by Clayton Carlson
“Of course you are smart, your dad is a scientist.” My kids, who tend to do pretty well in school, have heard a comment like that more than once. There are different ways to interpret what they are being told. The teacher, parent, or classmate trying to affirm my son or daughter might mean that as children of a college professor, they live in a world where education is highly valued. They could be recognizing that my wife and I stress the importance of education and encourage our kids to dive deeply into the topics they study. I suspect that both of my children have already spent more time on a college campus than most new college freshmen. My kids can’t image a world where school could be blown off.
We have a whole family homework ritual that happens every day. My wife and I look over what our kids do at school, help them with their tasks, and reinforce the fundamental learning behind the topic on hand. We often turn dry assignments into games and nurture questions into conversations.
I know there are a huge number of reasons why my kids do well. We are able to provide all of that parental attention because of our comfortably middle-class socioeconomic status. We don’t work double shifts to make rent, no one in our household has a second job, and our kids don’t get hours of electric distraction while we try to survive the week. Instead of worrying about whether or not there will be enough food, we eat together as a family. My children have had nutritious meals most every day of their lives since conception and were therefore able to grow through fetal and early childhood development with all the provisions that medicine and science recommend.
All of these things and more influence how my kids do in school. But I don’t really think that is what is meant by, “Of course you are smart, your dad is a scientist.”
Whether they know it or not, this flippant assertion is an appeal to genetic determinism. While I don’t really think that anyone complementing my kids has thought it through, genetic determinism has some terrifying consequences. They are implying that my kids do well in school because they have inherited intelligence genes from my wife and me. If that were true, then we could correlate grades in my son’s 4th grade classroom according to the kids’ genetic inheritance. We could go further then and make predictions about how younger siblings will do in school based on the performance of older siblings. Why invest extra reading time in that first grade girl when her brother has shown that their family already has the intelligence genes?
In his book Genes, Determinism and God Denis Alexander describes a study by an early proponent of genetic determinism. Francis Galton published the book Hereditary Genius in 1869 and tried to demonstrate that achievement ran in families. Few today would deny that achievement runs in families, but now we attribute that success to generational privilege and rarely tie the success to superior genes.
Genetic determinism has a sordid history summed up in the word ‘eugenics,’ eight letters whose evil still echoes down to us decades after it influenced governmental policies around the world in the early 20th century. Forced sterilization, racial hierarchy, and the holocaust are all fruits of eugenics.
Today we know that belief in the idea that some people are genetically superior to others not only leads to terrible consequences for disempowered people everywhere, but it also has no basis in science. Even characteristics that seem purely biological like height, are in reality a result of a broad set of interacting factors. Those factors start with genetics, but then include maternal diet during early fetal development, diet during early childhood and puberty, hormone levels, changes in epigenetics, and things we only barely understand at this point including the roles of the microbiota, transposable elements, and gravity. (Would you be the same height if you grew up on Mars?)
All of these complex relationships are behind something simple like height. Our height is based on interactions between hundreds of genes, how they are expressed, our diet and lifestyle, and our environment. How much longer is the list when we try to explain why my kids do well in school?
One of the main points Alexander makes in the opening chapters of his book is that the popularity of genetic determinism has come and gone in waves. It tends to be popular in circumstances when we want to be freed from responsibility. If genetic determinism explains schools full of kids who perform poorly then there is nothing to be done; it is in their DNA. But when I recognize that genetic determinism is scientifically false, and that all human characteristics are vastly more complicated than being just a matter of DNA, then I have a responsibility to help those who are struggling.
When my decisions are informed by contemporary science pointing to complex interactions, I am called to help other kids to do well in school. I can work to assure that all kids live in safe neighborhoods, have well-funded schools, eat breakfast, have family meals together, receive adequate healthcare, and know that there are adults who care about them and that those adults think education is valuable. I am certain that if we were able to start this process at conception, caring and providing for expectant mothers and then, eventually, for their children, we would find whole groups of kids improve academically.
In Galatians 3, Paul makes clear that God is making a family in a way that has nothing to do with biology. “28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” We are called to share the gifts of family with all God’s children. May we be freed from the lies of genetic determinism so that we might whole heartedly serve our brothers and sisters in faith and so that God can use us as part of the complex interactions working for the good of all our brothers and sisters.