Opening the box
Almost a year ago, I fished a small white cardboard box from my pigeonhole at a London university. It was decorated with pairs of worms, each coloured in a different shade of the rainbow, that sprawled innocently on the cover. Across the front, it greeted me with the words: Welcome to you. I stored the little box on my office desk, certain that the perfect time to open it would soon present itself.
But it didn’t. In June I packed the little box to keep me company on the Cornish coast for two months. Again, no moment was the one. In September, I leaned the unopened box on the fireplace mantle in the London flat where I stayed for the term. In December, I found the box, still sealed in a plastic film, at the bottom of one of the moving cartons that I unpacked in York. It settled on a bookshelf in the lounge. The new year came, and with it, spring. I still had not been welcomed to me.
The little white box is a saliva collection kit. When I unwrap it, I will find a see-through plastic tube for my spit, a letter asking me to register an ID, and an envelope to send back my saliva, which contains cheek cells from the inner lining of my mouth. From these, my DNA will be extracted and genotyped.
I will then be able to download a copy of my genome and learn about my genetic ancestry and my genetic health risks. And also, according to the box’s makers, I will find out my genetic odds of having a unibrow. But that’s not why I keep moving with the box instead of opening it – at 35, my unibrow status hardly comes as a surprise.
“DNA may become a better predictor of university success than school performance, which currently regulates access to higher education in most meritocratic societies.”
“Everything is heritable” is the first law of behavioural genetics. It means that all our characteristics and behaviours are influenced by genetic factors. Over the past decade, geneticists have worked out how to identify the DNA variants that make up these genetic factors: Ask many people (millions, in fact) to spit into a tube, extract their DNA, check their eyebrows, and then track which DNA variants are associated with having a unibrow. This information can be used on any other individual for whom you have DNA data available at any age (our DNA and genomes don’t really change as we grow older), and you will know whether their look should rival that of Frida Kahlo.
The same principle applies to the genetic predisposition for all other characteristics and behaviours, like being anxious or finding it easy to learn, or having children. At the moment, such DNA-based predictions have only modest power: for example, we can explain about 15% of children’s differences in school performance with DNA – but that leaves 85% unexplained. We know from other studies that at most half of the difference in children’s school performance can be attributed to genetics. If half of our differences is the reference point, we have actually identified a third of the DNA variants that influence school performance.
“If we recognise that doing well in school is vastly harder for some kids than others, we might push for personalised education that allows each child to learn at their appropriate speed and level of difficulty.”
Genomic research is progressing at a very fast pace; soon, we will have figured out the other two thirds of the genetic influences on school performance. Subsequent DNA-based predictions would be very powerful, although not completely accurate, because environmental factors are not considered and because DNA effects on complex traits are probabilistic rather than deterministic. But DNA may become a better predictor of university success than school performance, which currently regulates access to higher education in most meritocratic societies.
How will society handle the possibility of genome-based predictions of university performance? Will only those with a promising DNA profile be admitted to university? The very idea may seem outrageous, because selection on the basis of genetic criteria is unacceptable in democratic societies that endorse humanistic principles. And yet, our current education system selects precisely on that basis: Kids who earn good grades in school qualify for further education, but those with poor grades don’t. The difference between good and poor grades is – at least partly – a question of DNA.
If we recognise that doing well in school is vastly harder for some kids than others, we might push for personalised education that allows each child to learn at their appropriate speed and level of difficulty. Personalising education is a way to meet the needs of kids who – perhaps for genetic reasons – find multiplying 7 by 8 as challenging as solving a differential equation is for others. Instead of struggling with advanced algebra, they might get more time to revise the basic principles of multiplication, with the chance to experience successful mastery.
“Personalising education begets the great danger that teaching and learning resources become concentrated on children who are deemed the most capable, while others receive only an inferior education.”
However, personalising education begets the great danger that teaching and learning resources become concentrated on children who are deemed the most capable, while others receive only an inferior education. This danger is not hypothetical but reality: For example, schools with the top performing students receive more financial resources and attract better teachers than schools whose students struggle.
The advent of DNA-based prediction for individuals urges us to pay close attention to how we, as a society, distribute resources and responsibilities. What kept me from opening the little white box is fear – the fear that we will abuse our knowledge of DNA differences to justify education systems based on selection, without understanding the consequences of doing so.
“The advent of DNA-based prediction for individuals urges us to pay close attention to how we, as a society, distribute resources and responsibilities.”
Disclosure: In her work, Sophie uses other people’s DNA to predict their school performance and educational success. She mailed her saliva off for genotyping after finishing this blog post.