Scientists from the University of Oxford and King’s College London have found that there is a link between mathematical ability and a person’s genes. An experiment, which involved the testing of 3,000 sets of twins from all over Great Britain, found that genetics accounts for most of the difference in the ease of learning math and reading.
The research used the outstanding results of the Twins Early Development Study, an ongoing collection of data from twins around Britain, in order to test the impact of genetic difference on mathematical and reading ability.
Genetics: Reading and maths are strongly linked
According to the study about half of the genes that influence a child’s ability to learn to read are also active in aptitude for mathematics. “We looked at this question in two ways, by comparing the similarity of thousands of twins, and by measuring millions of tiny differences in their DNA. Both analyzes show that similar collections of subtle DNA differences are important for reading and math,” said Oliver Davis, one of the authors of the research.
Professor Robert Plomin of King’s College explained the results of the study; “This is the first time we estimate genetic influence on learning ability using DNA alone. The study does not point to specific genes linked to literacy or numeracy, but rather suggests that genetic influence on complex traits, like learning abilities, and common disorders, like learning disabilities, is caused by many genes of very small effect size.”
The lack of a single , or easily identifiable group of genes, affecting mathematical and reading ability may be seen as a good thing by those fearful of decisions being made based on genetic evidence, but it makes a difficult problem for scientists even more Byzantine. Explaining why some people learn more easily than others may be part of the key to understanding the human brain.
Genetic learning remains controversial
The BBC, which reported on the same study earlier on today, highlighted the controversial nature of genetic explanations for learning ability. The authors of the study were also quick to distance themselves from any sort of eugenic interpretation of the results. Plomin said “Heritability does not imply that anything is set in stone – it just means it may take more effort from parents, schools and teachers to bring the child up to speed.”
Given the current difficulty with identifying particular genes responsible for the ease at which children learn mathematics there is no question of using it to differentiate between students for the time being. As genetic research improves and grows, however, this is a question that will be asked more often, and one that will have to be given some kind of answer.
Dr John Jerrim of the Institute of Education was quoted by the BBC on the issue. He said that “Until researchers are able to identify the specific genes that are thought to influence children’s reading and math skills, and show that such associations are robust in numerous academic studies, then such work has little relevance for public policy.”