So, findings in a recent study published in the Journal of Neuroscience point to inheritance as being the most important variable in the intelligence-determination equation. Specifically it is the inheritance of genes which promote optimal myelination of neural axons, and thus speeding the brain’s ability to process signals. Future research will be geared toward discovering exactly which gene or genes are responsible for producing optimal myelination. This research could possibly lead to wide-scale enhancement efforts, aimed potentially at raising the processing speed of entire populations. While this prospect is nothing short of thrilling in terms of increasing the general intelligence of the species, these findings can also be speciously applied.
If placed within the context of the nature/nurture debate, strong findings which favor the nature camp may be used to minimize the persuasiveness of arguments for nurturing children through universal education. If, as may be extrapolated from this finding, most of intelligence is determined by a child’s genes, then why should we bother to educate children in an egalitarian way? Why not just test for those children who are rich in myelination and put them into accelerated courses, and minimize our expenditures on those children who have below optimal levels? I’m not trying to set up a straw man here, if increase in intelligence were the main goal of education it really would make little sense to spend equal money without hope of equal results. All you would be doing is setting the child up for failure and poor self-esteem. The research here measures white matter levels and how they correlate to I.Q. scores, using twin studies to establish myelination trait heredity. Though I.Q. is a useful way of measuring intelligence, it is not the only way.
Even if it were the only way to measure intelligence, nurture, in the form of communal education, serves many other purposes besides just the accumulation of information. Communal education is useful for acculturation, for promoting important social and communication skills, for promoting active healthy lifestyles, and for gaining life skills. Basically access to education is a quality of life issue as much as it is about information access. Consider the work of the U.N. Berhane Hewan project, which promotes continued education and delayed marriage for girls in the Amhara region of Ethiopia. Without knowing the levels of myelination in any of these girls, and their subsequent probable I.Q.’s, I can say with confidence that the education they receive as a result of the program is improving their quality of life. So while knowledge of the hereditary causes of optimal myelination can and should lead us to research ways of enhancing myelination in all children, in the mean time, we must not be swayed towards believing that smart children in disadvantaged circumstances will simply educate themselves so we don’t have to worry about providing universal childhood education.
Universal childhood education is a way of affirming the humanity of a child, of affirming their worth to the greater community, and of obliging them to contribute in return to the betterment of society. The benefits of this go far beyond raising a few I.Q. scores.