Home > Uncategorized > New Research on “Nature vs. Nurture” Debate Indicates it’s BOTH… and Neither…

New Research on “Nature vs. Nurture” Debate Indicates it’s BOTH… and Neither…

January 28, 2018

In recent “head-spinning” research in Iceland on how DNA affects learning, geneticist Albert Kong and a team of researchers in Iceland determined that the impact of DNA variants carried by parents but not passed to their children had about 30 percent as big an impact as that of the genes that the children actually did inherit. Dr. Kong elaborated on his findings in a recent NY Times article by Carl Zimmer:

“The direct genetic effect is quite a bit smaller than what people thought,” said Dr. Kong, who now a professor at the University of Oxford.

How can that be? Dr. Kong speculated that the genes carried by parents influence the environment in which their children grow up. “Variants that have to do with planning with the future could have the biggest effect on nurturing,” he said.

In effect, the interplay between genes the parents possess and those the children don’t possess can have as much impact on the intellectual growth of a child as the genes the children DO possess. A geneticist from the Netherlands offered an example of how this plays out in the field of livestock:

“I am not surprised by the findings,” said Piter Bijma, who studies livestock at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. “These are to be expected.”

Dr. Bijma and other researchers have amassed a wealth of evidence showing that animals are influenced not just by their own genes but by the genes of their parents. Calves may grow quickly thanks to their own growth-promoting genes, or because the same genes in their mothers make them produce more milk.

A calf may inherit those milk-boosting variants from its mother. But just because the calf carries them doesn’t mean they directly make the calves bigger.

Compared to other mammals, Dr. Bijma observed, human children are especially dependent on their parents — not just for food and other essentials, but for social development. So it stands to reason that they’d experience similar effects.

Humans provide substantial care to their offspring, and so the nurture they create is very likely to have a genetic component,” said Dr. Bijma.

At the conclusion of the article, Mr. Zimmer draws on the studies of Paige Harden, a psychologist at the University of Texas who co-authored a commentary on Dr. Kong’s research:

Dr. Harden said that taking account of genetic nurture could improve research on the effects of poverty on how children do in school, as well as studies of methods to improve educational attainment.

“It’s so obvious in retrospect, and so elegant,” she said. “A lot of people are going to say, ‘I can see my data in a new light with this.’”

Exactly HOW this research will help teachers who are dealing directly with “the effects of poverty on how children do in school” and  improve educational attainment are unclear to me, unless family therapy is somehow combined with DNA analysis to develop parent-child IEPs. But given Dr. Bijma’s observations based on his research on livestock— that human children are especially dependent on their parents– it seems to me that it is imperative to work closely with parents who are disengaged from their child’s schooling. That is, instead of addressing the concerns of parents who are sufficiently engaged in their child’s well-being to make an informed choice about where their child should attend school, “reformers” should instead find ways to engage those parents who are NOT making applications to charter schools to determine how to engage them more effective in their child’s learning.

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