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MSPnet Blog: “Cavalli-Sforza and since: “educational genomics””

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posted September 17, 2018 – by Brian Drayton

The population geneticist Luigi Cavalli-Sforza died last month (see here for links to some brief obituaries), at the age of 92. The passing of this stimulating scholar sparks some further reflections on recent fads/trends/frontiers in the biology of behavior — including education.

Cavalli-Sforza made his greatest contributions through his research on human genetic diversity, and its relation to cultural diversity and history. Most especially, he sought to correlate genetic patterns with archeological and linguistic data (for example, the geographical distribution of language families) to build up a rich account of the history of human migrations.  He argued strongly (more here if you read Italian) for the importance of cultural evolution in human history, and its interweaving with biological evolution.  He proposed daring and plausible hypotheses, daring enough to stimulate much creative science in response — which has often proven his conjectures wrong, but never trivially so (see here for a concise review of his contributions by John Hawks).

The search for biological dimensions to culture (and behavior) has flowed along several  lines — sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, not to mention the study of “memes” a la Dawkins– and more.  Cavalli-Sforza was pretty cautious about most of these, for example regarding E.O. Wilson’s imaginative leap extending his findings on social insects to social primates to be quite unjustified.

Nevertheless, the search for gene-behavior continues, and very often these lines of research are seen as potential breakthroughs for education.   Quite aside from the long-running IQ debates, we have seen widespread excitement about “brain-based education,” or educational neuroscience for example (Wikipedia’s entry on this topic provides a useful scan of the basic ideas and debates in the field.  John Bruer’s 1997 “bridge too far” article here still is useful in its consideration of some key conceptual challenges for this line of investigation, from an educator’s point of view) .

Recently, however, a new line of exploration has arisen, which seeks to deploy findings from the human genome for educational purposes.  “Educational genomics” (see here for a widely cited “vision piece”) would be the ultimate in differentiated learning, one would think, and the link with “personlized education” is unavoidable. There is a great pull, for some people at least, in the idea that the wisdom locked in DNA can be  harnessed in diagnostic techniques and related “treatments” to provide technical solutions to the Problem of Education.

For a comprehensive review and reflection on recent developments in the field, I recommend a post on Ben Williamson’s blog “Code acts in education.”  He starts off by briefly describing a recent study in which genetics researchers use a very large data set to identify

over a thousand genetic variants linked with educational attainment, particularly those involved in brain-development processes and the formation of neuronal connections in foetuses and newborns. These biological factors, the scientists claim, influence psychological development, which in turn affects how far and for how long people continue at school.

The chains of inference here seem tenuous, or at least to beg lots of questions. As Williamson points out, the researchers don’t claim that their findings could be used to predict “educational attainment” for individuals. He points out that

The research also found that genetic variants have a far weaker effect than environmental influences on educational attainment, and was restricted to analysis of a homogeneous sample people aged in their 40s and 50s of white European descent (the study failed with a sample of African-Americans).

The cautions, limitations,  and caveats, however, will not restrain a tidal wave of research, and “research,” aimed at designing educational interventions more widely.  As Williamson points out,

Already, scientists are beginning to propose new multidisciplinary experimentation and intervention under the heading of “precision education.”

(See his earlier post here on this new “field.”)

There is great rhetorical power, even in these days of anti-intellectual fervor, in claims that something promises a “scientific solution” to some persistent problem.  The power comes from the proven track record of science and its sisters (technology, engineering, etc. ) over the past few centuries.  The increasing promise of medical therapies enabled by genomic research is exciting and moving.   (We have not really reckoned, as a society, with the ‘shadow side’ of many of our solutions — two that come to mind right away are antibiotic-resistant bacteria and ocean acidification, but the list is long. of course.)

But the treatment of education as an enterprise “just like” medicine (an equation made before in educational history), amenable to big-data methods and the rapid propagation of solutions not well critiqued, requires that we accept that education is a “problem” or set of problems to be solved technically.  And since education in action involves actual students, this means that “the student” and her/his growth must be represented for the purposes of the Big System as a problem — a problem so defined that the solutions being devised can be applied to it.  There’s something in here that I think demands great caution and, dare I say it, wisdom — a commodity not easy to reconcile with our current ways of operating.

Williamson draws up a thought-provoking list of implications:

The intimate data analytics of precision education raise a few key themes for future interrogation:

  • The emergence of bio-evidence-based education policy, as data captured about the biological–genetic, neural and psychophysiological–details of students’ bodies are turned into policy-relevant knowledge and targets of intervention
  • The translation of students into bioinformational flowsof numbers and scientific categories, bringing about new ways of understanding learning processes as biologically-centred, and erasing other perspectives
  • The accumulation of biocapitalby companies that are able to market products, collect, analyse, and then exchange and sell students’ biodata, whether directly to schools and parents or by less direct means
  • The development of bioeconomies of educational dataas genetic, neural and psychophysiological technologies and assessment tools become new competitive marketplaces (including scam outfits looking to exploit interest in student biodata)
  • The sculpting of new student biosubjectivities, as students are addressed and begin to address themselves in quantified, biological terms, and are incited to undertake activities to improve themselves in response to their genetic, neural and psychophysiological data

Brave New World, or brave new world? How can the rest of us — citizens, educators, students, parents — participate in these conversations, grapple with these definitions, apply a little wisdom?


Note:  The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.