Over the past five years, Benjamin has been part of an international team of researchers identifying variations in the human genome that are associated with how many years of education people get. In 2013, after analyzing the DNA of 101,000 people, the team found just three of these genetic variants. In 2016, they identified 71 more after tripling the size of their study.
Now, after scanning the genomes of 1,100,000 people of European descent—one of the largest studies of this kind—they have a much bigger list of 1,271 education-associated genetic variants. The team—which includes Peter Visscher, David Cesarini, James Lee, Robbee Wedow, and Aysu Okbay—also identified hundreds of variants that are associated with math skills and performance on tests of mental abilities.
This isn’t to say that staying in school is “in the genes.” Each genetic variant has a tiny effect on its own, and even together, they don’t control people’s fates. The team showed this by creating a “polygenic score”—a tool that accounts for variants across a person’s entire genome to predict how much formal education they’re likely to receive. It does a lousy job of predicting the outcome for any specific individual, but it can explain 11 percent of the population-wide variation in years of schooling.
That’s terrible when compared with, say, weather forecasts, which can correctly predict about 95 percent of the variation in day-to-day temperatures. But when it comes to predicting education, it’s comparable to classic factors such as household income or how educated your parents are. “Within social science, that’s basically unheard of,” says Benjamin, who works at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. “We can explain education as well with saliva samples as with demographics.”
“Education needs to start taking these developments very seriously,” says Kathryn Asbury from the University of York, who studies education and genetics. “Any factor that can explain 11 percent of the variance in children’s performance in school is very significant and needs to be carefully explored and understood.”