The results of a recent study show that genes which predispose individuals to spend more time learning have declined, suggesting that the subjects are now evolving under ‘negative selection‘ rather than natural selection. And the future implications aren’t favorable. Because even if the rate of deterioration might seem negligible in terms of ‘generations’, it’s substantial in terms of the ‘evolutionary timescale’ — ‘a blink of an eye’ according to the study.
Using a database of over 100,000 Icelanders born between 1910 and 1975, researchers from Iceland-based firm deCODE genetics observed how gene clusters that influence the level of educational attainment appeared in the population. And it turned out that over an 80-year period — starting from 1910 until 1990 — the levels of these specific gene variants dropped. Although the decline is minimal, it shows that the natural inclination to attain higher education is on a downward trend.
And there’s more. The genes linked to education seem to have an effect on a person’s fertility as well. Apparently, individuals who had more of these ‘education genes’ were inclined to have a smaller family than those who didn’t have as many of those genes. And it’s mainly because they had a propensity for “long-term planning and delayed gratification”. They delayed having children so they can pursue higher education first.
But then, the study also revealed that even those who left school early still exhibited the tendency to have fewer children. According to Kari Stefansson who led the study, it’s because: “If you are genetically predisposed to have a lot of education, you are also predisposed to have fewer children.”
The result is a collective gene pool where there are more offsprings from less educated people compared with the more educated ones. There’s also a drop in IQ of around 0.04 points per decade — a figure that can rise up to 0.3 points per decade if all genes linked to education were considered.
Does this mean that Iceland will eventually be home to a higher number of less educated people? If the trend continues, it’s possible, but not necessarily inevitable. Especially because we’re just focusing on genes. And we have to remember that there are other factors at play, such as educational opportunities, finances, information accessibility, and even the society as a whole. This means that the lack of education genes can still be balanced out by a better overall environment and improved access to high quality education.
As Stefansson said in a statement they issued: “In spite of the negative selection against these sequence variations, education levels have been increasing for decades. Indeed, we control the environment in which these genetic factors play out: the education system. If we continue to improve the availability and quality of educational opportunities, we will presumably continue to improve the educational level of society as a whole. Time will tell whether the decline of the genetic propensity for education will have a notable impact on human society.”
Essentially, we can’t just blame our genes for what happens to us. We’ve always been social beings. So whether we like it or not, somehow, society will always play a role in our future as individuals, as well as an entire race.
The study was published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences under the title “Selection against variants in the genome associated with educational attainment”.