Status anxiety

Nature beats nurture nearly every time

We all try to improve our children’s life chances but how they turn out is mostly in their genes

7 November 2015

9:00 AM

7 November 2015

9:00 AM

I’ve been doing some thinking recently about the findings of behavioural geneticists and their implications for education policy. For instance, a study of more than 10,000 twins found that GCSE results are nearly 60 per cent heritable. (This research, by Robert Plomin, was first revealed in The Spectator.) So genetic differences between children account for almost 60 per cent of the variation in their GCSE results, with the environment, such as the schools they go to, accounting for less than 40 per cent. One very obvious implication of this research is that we may need to lower our expectations when it comes to the impact schools can make on the underlying rate of social mobility.

But behavioural geneticists are upending our assumptions in other areas, too. Parenting, for example. Most middle-class parents, me included, believe that how you bring up your children has a major impact on their life chances. That’s why we spend so much energy on -getting them to put down their screens, do their homework, practise the piano, etc. But, as The Spectator also pointed out back in 2013, if you look at some of the biggest determinants of success — IQ, conscientiousness, grit — they are far more heritable than we like to imagine. Our children’s destinies aren’t set in stone from the moment of conception, but the difference that a good parent makes is fairly negligible. The one crumb of comfort I’ve been able to dig up is that the -ability to give and receive love isn’t very -heritable. Perhaps that’s something we can teach our children?

What about art? One disturbing consequence of discovering that many of our personality -differences have a basis in genetics is that plenty of western art — particularly popular arts, like Hollywood -movies and genre fiction — turns out to be a lie. I’m thinking of stories that involve a hero going on a transformative journey and, in the process, changing from a passive, half-alive individual to being master of his own destiny.


But behavioural genetics -teaches us that people rarely switch personality type after a pivotal experience. On the contrary, people seek out those environments that accentuate their genetic predispositions. In real life, those remarkable individuals that seem to cheat fate in some way are in virtually every case genetically exceptional. If they are more wilful than their peers, more imaginative, more energetic, it’s because, to a great extent, that’s the way God made them. They may feel like the authors of their own lives, but that’s just a vainglorious self-deception. Wittgenstein came up with a good metaphor for this particular illusion. He said human beings are like autumn leaves being blown about in the wind, saying: ‘Now I’m going to go this way, now I’m going to go that way…’

As for the great novels of European and American literature, they are almost laughably pointless. As I understand it, the point of a really good novel is to enable you to commune with another soul and, by so doing, enlarge your sympathies and understanding. That’s particularly true of the great social realists like Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo and John Steinbeck. Reading them is supposed to be morally improving — they acquaint us with the suffering of others in a way that’s so moving and powerful it’s impossible to ignore.

Unfortunately, the studies of criminality by behavioural geneticists lead to the conclusion that when it comes to good and evil, our choice is largely pre-ordained. The research evidence produced by twin, adoption and family studies reveals that antisocial behaviour, including criminality, is roughly 50 per cent heritable. More than half of prison inmates have mental disorders and the vast majority of those disorders are also predominantly heritable. Which explains why recidivism rates are so high. It really wouldn’t matter if you played The Grapes of Wrath on the prison PA system 24/7 — most inmates would still reoffend as soon as they got out. According to America’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, 77 per cent of prisoners released in 2005 were arrested for a new crime within five years. Which, come to think of it, renders most religious belief systems pretty pointless too — and needless to say, religiosity is approximately 50 per cent heritable.

We are in the midst of an intellectual revolution in which almost every-thing we believe turns out to be wrong. It’s exciting, but profoundly discomfiting at the same time.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • Kristine Hood

    Referencing three novels, examining no actual statistics or science, and making absolutely no argument whatsoever simply renders this article as useless–isn’t that what you called the novels you referenced?

    And the recidivism argument? Take an intro to sociology class.

    You have failed to convince anyone that you’re doing anything but excusing poor performances by people you think won’t be able to change classes (Oh, no! It wasn’t meant to happen!). You’re the worst kind of conservative writer. A lazy one.

    • Emil Kirkegaard
      • Bibibibibib Blubb

        http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1745-9125.12060/full

        Plomins entire argument is based on a totally flawed idea of genes. It has been proven empirically by eg: epigenetics and under increasing threat in the scientific community. Thats why articles like the above exist.

        The fraud won’t last much longer.

        • MeMow001

          Wow some third rate sociologists don’t like behavioural genetics, colour me surprised. Have you even read the article. It is a lazy mishmash of every tired arguement against heritability written by people with an axe to grind. It offers no understanding of quantitative research and is full of misquotations. It is basically a rehash of nonsense pushed by another unqualified troll Dr Jay Joseph. There are plenty of reasonable arguments against Behavioural Genetics but vague claims about epigenetics and regurgitated attacks on the equal environment assumption don’t count.

          • Bibibibibib Blubb

            Lol, sure, appeal to authority that does not exist and never existed.

            “It is basically a rehash of nonsense pushed by another unqualified troll Dr Jay Joseph.”

            Bahahahaha.

            “vague claims about epigenetics and regurgitated attacks on the equal environment assumption”

            Bahahahahaha.

            The only thing that has been regurgitated is the nonsense that are heritability studies.

            Don’t worry, this is only the beginning.

    • Mc

      I’m pretty near-certain that whatever the science may say, you will stick to your apparent belief that nature is a lesser factor than nurture. If you were aware of twin studies’ conclusions, you will know that they repeatedly confirm Plomin’s conclusions.

      Many of the opponents of nature-dominant studies oppose these studies’ conclusions because they undermine the Socialist belief that society’s inequalities must and can be eradicated by throwing endless amounts of cash at the problem.

    • Asher Jacobson

      The entire field of sociology is a fraud

  • Leftism is a societal cancer

    You only have to look at the history of the world to see that nature is vitally important in how people turn out.

    Black africans didn’t have ships that could under being in the sea or the wheel or the widespread use of fire when Europeans arrived while the Europeans and Chinese had already sailed across the world to the American continent at that point.

    Why was this? Two main reasons: Blacks are less intelligent on average than East Asians or whites and they hadn’t developed that most necessary condition for development of civilisation: i.e. the patriarchal family.

    “The whole of human history does not contain a single instance of a group becoming civilized unless it has been absolutely monogamous, nor is there any example of a group retaining its culture after it has adopted less rigorous customs.” – J. D. Unwin

    • Hobbesian Meliorist

      I have to quibble with you there: precolonial black Africa did have widespread use of fire. They cooked most of their food, and they used fire to clear forest for farming and to panic animals for hunting. In many parts, they made fired clay pots, and in some parts, they made bronze and iron tools.

      Things they didn’t have included the wheel, writing, irrigation systems, and the ability to construct a building with more than one storey.

    • red2black

      You mean monogamy is the mother of invention, rather than necessity?

      • Leftism is a societal cancer

        No, it is a necessity. “nor is there any example of a group retaining its culture after it has adopted less rigorous customs.”

        • red2black

          I understand. So monogamy is natural?

          • Leftism is a societal cancer

            No, it isn’t. Our natural state is polygamy with the majority of males not being able to breed. Monogamy and more specifically patriachy is something that we created to curb our natural desires and lay the foundation for the development of civilisation.

            Feminism and sexual degeneracy is reversing that process and bringing us back to a more barbaric state.

          • red2black

            People who invent and develop things seem to be a very small number of people from whichever race, culture or society they belong to.

          • Leftism is a societal cancer

            “As witnessed in nature” is not the same as “witnessed in the human pre-civilisational state”. Hunter-gatherer cultures are generally polygamous without strictly monogamous and patriarchal marriage. That’s why they are stuck in a less civilised state. Primarily because the men have no reason to invest in their children and the women who bore them.

          • red2black

            Pre-civilisational makes more sense than a natural state.
            Also, what is meant by civilisation? A lot of patriarchal and monogamous societies and cultures have been extremely warlike and destructive. Perhaps the two go together in a paradoxical or contradictory way. I think what you say plays a part in things, but doesn’t amount to a single explanation for the human situation, of which there appears to be so many.

  • First and foremost, great piece!

    A few minor quibbles:

    So genetic differences between children account for almost 60 per cent of the variation in their GCSE results, with the environment, such as the schools they go to, accounting for less than 40 per cent.

    Well, actually, what doesn’t fall under (additive) heredity in behavioral genetic studies is not necessarily “environment”, as it’s commonly thought of. (Though the GCSE did find a large “shared environment” component, more on that later.) It’s just “not additive genetics”. A good bit (and perhaps all of it) is noise, both “real” (developmental variability – identical twins don’t have the same fingerprints, for example) or not-real (measurement error).

    The one crumb of comfort I’ve been able to dig up is that the -ability to give and receive love isn’t very -heritable. Perhaps that’s something we can teach our children?

    Actually, it is, as are all things.

    Unfortunately, the studies of criminality by behavioural geneticists lead to the conclusion that when it comes to good and evil, our choice is largely pre-ordained. The research evidence produced by twin, adoption and family studies reveals that antisocial behaviour, including criminality, is roughly 50 per cent heritable.

    Indeed, measurement error is an issue that attenuates heritability in behavioral genetic studies. When you adjust for it, the heritability of these things turn out to be quite a bit higher, more in the 65-95%+ range (96% in the case of aggression in a mixed ethnic sample).

    As for the great novels of European and American literature, they are almost laughably pointless. As I understand it, the point of a really good novel is to enable you to commune with another soul and, by so doing, enlarge your sympathies and understanding. That’s particularly true of the great social realists like Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo and John Steinbeck. Reading them is supposed to be morally improving — they acquaint us with the suffering of others in a way that’s so moving and powerful it’s impossible to ignore.

    Quite right.

    There is a reason the Greeks invented classical tragedy.

    Readers, for much more on this, see this post:

    The Son Becomes The Father

    • JimHHalpert

      Not all things are heritable, e.g. being born, dying, being eaten by a giant space squid.

      • Emil Kirkegaard

        Heritability is the proportion of variance that is explained by genetic causes. The things you mention have no variance (everybody alive was born and will die; no one was eaten by giant space squid) and hence cannot be heritable.

        When people say that things are heritable, they mean things that actually differ between humans. These tend to be heritable to substantial degrees. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25985137

        • Bibibibibib Blubb

          Pftt.

          http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1745-9125.12060/full

          Heritability studies, twin studies genetic determinists like Plomins days are numbered. We have direct biological experiments that disprove the entire model.

          • MeMow001

            That article does nothing to support your contentions. It is appalling in every way.

          • Bibibibibib Blubb

            Bahahahaha, awwww you thought that there was scientific consensus on heritability and that its not actually pseudoscience? Awwwww.

            Welcome to the real world.

  • sleepmon

    Genetics determines potential and people have vastly different potentials. Full stop.

    Nevertheless, nurture or rather cultural environment is also important and indispensable.
    How this not common sense anymore is almost understandable but wrong.

  • Christian

    It seems that some people are not understanding what they are reading.

    “The truth is that next to nothing is determined by genes, and our environments are hugely powerful. Ironically, one good way to illustrate this is to look at one of the many misguided schemes organized by genetic determinists. The program in question was a sperm bank for Nobel Prize winners”

    From “G is for Genes. The impact of geneticism on education and achievement”. Kathryn Asbury and Robert Plomin, 2013, p. 91.

    Unless there are some ideological bias going on.

  • red2black

    A new-born is taken from its uneducated, poverty-stricken and uncaring parents and given to a well-educated, affluent and caring couple to raise. At the same time, a new-born is taken from a well-educated, affluent and caring couple and given to an uneducated, poverty-stricken and uncaring couple to raise. How much influence would ‘nature or nurture’ have on these infants’ futures?

    • vieuxceps2

      The answer to your question is- It depends on the genetic formation of each child. Either will develop as the genes enable it but if one is clever in poor surroundings there will be great difficulties. The unclever one in posh surroundings will not achieve mental prowess. Not ever.

      • red2black

        I think you’re describing the exceptions to a general rule that nurture plays a greater part than nature.

  • Tony

    What a load of tosh. What’s step number 2, Eugenics?

    • red2black

      I blame my parents. (tee hee)

  • Fred

    Perhaps Wittgenstein had read Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary.

    DECIDE, v.i. To succumb to the preponderance of one set of influences
    over another set.
    A leaf was riven from a tree,
    “I mean to fall to earth,” said he.
    The west wind, rising, made him veer.
    “Eastward,” said he, “I now shall steer.”
    The east wind rose with greater force.
    Said he: “‘Twere wise to change my course.”
    With equal power they contend.
    He said: “My judgment I suspend.”
    Down died the winds; the leaf, elate,
    Cried: “I’ve decided to fall straight.”
    “First thoughts are best?” That’s not the moral;
    Just choose your own and we’ll not quarrel.
    Howe’er your choice may chance to fall,
    You’ll have no hand in it at all.

  • jnk9

    The importance of heritability surprises us because it is so contrary to prevailing beliefs.

    However, if nurture (or “environment”) accounts for 40% of the variation in GCSE results, and 50% of antisocial behaviour, these magnitudes cannot be described as “fairly negligible”.

    Both nature and nurture are important.

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