28 May 2014
ByAppeared in BioNews 755
BBC Radio 4, 29 April-13 May 2014
Presented by Adam Rutherford
Geneticist Adam Rutherford has recently aired three radio programmes about the genetics of intelligence. The controversy posed by the question of how much genetics can influence intelligence and, in turn, the dilemma posed by what this should mean for educational policy are presented in a balanced, reasoned manner here.
Instead of focusing on distinct elements of the problem in each episode, Rutherford chooses to gently repeat the same themes: what intelligence means, the perception of the study of genetics and the moral questions that arise if we accept that intelligence is in some way defined by our genes.
Rutherford's biggest challenge is to uncover what it means to say that intelligence is, in part, inherited. He dispels the common misconception that heritability means any individual will be genetically predisposed to a certain level of intelligence. He highlights that the notion of heritability is actually 'highly technical'. In Rutherford's eyes, the only thing that is true when we say intelligence is a heritable trait is that intelligence will be influenced by genetics.
Similarly, environmental factors do not encompass only upbringing but all non-genetic factors. This brings home the fact that inequalities are always down to chance, posing the question of why we should be particularly irked by this genetic lottery.
By contrasting this educating exercise with the assertion that genetics are undeniably linked to intelligence, Rutherford tempers an unpalatable view. Indeed, his conclusion that we're not born equal but born different reveals his desire that society should be more accepting of this fact.
The reasons for our reluctance to accept this conclusion is also well drawn out in this series. There is an enlightening discussion surrounding eugenicist theorists. The programme generates empathy for the now repulsive views of Cecil Rhodes. Rutherford explains how Rhodes saw eugenics as an accelerator for social mobility: the poor would not be limited by their class if it was recognised that their genes were to blame. More surprisingly, the series reveals the eugenicist ideologies behind positive contribution of contraception services made by Marie Stopes.
The combination of discussion of the history of eugenic thought with opinion on the use of genetic studies in policy makes for a thought-provoking and informative series. Nevertheless, the debate around its use in policy today could have been made more acute. The different approaches to resource allocation in light of genetic information are presented as 'equally logical', that is to say that there are valid reasons to spend more on either side of the intelligence spectrum.
This presentation of equality removed some of the liveliness from the debate. Even usually provocative academics such as Peter Singer sounded moderate in their views. This detracted somewhat from his very radical view that genetics relating to intelligence should be considered in the same way as other instances of 'genetic bad luck' – as something to which we should adapt.
The example given of adapting to different abilities was the 11-plus school entrance exam, generally depicted negatively through personal accounts of the effect it had on children. The point relating to implicitly placing a value upon children when categorising by ability could have been made more explicit as one of the pitfalls of allowing genetic links to influence policy.
More forcefully, Melanie Phillips labelled it as 'eugenics by the back door', a stark contrast with Robert Plomin's view that ignoring available information about genetics is a mistake. In this way, the series provides a balanced view of the range of opinion on the subject. To borrow the term used by a speaker in the series, presenting these views in a more 'adversarial' manner would perhaps have had the effect of helping listeners to settle on their own opinion about the subject.