Brilliant: The Science of Smart

Born to Be Bright: Is There a Gene for Learning?

New research has identified genetic markers associated with academic achievement — and failure

  • Share
  • Read Later
Getty Images

Earlier this month, researcher Kevin Beaver of Florida State University reported that he and his co-authors had identified genetic markers associated with academic achievement. In their study, published in the journal Developmental Psychology, the scientists found that young people who possessed particular versions of three genes were more likely to finish high school and go on to college than those who carried other forms of the genes. The genes in question — DAT1, DRD2 and DRD4 — are involved in regulating the action of dopamine in the brain, and have been linked in other studies to levels of motivation, attention and intelligence. The notion that how well we learn is influenced considerably by our genes has gone from being “taboo,” Beaver writes, to achieving something like “common acceptance.”

(MORE: Paul: We Should Follow Those Who Finish Second, Not First)

It is true that in recent years, scientists have produced a growing number of studies linking the capacity to learn to specific genes. A team at King’s College London, for example, has published several articles relating ability in mathematics to variations in DNA. Children who carried 10 or more of the “risk” gene variants identified by the researchers were nearly twice as likely to perform poorly in math, according to a 2010 study generated by the group. In another intriguing experiment, scientists Dan Dediu and Robert Ladd of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that some individuals possess variants of two genes involved in brain development that may make it easier for them to learn tonal languages like Chinese.

(MORE: Paul: Want to Prevent Aging? Learn a New Language)

But scientists have long warned against attributing complex human behaviors to the action of a few genes — and learning is among the most complex things we do. The authors of these studies acknowledge this. “Mathematical ability and disability are influenced by many genes generating small effects across the entire spectrum of ability,” writes Sophia Docherty, who heads the King’s College team. Moreover, environment matters, even in the context of genes: Docherty’s research finds that children with the “risk” gene variants were especially likely to do poorly in math when they lived in chaotic homes and had negative, punitive parents. More generally, Florida’s Beaver notes, research indicates that genetic factors account for about half of the variance in educational achievement.

That leaves plenty of room for the role of support and encouragement on the part of parents, and hard work and persistence on the part of kids. Indeed, studies from another realm of research, conducted by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, demonstrate the importance of focusing on the contribution made by our own actions and choices. Dweck’s work shows that students with a “growth mind-set” — those who believe that intelligence is not fixed but is expandable through effort and practice — are more likely to keep trying when faced with a challenge, and ultimately more likely to succeed, than those who are convinced that intelligence is something you’re born with. From the perspective of Dweck’s research, the one lesson we shouldn’t draw from science is that academic achievement is all in our genes.

MORE: Paul: Can You Learn Everything ‘on the Job’? 


Genes bring certain advantages and disadvantages with them. We have always know this,that's why we breed animals for certain qualities long before we even knew dna existed. What we have now is the ability to see exactly where those traits originate. What we do with that knowledge from this point on will be interesting.


The followings are self-evident whether we like them or not.1.  Nature is notimpartial.  Some inherit genes which givethem distinct advantages in health, learning, beauty etc.2.  Heredity is only onefactor of success.  Environment factor,including personal attitudes and efforts, count.  Both factors are important but distinct.  Hereditary advantages can be erased by unfavorableenvironments.  Hereditary disadvantagescan, to a certain degree, be offset by favorable environments.3.  Heredity sets thelimit of a person’s achievement.Environment determines how close to the maximum can he arrive.  Environment can make better use of heredity’sendowment but can never exceed her prescribed limits.  Education can enable you to do better in IQtests but that is not the same as having higher intelligence.  Improved IQ score only means that you canmake better use of your intelligence.4.  Experiences haveproved again and again that most of us, if not all of us, are underachieverswho use only a fraction of our hereditary endowments.  With the right environment we all can achievemuch more.  But some can still achieve morethan others for the same investment.5.  People who denythat there are geniuses are either themselves not geniuses or have never comeacross geniuses.6.  Nothing harmssociety more than the two mistakes:  nothelping those who are not so gifted to achieve more and circumscribing thosewho are gifted so that they are forced to achieve less.Sparrows that fly hard may occasionally fly on the sameheight as an eagle or two but none of them can soar as high as any eagle, thatis, an eagle that is neither sick nor too lethargic.I can certainly play better piano if I am willing to try andproperly taught but I will never be a Mozart.If Mozart were to be born in my family none would ever hear about him.We must put aside out jealousy and so called “democraticaspiration” and face fact.

David Lakatos
David Lakatos

Why are their people that are born genius? I would say that was in their gene's.Why are their people that are born with extraordinary talent that exceeds the average persons wheather it be in art, singing.acting or music?Why are their people born that are physicaly more fit.They don't have to exercise as hard as the average person to build muscile.I say inequality is built right into the human gene's.And spilles out into society .