Tenth (and final!) installment in our two-week discussion of the recent New York Times article “Generation Later, Poor Are Still Rare at Elite Colleges” by Richard Perez-Pena. Interested readers should check out our collection of posts about socio-economic issues related to admissions, from which I have plagiarized extensively.

In order to bring a little historical context to this discussion, I was digging through the Williams archives and came across this statement from an alumnus from the late 1800s.

Nothing like another blasphemous claim that Men are descendant from Apes to encourage good feelings among the students and alumni of Williams!*

It must have been tough to have been a good Christian gentleman toward the end of the 19th century, to have been raised from birth to believe in the Gospel, and then to confront the scientific fact of evolution. Many, of course, could then (and today!) combine Christian Faith with a recognition of the reality of evolution. But, for any individual, the transition must have been jarring.

Or you ready for a similar jarring? Consider this comment from the start of our series.

Nothing like an umpteen-part discourse on how poor people are too genetically inferior to attend Williams to build good will for the relaunch of Ephblog!

First, the rhetoric here is lazy. No one believes that “inferiority” is a relevant term. I don’t consider my children to be “genetically inferior” — in general terms — to the children of much taller, more athletic men. But the genes are what they are. Neither my children nor my grand children will ever play in the NBA because they lack the minimum genetic gifts for doing so. And that is OK! It certainly does not make them “inferior.”

And the same harsh truth applies to other people when it comes to the genetics for success in academics. Consider:

Many genomic elements in humans are associated with behavior, including educational attainment. In a genome-wide association study including more than 100,000 samples, Rietveld et al. (p. 1467, published online 30 May; see the Perspective by Flint and Munafò) looked for genes related to educational attainment in Caucasians. Small genetic effects at three loci appeared to impact educational attainment.

The specific loci are: rs9320913, rs11584700, rs4851266. That has the harsh ring of science, doesn’t it? Here is some more science:

We identify common genetic variants associated with cognitive performance using a two-stage approach, which we call the proxy-phenotype method. First, we conduct a genome-wide association study of educational attainment in a large sample (n = 106,736), which produces a set of 69 education-associated SNPs. Second, using independent samples (n = 24,189), we measure the association of these education-associated SNPs with cognitive performance. Three SNPs (rs1487441, rs7923609, and rs2721173) are significantly associated with cognitive performance after correction for multiple hypothesis testing.

There are probably several thousand genes which, together, explain a large percentage of the variance in academic success, both in K-12 leading up to Williams and at Williams itself. Does that mean that people with the wrong settings for rs1487441 et al are genetically inferior? No! No more than my descendants are genetically inferior because they lack the (undiscovered) genes which help to explain basketball success.

Yet the reality of genetic (partial) explanations of success and failure is as inevitable as the triumph of evolution in our understanding of human origins. And, as we identify these genes, we will soon discover that their distribution is not uniform, that some groups of people have more of these genetic advantages that cause (not just correlate!) with academic success and some groups of people have fewer.

Prediction: Sample 1,000 rich people and 1,000 poor people in the US. Many more rich people than poor people will have the “preferred” settings for rs9320913 and friends. And that means that the more of the children of rich people than of poor people will have these same settings. And that will explain, at least partially, why there are more students at Williams from rich families than from poor families.

You read it first at EphBlog.

* OK, OK. I made up that quote about Apes. Sue me! Experts in Williams history can surely help me come up with something appropriate. Or I could just go with something from Summer for the Gods . . .

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