25 October 2019
People with genes associated with educational achievement have been moving out of the most deprived areas of the UK, according to a new DNA analysis. As a result, a subtle social stratification is taking place.
The study has proven controversial: “how does this stuff make it past peer review?” was one biologist’s response on Twitter. Geneticists contacted by New Scientist largely accept the findings – though the genes aren’t why people are moving away.
The migration is happening because the UK government has neglected many regions for decades, says lead author Abdel Abdellaoui of the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Conditions in these deprived areas “are driving the people out”, he says. “We should start taking better care of those regions.”
Abdellaoui and his colleagues analysed DNA from 450,000 people held in the UK Biobank. They looked for genetic traits known to be associated with particular traits and behaviours, to see which ones were clustered in specific regions.
Most of the clustering is due to ancestry: people often live in roughly the same place as their ancestors, and this is reflected in their genes. “We control for that,” says Abdellaoui. “What remains is a very strong clustering for the genetic predisposition for educational attainment” – that is, completing school and perhaps getting a degree or PhD.
The team believes people with a tendency to become educated have been abandoning deprived regions in recent decades, to start new lives in areas with more opportunities. As a result, gene variants associated with educational achievement have become concentrated in wealthier places like London, and relatively rare in economically deprived areas – especially former coal-mining regions.
The team is the first to show such genetic clustering clearly, says Sophie von Stumm at the University of York in the UK. “The conclusions the authors make are based on a good sample with good measures.”
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However, von Stumm says it shouldn’t come as a surprise. “This is something sociologists would say they have shown a long time ago,” she says. “People move according to their traits and according to where their opportunities are.”
For example, when Germany was unified after the collapse of the USSR, well-educated people rapidly moved out of the former East Germany into the richer West.
Not just genes
But just because the genes are moving, they aren’t the underlying reason people move away. While there are gene variants associated with educational attainment, they do not strongly determine how much people learn and achieve.
“We have to be careful not to think too deterministically about this,” says Abdellaoui. An individual’s DNA is a bad predictor of what they will achieve, he says. The patterns are only visible at the population level.
“About 50 per cent of the differences we can observe between people in educational attainment are thought to be due to genetic factors,” says von Stumm. The other 50 per cent is the environment – where you grow up, and if your teachers are nice, say.
Abdellaoui adds that we may be overestimating the impact of genes on education, because children with an aptitude for education tend to have educated parents, who have the money to create a good environment for learning. “These kids are doubly blessed by the genetics and the environment created by their higher-educated parents,” he says.
Living in a deprived area makes it harder to succeed because it affects people’s well-being. For example, diabetes and obesity are more common in deprived areas. This isn’t correlated with genetics so is probably due to people’s circumstances.
Similarly, investing in deprived areas would probably reduce the selective migration, and thus the genetic stratification, says Ellen Røyrvik of the University of Bergen in Norway. “You’d probably see weaker signals in areas that are more equal and have presumably less variable school systems,” she says.
Journal reference: Nature Human Behaviour, DOI: 10.1038/s41562-019-0757-5
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