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Understanding the potential of behavioural genetics in early intervention

Published

22 Sep 2020

As EIF begins a series of interdisciplinary roundtables, director of evidence Tom McBride sets out why we are taking some initial steps in considering if and how behavioural genetics research can be used to help design services which improve outcomes for children and families. 

‘Psychologists all believe in the priority of nurture, until they have their second child.’ That quote, mentioned by my colleague Dr Kathryn Asbury from the University of York on her TES podcast, has stayed with me. Of course you don’t need to be a parent to understand that nature plays a role in shaping who we are. But few experiences in life can illustrate the point as profoundly as wondering why your kids are so different from each other despite your own certainty that you have brought them up in much the same way. Certainly the differences in personality and temperament between my youngest child and her older sibling seem way too large to be plausibly explained by changes in our parenting or other aspects of her environment in these early years. 

The idea that traits are inherited is implicit in common idioms like ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’ or ‘like father like son’. Most people seem relatively comfortable with the idea that physical traits like height, eye colour or athletic ability are affected by our biology. But the notion that aspects of our personality – such as introversion or extroversion, sexuality or educational attainment – might be influenced by our DNA tends to be more controversial. 

Yet over the last few decades the science of behavioural genetics has explained more and more about how our genes interplay with our environment to shape every aspect of who we are. Even variation in thoroughly modern behaviours, like the amount of TV an individual watches, can be partially explained by genetics. In fact the range of human characteristics shown to be partially influenced by our genome is so wide that it prompted Professor Eric Turkheimer, in 2000, to posit the first law of behaviour genetics: ‘All behavioural traits are heritable.’

At EIF, we are dedicated to ensuring that children’s services are informed by the best available evidence. For us the question is not if genetics plays a role in shaping children’s development, but if such knowledge can be used in a safe, practical and ethical way to intervene early and better support those at risk of poor outcomes. We can’t ask such questions in a vacuum, and in addressing them we must keep upmost in our minds the connections that have historically been drawn between genetics, eugenics and aspects of far-right ideology. But in collaboration with Kathryn, we are going to take the first steps in considering if behavioural genetics research can be used to help design services which improve outcomes for children and families in a way that does not marginalise individuals, entrench existing disadvantages or increase inequalities. 

Starting this week, we will be hosting a series of interdisciplinary roundtables, drawing together experts from a wide range of backgrounds to discuss the risks and opportunities for children’s policy which this emerging research presents. We will summarise the areas of consensus and disagreement, alongside a set recommendations for next steps, in a short report next spring. We don’t pretend that we will generate all the answers through this work. But the science is developing quickly, and so it is both urgent and important to consider if and how this new knowledge should be used in shaping services for children. We hope our work will help stimulate more research and greater public debate on this important topic. 

We are interested in hearing from people with expertise relevant to this debate. We are especially interested in hearing from people who’s work examines issues around race, ethnicity and contemporary social policy. If you are interested in participating in a roundtable please contact info@eif.org.uk
 

About the author

Tom McBride

Tom is director of evidence at EIF.