Mary Wakefield

Why there’s no such thing as an Etonian

Thanks to our natures, nurture affects each of us very differently

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

Finally, just in the last few years I’d say, we’ve all begun to accept the role of nature in the great nature/nurture debate. Though we’ve squirmed and baulked, we mostly now do accept that genes inform (to a greater or lesser extent) not just our height and eye-colour, but our personalities: our intelligence, our disposition. We’re more like our parents than we are like strangers — and what, after all, was so very controversial about that?

So now we’re at peace with our genes, here’s another mental challenge, a curious discovery by geneticists that’s even more at odds with our intuition. This one concerns what we’ve come to think of as the friendlier of the two forces that form us: nurture, the environment, the part we imagine we can control so as to make a better world.

It comes to us, this finding, via Professor Robert Plomin, who has spent a lifetime figuring out what makes us who we are. Plomin’s an American, with no hidden agenda and no political axe to grind either. He’s director of Teds, the Twins Early Development Study, which has looked at more than 15,000 families over 20 years.

What Plomin says — and this is a rough and slipshod summary — is that the environment does play a large part in making us who we are, from conception to the grave. But it doesn’t affect us in quite the way we’ve always assumed. We all imagine that if children are brought up in the same environment, by the same people, it will make them more similar. We take for granted that a family forms each child in its own image. But as it turns out, in study after study, sharing an environment — a family, a school or a socio-economic group — does not make children more alike. Any similarities between siblings are almost entirely the result of their shared genes. Though they grow up together, play together, share parents, grandparents and friends, they would be as alike or not alike in most measurable personality traits had they been separated at birth. Put another way, an adopted child ends up in adulthood in many ways no more like his or her adoptive parents than they are like a random person on the street.

It’s not that the world doesn’t affect kids; that all those interminable hours spent playing catch and reading stories are wasted. It’s just that the effect on each child’s phenotype (his observable character) is different, which is to say unpredictable. For all our certainties about where and how children thrive, we mostly just don’t know.


It’s a difficult, this, for any mother or father — especially in the West. We obsess over parenting styles, nannies, teachers — most of us quite sure that our intuitions amount to universal truths. We select schools, painstakingly, for the sorts of boys and girls they’re reputed to turn out — but if a school affects each child differently, then there’s no such thing as an Etonian or a Harrovian; no great institutional shared effect. So how then can we ensure our darlings get ahead?

It’s tempting then to just say: nonsense! There are things one just knows that no scientist can gainsay. But as one who’s tried, I have to tell you, the evidence is hard to hide from. To start with, it’s tricky to argue with Plomin. Professor P is the undisputed heavyweight champion in the world of behavioural genetics and I’ve found in the past that any opposition from his peers evaporates at the mere mention of his name. ‘Oh, Plomin? Well if Plomin says so….’ He first raised the troubling matter of ‘non-shared environmental effect’ back in 1987. Nearly three decades later, his basic finding still stands.

And then don’t we all know, deep down, that what he says is true? As adults it pleases us to imagine we have terrific control over a child’s development; that we mould our children like potters shaping clay. But look at it from the perspective of the child you once were, recall how singular your experiences were, and how specific to you.

My brother and I had a nanny who, for half a decade, had total control over our world. She was chosen by our mother, who imagined her sunny nature would shine down on both of us alike. It did not. She disliked girls. So this shared environment had a very non-shared environmental effect. But then that’s true of almost every adult in a child’s life. It pleases most parents to imagine they treat their children equally, but the reality is at odds with their spin. Siblings in Plomin’s studies report very different treatment by their parents, and independent observers side with the kids.

If you’ve been a sibling, surely you remember? There’s really no such thing as an experience with a shared effect. Mealtimes around a table, that celebrated unifying force, were in truth nothing of the kind. If you hated brussels sprouts because you’d been forced to eat them at school, your sister probably gobbled them up. If you liked rice pudding, odds are she didn’t. Perhaps she radiated prodigal helpfulness during the washing up, while you glowered in disgrace.

The easiest way to understand the significance of this effect is to think of any pairs of identical twins you know or have known. Despite their similar appearances, they’re very different, aren’t they? They have different personalities, hobbies and friends. But they’re genetically identical, so all of the differences between them have been created by nurture, not nature. They’ve shared more of their lives than most siblings, yet environment has, mostly, pulled them apart.

I can quite see this is frightening. It implies a terrible lack of control. We know that nurture has this ‘non-shared’ effect, but why and how? It’s disorientating. How best then to teach, to legislate? But there’s something miraculous about it too, about our separate trajectories.

Identical twins have different fingerprints, though their DNA is the same, because as they turn and reach out in the womb, the amniotic fluid swirls differently around their fingers, creating different whorls and ridges. It’s such an unpredictable process that even with twins there’s no chance of the same exact pattern forming twice. From conception onwards, in zillions of chaotic ways, the environment shapes us differently, uniquely. That we can’t track or predict the nature of nurture seems to me an oddly wonderful thing.

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Show comments
  • Cymrugel

    Yes Mary but the fact remains that if you have an in-group who all went to the same school, university and basically who form a close association they will promote their interests as a group.

    They are after all really quite similar people.

    A person brought up in poverty, going to bad comp and a local college, however bright they were would be at a disadvantage and unlikely to share their outlook or be accepted by them.

    Hard to take seriously an article written by someone who illustrates it with an anecdote about her “nanny”.

    What century are we living in again??

    • there are big problems with mary’s article but I don’t know if this is it. I think you are objecting to the fact that some people have better starts to life than others. That might be a resaonable objection, but what do you do with it? The labour party tends to posture while covertly ensuring their own children attend the good schools, shrugging their shoulders at the hypocrisy “but what would you have us do.”

      • Cymrugel

        I actually do not have any problem with people having inherited wealth. As far as I am concerned good luck to them, just so long as they do not try to skew things to suit themselves,. For example I am fine with private (pubic?) schools, but not with them getting charitable status. This seems like a con to me. Rich people do not need tips and bungs.
        I am also fine with well heeled people who have real skills and a good education. But I have come across far too many hooray henrys who have scraped by with a pass degree from Oxbridge who are in high positions simply by virtue of going through what effectively amounts to a rite of passage to the ruling class ; private school, Oxbridge and on to glory.
        We need a real meritocracy – I have no brief for hypocritical politicians and am not a labour voter. This is just common sense it seems to me, as I think we are haemorrhaging talent at a rate of knots as bright young people see themselves on a hiding to nothing if they are not from the right background and head to the states, Canada or Australia.
        We are currently entrenching the privileges of an hereditary elite and stopping progress.
        In terms of this article it seems almost comical to me that someone can illustrate points about social conditioning in 21st century Britain with an anecdote about their nanny.
        Anywhere but Britain people would laugh their heads off and she would not write such disengaged elitist tosh.

        • things we agree on:
          1. this is a poor article
          2. meritocracy is good
          3. labour isn’t the answer

          i don’t have all the answers – i’m not bothered by charitable status for posh schools, i think the “class obsession” in britain is just as much caused by (ex public school) guardianistas who want to fight class battles with their former chums. the people who send their kids to those schools are big contributors to gov coffers after all.

          i think that the grammar school system is probably the best way to open things up again, but no party actually wants grammar schools – perhaps michael gove would have got there but gosh the fight would have been bloody.

          i also think that london is pretty dynamic these days, there are posh and oxbridge movers and shakers but you won’t get far in the city, in tech, in arts, if all you’ve got is connections. immigration has on this score been beneficial to the uk (technically i’m an immigrant, i also have a nanny…..)

          • Graham Cresswell

            Quite right. The loss of the grammar schools has been the most important factor in the near-elimination of social mobility in UK. The left’s obsession with equality of outcome (preferably impoverishing, to maintain its core vote), rather than equality of opportunity, is central. Why the Conservatives (particularly under Thatcher) have not reversed this, is beyond me. I’m sure that “restore social mobility” would be a vote-winning offer in almost every social class.

          • Graham, according to charles moore’s biography of maggie t, even the tories didn’t like the grammar schools because tory parents didn’t like it if their child missed out on a place, and so were condemned to the ‘bog standard comp’. Ironically this was partly as a result of the social mobility meaning that there were less places for middle class kids. So under the tripartite system the majority of children in the UK were being educated in schools that were stigmatised as being inferior (secondary moderns).

          • Cymrugel

            I think there is a difference between having a class obsession and wanting a level playing field,.

            Rich people have a big advantage and can buy better services, whether its housing, transport education or whatever. Lucky them.

            But when it comes to the taxation or benefits system they should get no perks. Too often the wealthy complain loudly about the benefits system while quietly pocketing what amount to subsidies for their lifestyle choices.

            This is hypocritical and unacceptable.

            It was only revealed a few years ago that the Oxbridge colleges get and additional £3000 per student from the government. No-one knew about this. It can be argued that they deserve it as centres of excellence, but then why be so quiet about it?

            As the principal of Hull University said at the time; give his college the same subsidy and within 5 years you would hardly recognise the place.

            I agree with you about schools. The one size fits all approach is a nonsense, but I am not sure going back to 50s style teaching is the answer.

            I like London,. but its dynamism is largely the result of the UK government effectively piling everything up in one place and giving it privileged status. It could hardly fail.

            Meanwhile the other cities of the UK which should be powerhouses in their own right are left to flounder – and sometimes actively undermined by policies designed to benefit London at the active expense of other locations. This Londoncentrism seems particularly silly in such a small country. It might be excusable in a vast continental landmass like the USA, but we live on a potty little island.

            There is no need for everything to happen exclusively in London.

            It might make London a vibrant place to live but its a disaster for the UK as a whole.

            I’m not suggesting that Oxbridge types get it all their own way, but the fact is that they are ludicrously overrepresented at all level in our society.

            As far as immigrants are concerned – immigration of well qualified people is always good, but we are also losing our brightest and best who cannot see a future for themselves here.

            It’s very high risk to rely on immigrants to replace your home grown high fliers in any great numbers. Some will settle and become part of the place, but others will pack up and leave the minute they get a better deal elsewhere. They have no real stake in the country or any loyalty to it.

            There is also the question of social attitudes,. I have had personal experience of immigrant workers who are very well qualified but who have social attitudes that the UK left behind half a century ago, ranging from racism to sexism and all sort of other reactionary attitudes, which they seen no reason to change. We do not want to be fighting battles for emancipation again and again.

            On a moral level the UK belongs to its people and to those who choose to move here, give it their loyalty and build a life here, not to any tom dick or harry who arrives to fill his boots before moving onto pastures new (that’s not a dig by the way).

            I simply think our country is going badly wrong and its going to end in big trouble if thiings aren’t addressed soon.

      • Cymrugel

        No. I am objecting to the idea that this is just a fact of life that we must accept. I agree that many labourites are hypocrites over this issue. I believe that the opportunities for poor children were far better 40 years ago when I was a child ; free milk, free school meals that were actually nutritionally balanced; grants to go to university , etc. The current state of affairs is not only basically unjust but is astonishingly short sighted in terms of the future needs of this country.

    • Mr Grumpy

      Hard to take seriously a comment by someone who thinks someone else is disqualified from holding opinions by having had the wrong kind of upbringing.

      • Cymrugel

        Not at all. It just strikes me as slightly funny top be talking about how background doesn’t matter and illustrating it with a tale about dear old nanny.

        • Mr Grumpy

          Not such a dear old nanny by the sound of it, and the whole point of mentioning her is that being brought up by a nanny doesn’t affect kids in any consistent way.

          • Fergus Pickering

            Well of course it doesn’t. Some fathers rape their children but most don’t.

    • Tim Hall

      The 21st. Which means your class-war crap has long since passed its sell-by date.

      • Cymrugel

        Tell that to the queue outside the food bank where I live

        • Fergus Pickering

          Where did they go to school, then? Spongers.

          • Cymrugel

            piss off

    • grammarschoolman

      I know plenty of kids with nannies. It’s just that this year they’re generally called au pairs.

      • Cymrugel

        ooyah!

    • balance_and_reason

      Thats just her point Curmygen….as a poor, low level person you are unlikely to be intelligent because you have bad genes….there’s no ‘however bright’ about it.

      • Cymrugel

        Both my parents were very poor – bad diet etc. All of us their children have higher than average intelligence and have done reasonably well in life. This was due to the availability of opportunities to succeed that are now being denied to the present generation of children.

    • Mike E

      You are obviously just an ideologue, ignoring science when it doesn’t fit into your narrative. Socialists will never accept that biology decides most of the human nature; they have their own quasi-science, where biology is ignored
      when necessary. Stalin had Lysenko and so on. It’s stupid even to try to enlighten you as your opinion is based on belief, and not science.

      • Cymrugel

        Don’t talk nonsense.
        We are declining because the UK has allowed the future of the country to become the private preserve of an interest group. We will be left behind by more meritocratic nations who do not have your delusions.

  • Mary you seem to be arguing that nurture is not a major predictor of personality because in fact each person’s experience is so particular? But surely an intentional parent can also make much of each person’s experience common – for better or worse? The mum who hugs each of her children each day, the dad who listens to each child and shows them he cares? I’m not sure Plomin’s study is able to comment on that is it?

  • Mr Grumpy

    I’m not sure you’re right about identical twins. I know a pair of identical brothers who are indeed unmistakeably different but I’ve tended to put that down to the relative happiness of their marriages. On the other hand I was recently in a cafe where two sixtyish identical sisters were having tea and I really could not have told them apart. Same hairstyle, exactly the same clothes and handbags. Only my eagle-eyed wife spotted that they had different colour earrings.

  • Richard

    The problem is that there are massive racial differences in intelligence, which are well-documented. That is the major cause of the Left trying to trash genetics as a science.

  • kidmugsy

    The trouble with nature/nurture studies is that it’s only the “nature” bit that’s scientific i.e. to do with your genes. What’s attributed to “nurture” is just everything left over after you’ve accounted for “nature”. In other words, we have no idea what “nurture” really consists of. It could virtually all be blind chance for all we know. Our ignorance is unfathomable. No wonder people rely on guesswork, intuition and prejudice. “Social Science” has provided us with very little firm ground to stand on.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    “It’s hard to be humble when you’re an Etonian.”
    It’s hard to be humble when you’re an arrogant know-it-all ignoramus that lacks even the slightest vestige of self-doubt.

  • 3x4_34

    There are such things as Etonians but where are they? If one looks at Britain’s people on a television screen and on a daily basis over these past many years, all one sees are the lower middle class and a lot of foreigners. Everyone looks pretty horrible, tarty and stubbled, with money to burn on trash and holidays. I would say the in-group is the white Dee’s group – there are millions upon millions of them with too much power for their own good.. So what’s to worry about the relatively few public school chaps, a good many of which, speak horrible English as well.

  • god

    What is familia is not the same as genetic; refer to the master of the dna model of the dna inherited condition called Huntington decease if you are having difficulty grasping the err in Plomin assumption that he was determining a dna effect for what is an environment. The womb is an environment as is the school and Eton varies considerably to the local comprehensive school and the beneficiaries of that charity know that. To suggest that the charitable Eton model is not significant to the outcome of their students compared in relative terms to the student who attend the local comprehensive school is to defy logic and the reasoning required to design a research study that can be used to offer the nature and nurture academic debate any new research. Tautological variables that are unreliable do not add to the debate and the rationalization of the chosen class of parents to continue to use the charitable model of selection for their own social networked financial interests and advancement to post secondary positions of their own children who are not competing or earning based on merit but who are paying for charity while offering the poor a .08 access passing all the costs on to the middle class income tax law. Often these test tutored 20% advantaged children do not have even a basic grasp of their own subject and applied math to assure that the variables they use in their measurement of their field of study meet a reliable study to define what they saying they have concluded from their bad study. Using what is in fact an environmental variable and suggesting that it is not and using it to measure what they assume it to be is why so much tautological conclusions of bad research design get spun in the press for the ideological inclined who do not look for truth but look for justification as to why their chosen children are entitled to continue to rule and define academic subjects of nonsense. A school test score is indicative of preparation from the environment to the information, not dna. Genes are not deterministic to standardized school entrance test scores as a child with the genes to have saved the world economy from the mess it is in, did not get the test tutored education so did not improve the quality of the research from our academics who appear to be all to familia to not have pointed out social bias is predicable and probability theory will demonstrate that the charitable school model is causal to a lack of intelligence in the applied model of the nature and nurture debate which has not advanced at all even though the knowledge regarding real dna has. So why are those peer reviewed academic journals not evaluating the quality of the variable used and calling it for what they know it to be ENVIRONMENTAL and not scientifically a measurement of dna. And while biology too is what we are all made of, how our biology individually acquired from our parents combined dna does interact with our first womb environment to determine our finger print or lack of finger print, our dna does not determine the school we go to our environment which is social determines that access or lack of access.

  • Sean L

    The only point of the usage “nurture” in this context is alliteration. Otherwise it’s a misleading term for what we ordinarily call “life” or “biography”, the course of a person’s life. I think it was Matt Ridley who coined the neat phrase Nature via Nurture, at least that’s the title of his book arguing that it’s a false dichotomy. But again it’s not actually “nurture” that’s meant, which presupposes a nurturing agent, a *nurturer*; it’s just a snappy phrase, interchangeable in this context with a very different in meaning term, “environment” which refers to what we ordinarly term “other people” or “the world” or again, “life”. If it weren’t for the accident of alliteration it would never be used with this connotation, and it isn’t outside this context. In everyday life *nurture* is typically what you do with plants or relationships, being more or less synonymous with *cultivate*.

  • Sean L

    There’s a kind of categorical confusion here. Of course there’s such a thing as an Etonian, which is no more or less a question of personal characteristics than being a Briton, say. For one thing it’s a matter of shared identity. And if we’ve shared such an environment, with all that implies in terms of duration, particularly in those formative years that loom larger with the passage of time than any other time of one’s life, then that’s bound to leave its mark, not least in the form of knowledge, the sheer data acquired. You’d never say there’s no such thing as a Briton. Yet how much more narrowly defined is an Etonian, in intellect, language, social and economic background etc?

    • Terry Field

      Oh dear, so much wool you could knit a sweater. Find the pills and do take them, or Nursie will become annoyed and it will be spankies time.

      • Sean L

        Ok allow me to summarise. It makes no more sense to interpret cultural phemonena in terms of genes than to define your wit in terms of the neurochemistry that generated it. No account of your physiology, however exhaustive, will offer a clue to what your wit or sarcasm *is* or *means*. That doesn’t mean your wit has any other source, anymore than Eton, considered biologically or zoologically, originates anywhere other than the physiology and genes of the humans who created it and are constitutive of it. But what Eton *is* or what it *means* to be an Etonian is not reducible to any fact of natural science. That doesn’t mean Eton or Etonians don’t exist, any more or less than you or your witticism. Just that they belong to different categories of facts about the world. Thus to explain the one in terms of the other is a categorical confusion or category error. Now please excuse me, nurse is back on the ward . . .

  • Terry Field

    Nature triumphing over nurture requires acceptance, amongst other things, of the differential race intelligence data until now information-non-grata.
    The recent observations about rapid evolution of character and behavioural differences between Caucasians and Africans is interesting. They help explain the condition of Africa and the condition of Europe and North America. The studies on investment cost / intelligence yield according to initial intellectual potential is also something that may transform public policy to educational funding of particular groups and individuals. Indeed it should. And quickly.
    We stand naked, not Etonians, not anything other than rooted in our ethnic origins and the policy implications are truly profound.I have only my fig-leaf on. It is a Brown Turkey (NOT a White Turkey).
    Not just a nail, but a full nail-gun of nails is now driven into the rotting coffin of the immoral and sadistic left and its race-lies.

    • Sean L

      The genetic data comparing different groups is *statistical*. It doesn’t in itself explain anything. One cannot disentangle cause and effect in these questions. For example it’s been argued that Africa’s relatively slow economic development is attributable to the fact that the horse, which was critical to agricultural development elsewhere, couldn’t survive there. Otherwise comparative statistics relating to racial intelligence are *political* in nature. And of course being *statistical* bear no relation to the *subject* or *person*, that’s to say life as it’s lived, which must be personal. You could just as validly claim that blacks run faster than whites. But it’s patently untrue since any number of whites can run faster than most blacks, and vice versa. The differential is at the extremes and thus purely statistical. Ditto intelligence. In itself, the stat explains nothing: its function rather is to validate a political judgement. Which isn’t to say the stats qua stats aren’t true. But they are true *statistically*. In themselves, that’s to say in isolation from facts of geography and history, their explanatory value is nugatory. There use lies purely in their political value, which is questionable at best.

      • Terry Field

        There is more wooly thinking in your response than in a jumper. Plainly you are unaware of latest information. Go away and become familiar then think (!) then, if you have anything to say, comment,
        All of your above note is full of nothing except socio-political prejudice, wrapped up in strange language where the word ‘statstics’ is repeatedly used, but quite senselessly.
        You have written nonsense. Nothing more, nothing less.
        Just nonsense.

        • Sean L

          Sure.

          • Terry Field

            I am so pleased that you enthusiastically agree, Sean? Sean – A celtic name; that sub group, from its geographical positioning on the European continent, could be described as relatively unsuccessful, would you not say?

    • Sean L

      “Nature triumphing over nurture” what does that even mean? I’m sorry that’s pure gibberish . . .

  • Mike E

    What Mary Wakefield writes about is well-established science. Like it or
    not, that doesn’t change the fact. However, fact has never been a left wing
    favourite!

  • Wayne Elliott

    I think Ms. Wakefield’s thesis has been pretty much discounted by the depressing thesis of Herrnstein:
    1. Heritability of intelligence will increase as the environment becomes more favorable towards its development.

    2. Herrnstein believes that once social and legal barriers are removed, social mobility will be determined (and pretty much stopped) by biological determinants, thus defeating the explicit aims of “all modern political credos.”

    3. The increase of social wealth (another aim of all current political philosophies, according to Herrnstein) will widen the gap between the upper classes and the lower classes since the upper class will tend to draw those from the lower class with more native endowment.

    4. Technological dislocation of labor is going to create a chronically unemployed, technologically unemployable group of workers who do not have the minimum I.Q. to get new jobs in an increasingly complex society.

    5. Since those with the high I.Q.’s in society will tend to mate, the other factors beside I.Q. which influence success will also gain a higher heritability.

    In summary, smart people tend to marry other smart people which further distorts the gene pool – other than the occasional genius who marries the gorgeous air head. When one see the sums of money spent on pushing the bell curve it is further depressing.

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