretch to say these elements are genetically heritable,” Johnson said of the study. “I would have broken down the term ‘intelligence’—what do the authors mean by that, and what were their markers for that?” For this study the researchers used the Raven’s Progressive Matrices and Vocabulary test, a standardized measure for IQ, to represent intelligence. They categorized other intelligences, like emotional and social intelligence, as the other factors that could influence academic performance.

When it comes to learning about science and math, people with certain types of intelligence, such as Logical-Mathematical and Visual-Spatial, have more natural aptitude. “For students that are not ‘gifted’ or naturally strong in these cognitive styles, good teachers know how to use strategies to capitalize on the other areas if intelligence” to teach these topics, Johnson said.

But even the study authors admit that genetics aren’t everything when it comes to education. “Heritability describes what is; it does not predict what could be,” Krapohl said. Students are naturally inclined to seek out the types of experiences and education that works the best with their genetic propensities, Krapohl said, which is “known in genetics as genotype–environment correlation.” This implies that, should students be presented with information in a variety of ways, they would be naturally drawn to the presentation style that makes the most sense to them.

The study authors suggest that their conclusions support the idea of personalized learning, “which has become more practical with rapid advances in technology and educational software, rather than a one-size-fits-all traditional education,” Kaili Rimfeld, a doctorate student in psychiatry and psychology at King’s College London and another of the study’s authors, wrote in an email. Personalized learning is a flexibly structured teaching method that can take place in a regular school setting or at home, often using computer software. The advantage of personalized learning is that students can learn concepts in the way that makes the most sense to them without frustrating themselves by trying to learn in a way that feels more foreign.

While Johnson and the study authors agree that not every student has the same needs, they disagree on how best to address those needs. Johnson agrees that many students have different styles of learning, but she believes that making changes in teaching styles to help students learn best is something that “teachers do anyway.” Teaching individual students in a way that draws on only one kind of intelligence can sometimes limit their exposure to other people and perspectives, Johnson said, which are key to developing social intelligence and accepting others—skills needed all aspects of life.

The study authors next plan to dig deeper into each of the heritable categories and see how more specific traits, such as optimism, verbal abilities, or students’ internalization of external issues, are affected by genetics. In a longer-term study, the researchers would also hope to better establish how much genetics explicitly influence these traits and to demonstrate a more causal relationship rather than simply a correlation.

But Johnson notes a need to add a more education-based perspective to the researchers’ analyses. “It looks like this study is coming from a medical model and the authors need to include people in the educational arena, like educational psychologists, to understand what those results translate into,” Johnson said. How many of these traits like intelligence play out in the real world, she added, is much more complicated than the traits themselves.