IQ and genes, Cummings, Gove, prejudice, inequality, social conditions and parenting

by Oct 12, 2013Inequality, Poverty0 comments

Michael Gove’s longstanding advisor, Dominic Cummings has just released a huge document in which he makes many worrying claims, the most pernicious of all being the statement that educational outcomes are most predicted by IQ levels and genetic inheritance. Such ideas are not only dangerous,  they are also completely wrong.

We have long known that IQ is a moveable feast and IQ levels are incredibly responsive to one’s current environment and are also highly related to the kinds of early experiences one has. Cumming’s ideas are yet another way that right wing politicians bash the poor and those who achieve less well and justify the gains from the social and educational advantages that the more affluent can give to their children.

Here are a few counter-examples grabbed almost at random. One very recent study (Mani et al., 2013) found that poverty knocks as many as 13 points off people’s IQ scores. For example this study looked at shoppers and farmers and found that merely asking poorer people to contemplate a hypothetical £1,000 car repair, compared to a £100 one impairs performance on tests as much as 13 or 14 IQ points. Similarly Indian sugar cane farmers performed considerably worse pre-harvest, when money was tight, compared to post-harvest. What this study found was that it was poverty that had the effect on IQ by reducing  cognitive bandwidth.

Amazingly when people are adopted from working class to middle class homes some studies have shown an IQ leap as large as 18 points (Nisbett et al., 2012).  No polymorphisms have been found that are central to the inheritance of IQ, and the genetic argument is incredibly thin. We absolutely know that early neglect leads to considerable deficits in IQ, compared to control groups, as well as a range of severe effects on brain development, hormonal functioning and general emotional development  (De Bellis, 2005).

Many adoption studies have shown similar effects. For example a large French study found that the IQ’s of deprived children who were later adopted children increase markedly after adoption, but also their IQ’s increased more when they were adopted into more advantaged homes (Duyme and Capron, 1992). Many recent studies of international adoption have found the same thing. huge catch up in many areas compared to non-adopted children, including massive spurts in IQ (Juffer and van IJzendoorn, 2009).

A classic study on language from just a few years back (Hart and Risley, 1999) found professional parents spoke  many many more words to their children than working class kids who in turn spoke many more words than parents on welfare. The better off parents also gave many more encouragements. Socio-economic status here was the decisive factor, not biological inheritance, genes or IQ, yet in this study  professional child had an average IQ of 117, and the working class child of only 79.

Dominic Campbell berates Surestart but many US studies found gains in IQ in the early years in targeted children, although in some these gains did not last into adolescence. They did though in some such as the Abecedarian Project in Carolina, which has been going for over 30 years. Here high risk infants were given interventions in subjects such as language, reading and maths, with a number of hopeful results. The intervention group were more likely to get through higher education, had higher IQ scores right into adulthood and the children who gained the most were the ones who started off most at risk, with less good quality input at home (Campbell et al. 2008).

If anyone wanted further evidence there is also all the research about self-fulfilling prophesies in education (Madon et al., 2011), or the work that stresses the importance of providing the right kind of motivation for children to achieve well (Dweck, 2012). Gove might note, this is not about discipline, nor rote learning, but rather being given the kind of adult input that leads to believing in oneself, having motivation and desire and being prepared to be curious and make mistakes.

There are so many more examples that could be given, maybe in particular the way in which inequality affects IQ levels (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2007). The ideas being spouted by the likes of Campbell and Gove are dangerous and need to be nipped in the bud. They are propaganda that can be used to blame the poor and those who do not achieve so well, and are a smokescreen for the real social causes, such as poverty, deprivation and inequality.


De Bellis, M. D. (2005) The psychobiology of neglect. Child Maltreatment. 10 (2), 150.

Campbell, F. A. et al. (2008) Young adult outcomes of the Abecedarian and CARE early childhood educational interventions. Early Childhood Research Quarterly. 23 (4), 452–466.

Duyme, M. & Capron, C. (1992) Socioeconomic status and IQ: what is the meaning of the French adoption studies? Cahiers de psychologie cognitive. 12 (5-6), 585–604.

Dweck, C. (2012) Mindset: How You Can Fulfill Your Potential. Constable & Robinson Ltd.

Hart, B. & Risley, T. R. (1999) The Social World of Children: Learning To Talk. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Juffer, F. & van IJzendoorn, M. H. (2009) International adoption comes of age: Development of international adoptees from a longitudinal and meta-analytical perspective. International Advances in Adoption Research. 169–192.

Madon, S. et al. (2011) Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: Mechanisms, Power, and Links to Social Problems. Social and Personality Psychology Compass. [Online] 5 (8), 578–590.

Mani, A. et al. (2013) Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function. Science. [Online] 341 (6149), 976–980.

Nisbett, R. E. et al. (2012) Intelligence: New findings and theoretical developments. American Psychologist. [Online] 67 (2), 130–159.

Wilkinson, R. G. & Pickett, K. E. (2007) Economic development and inequality affect IQ. A response to Kanazawa. British Journal of Health Psychology. [Online] 12 (2), 161–166.

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