The so-called genes vs. environment controversy Ruthless Criticism

Translated from Argumente gegen die Pädagogik (1990)

The so-called genes vs. environment controversy

For as long as education studies have existed, newbies have learned about a bitter debate that rages on. The battle lines are supposed to face off like this: some attribute child learning abilities to skills given to them by nature, while others see them as a product of environmental influences. How this debate is decided is supposed to determine how educators proceed in practice. If one advocates for the “pessimistic” understanding of education in the genes theory, then one refrains from supporting the “optimistic” understanding of education that follows from the environment theory:

“Education thrives on faith in man and the possibility of his improvement. Seen from this perspective, plans for milieu-theoretic pedagogy have a more favorable starting position for pedagogical thinking than the rather pessimistic ideas of human predeterminacy.” (Theo Dietrich, Zeit-und Grundfragen der Pädagogik, 1988, p. 133)

The same educators who refer to a controversy in urgent need of resolution at the same time warn: Both “pure” genes and “pure” environment theories are extreme positions and everyone agrees on this. A strange controversy then, because in pedagogy there are apparently no parties who support the allegedly feuding extremes.

There is even agreement about the procedure to be used in arguing the two extremes: The effect of genes is proven if the environment can be eliminated as an influencing factor; the effect of the environment is proven if the influence of genes can be eliminated.

Monozygotic and dizygotic twins have always been useful for these two-way rules of evidence:

“Proof of predisposition occurs here [meaning: in twins research] as well as via the indirect route of the subtraction method.” (G. Mühle, in: Talent and Learning, ed. Heinrich Roth p. 79)

One puts DZ in various environments, points out differences between them and considers the environment idea proven: The differences could not have come from the genes. The other one has MZ growing up in the same environment, points out differences between them, and considers the effectiveness of the genes proven. After all, it could not have been the environment. The same little game can of course be played the other way around, by putting DZ in different environments and pointing out striking similarities that they “nevertheless” have in common. Obviously, the same genes dominate despite environmental differences! Conversely, similarities are detected in MZ in the same environment, which is supposed to show that the environment dominates: The genes were surely different...

This procedure guarantees that both claims prove each other. The logic of “If I have ruled out the effectiveness of the environment, then the result can only have come from the genes” gives a false, because negative, proof. Anyone who has proven that crises do not come from sunspots has by no means positively proven their thesis that they are caused by the Chancellor’s mood swings. In this procedure, however, genes and environment collide with each other, with the result that one’s own position has been proved to the extent that the other has been refuted, and vice versa. And right away, one discovers not only common things but also differences in DZ in different environments, which everyone is supposed to then see as proof that, besides genes, certain environmental influences can’t be dismissed out of hand. Thus, the dispute as to whether genes or environment determine human qualities is shifted into the debate about the significance of the two “factors,” both of which are said to be effective:

“Twin research has produced even clearer results than family testing or genealogical analyses. ...Here, too, it is true that in the education of giftedness and intelligence, the genes play a major role, but that the environment and education also play a role. As expected, monozygotic twins (DZ) show a greater match in aptitude and intelligence performance than fraternal twins (MZ). Among other things, it has been determined that DZs who grow up separately from each other at an early age and in different environments show differences in their talents and achievements, but they are not as significant as MZs, regardless of whether they grow up together or separately...” (Theo Dietrich, Zeit- und Grundfragen der Pädagogik, p. 135)

This also has its correctness. Because the interpretation of intellectual achievements as being conditioned by genes or environment is a matter of two explanatory models that contradict each other as much as they require mutual supplementation.

The genes theory ...

attributes, for example, (differences in) school achievements to (differences in) inherited assets:

“Man is also largely ‘programmed’ in the intellectual realm by his hereditary dispositions.” (Theo Dietrich, Zeit- und Grundfragen der Pädagogik, 1988, p. 124)

The biological side of man should therefore decide not only whether he has the prerequisites intact for the activities of his mind. At the same time, genes should determine the intellectual subjects which a mind is able to grasp. Or to put it another way: they are not talking here about hereditary defects such as Down syndrome, for example, the lack of the physical foundations for intelligence – even though these are always cited for purposes of plausibility. They are talking about everyone, i.e. people whose brains are, in medical opinion, fully functional. This pedagogue claims that the possible subjects of thoughts are determined by the genetic make-up of these people. And how does the pedagogue know this? Can he show us a gene that has the multiplication tables in its program? Can he show us that some children lack the gene for higher mathematics? Can he use biology to prove that a child's later knowledge is already present in the genes before any knowledge has been gained?

No pedagogue provides this evidence for good reason. It is not what guides him. When thinking, man uses his natural potentials very freely: he decides what he uses his grey cells for, which subjects he wastes his brain matter on, and what he thinks about. His brain certainly does not prescribe this.

And vice versa: a child who has grasped addition has exercised all the mental operations the mind is capable of. So he obviously has them at his disposal: he can perceive, distinguish, abstract, conclude... So how should it be possible to prove that he must fail because of a natural barrier if it is about making a substantively different abstraction, distinction ...?

The rules of evidence for this pseudo-biology work in a different way, i.e. in a purely circular way: from a given mental achievement, a gene is deduced. And how can we see that a gene is responsible for it? By the presence of the mental achievement! So that, all things considered, the result is: The existence of an intellectual achievement proves its biological causation if one assumes that intellectual achievements can only be caused by genes. Nothing but belief in the gene idea confirms it.

As untenable as this view is, it still enjoys pedagogical esteem today. And this is due to the ideal of education that resides in it. Where man can only become what his nature has given him, then every educational result must necessarily be exactly the child’s due. Education is always the realization of the child’s nature. And the educated being does not need to complain later about where he is placed in the educational hierarchy. Anything else would be nonsensical and harmful. Because nobody can go against nature and any attempt to do so would violate it.

... needs the environment

The genes argument in pedagogy can’t do without the allegedly diametrically opposite idea of the environment. Because if the genes theory took its own claim seriously, then it would be superfluous to try to make anything comprehensible to children. Indeed, the child already brings everything with him. But that is out of the question for an education theorist. He wants to use the genes argument to judge the task of education. Whoever argues about “pessimism” or “optimism” in education issues wants to thematize the effectiveness of education, not justify its redundancy. Thus, pedagogy has developed the genes concept in a very expedient way:

“Education (environment) must always take heritage into account, just as heritage depends on education (environment). Education is therefore necessary despite inheritance. In other words: heritage cannot develop without education. The child matures on the basis of his or her hereditary dispositions, but maturity is only possible with the help of cultural and social environmental influences, including education and teaching.” (Theo Dietrich, Zeit- und Grundfragen..., p. 140)

On the one hand, this claims that genes already contain everything the child can ever do. On the other hand, however, the nature of talent is said to require education because it must first be teased out. This is not possible without mental bending:

Because on the one hand, the genes that he brings with him should be the determining factor for what a person later has in his head, i.e. they should already include everything that ever emerges in terms of intellectual achievement. But then it would be completely superfluous to teach a child addition. He would be able to do it by himself, to automatically reel off his program, at the latest when confronted with the first addition task. It would be unnecessary to transform a lack of knowledge into knowledge with an explanation.

On the other hand, however, genes are supposed to merely include intellectual capacity only as a possibility, i.e. as a not yet, and it should be decided on the basis of the “environmental impact” which produces the child’s intellectual substance. Through education, the substance of the genes should therefore only become what they have always been. The genes exist twice: once as a definite potential that determines the child’s intellectual development and at the same time as an indefinite potential that only gets its determining power through education. On the one hand, by virtue of the genes, everything is supposed to already be in the child’s head that will then develop; on the other hand, it is supposed to not be in the head, but is supposed to obtain its substance only by educating the pre-existing genes, which then shape the child.

These two arguments cancel each other out: Either genes determine the child’s intellectual development – in which case, education plays no role in it – or education must first help the genes, which exist only as a possibility, become reality. In this case, genes are the determining basis of intellectual development. The interest in thinking of genes at the same time as a mere, still empty possibility and as a determining force that determines substance is irreconcilable. This is confirmed by pedagogues when they try to make this incomprehensible idea plausible with analogies from nature:

“There is an old image of the relationship between genes and environment that still seems useful today and prevents many misunderstandings. Genes are comparable to a field, its soil qualities and its nutritional value. Quite different things can be cultivated in the field; it does not just grow a single crop. On better soil, however, grow better and more abundant crops. The harvest therefore depends largely on the quality of the soil. At the same time, however, ‘environmental conditions’ (weather, cultivation) play an important role. The latter conditions correspond approximately to the educational atmosphere during development. Crops can be seen as an analogy to the educational goods, skills and performance areas which are taught during human development and help to define the level of intellectual achievement.” (Rolf Oerter, Modern Developmental Psychology, 1976, p. 51)

The analogy is bogus: In agriculture, as is well known, the (planned) combination of one natural condition (soil properties) with a different one (seed) produces a third new natural quality (crop), which is of better quality and quantity when the first natural condition’s cultivation (fertilizer, etc.) is better. In Oerter’s analogy, arable land now stands for the child’s genes, sowing and cultivation for the upbringing and other environmental influences (educational atmosphere), and field crops for the result of the interaction between genes and environment. And this is where the scam lies. Because, quite unlike in agriculture, the pedagogical predisposition which education then brings out should already present that definite quality. If it were the same in agriculture, then the field would supply the seeds and fertilizer in addition to the conditions of the soil. And a farmer can only dream of this. He has to sow if he wants to reap. While the image of a field speaks rationally of various natural qualities (soil, sowing, fertilizer, fruit, etc.) and indicates their connection, pedagogical gene theory would like to assert that the same quality exists three times: the ability to do mathematics, for example, is first already present as a predisposition, then it has to be added again as an environmental factor, and the result of the whole thing is again nothing more than the ability to do mathematics. That would be a strange way to farm, putting crops into the field that the field already contains so that they can then grow again! An absurd double detour. But this is the same way that the pedagogue represents the emergence of intellectual achievement.

Pedagogy isn’t bothered much by the fact that the gene idea is refuted by the way that the pedagogue supplements it with the environment idea. This supplementation is not a conclusion from the genes argument, but is due to the interest in getting rid of an undesirable side effect of the genes argument: On the one hand, the educator wants to hold on to the fact that education can do no more than the child can already do, without accepting the necessary consequence of this assertion, the superfluousness of education. And for this twofold concern, the combination of the two contradictory arguments about nature and environment suits pedagogy just fine.

The environment theory ...

claims that man is born a “blank sheet of paper,” a “tabula rasa,” i.e. not born into the world with a genetic predisposition, so to speak:

“It (meaning: education) is what creates the great differences among people. The small and almost imperceptible impressions of our tender childhood have very significant and lasting consequences. It is like the springs of some rivers where a gentle touch of the hand guides the water into canals, giving them a completely different course....” (John Locke, regarded as the founder of the environment theory, quoted in Theo Dietrich, Zeit- und Grundfragen... p.130)

The child is not supposed to be the product of his genetic make-up, but rather the product of the environmental influences on him. He is thought of as a passive material that indiscriminately absorbs whatever is affecting him. Hence the popularity of the image of the wax tablet on which the environment makes its mark. The child is presented as malleable in any way, whereby the content of the shaping is determined by the influences that the environment has on him: from road traffic to an alcoholic father to school lessons, everything should be equally influential. And that is pure nonsense.

Because if the child were this indeterminate, passive thing, then it would simply be inexplicable how, for example, the alcoholic father should have any effect on him at all. The father in himself says nothing to the child: he neither causes the child to take to drink, nor causes the child to turn into a fanatical prohibitionist, nor to take any notice at all. All these ways of responding assume a judgment by the child about this “environmental stimulus” and this alone decides which conclusions the child draws from his experiences with the drunkard. If the child were in the condition assumed by the environmental theory, then he would not be able to respond at all because he would not know what to respond to: to the shining sun (what does it say? Close the curtain, sunbathe, read a good book?), to the raging father, to the crying mother, to the dirty kitchen floor, to the friend at play ….?

Obviously, educators aren’t interested in explaining any educational outcome. Instead, they demonstrate how much they appreciate the complete manipulability of educational material. Nothing would be nicer than a child who can only express what the educator submits to him as a performance of his will. Here, then, is presented the ideal of a will that is incapable of resistance.

Pedagogues themselves prove that there is no support for the view that the environment has a formative effect: they steer clear of corroborating which childish qualities are supposed to be caused by which environmental influences. They prefer to dispense with any burden of proof by blaming the unprovability of their assertion on the subject: environmental influences are so “complex” that no educational result can be traced back to what caused it. But how do they know that environmental influences are responsible if they can’t even say which ones are supposed to have had what effect?

... needs the genes

In education theory, the pedagogical environment idea about the child who can be molded any old way can’t do without recourse to a – two-sided – genes argument.

First, it claims that every intellectual achievement that results from education is based on a characteristic that the child “brings with them”: It can be filled with any content. Not that it argues at one time with genes, at another time without, thus distinguishing genetic and environmental theories. The difference is in the judgment about the quality of the genes. While the “pure” concept of genes says that very specific intelligence performances are supposed to be determined in humans, the environmental argument claims to have discovered a determination of determinability:

“We have to imagine this edifice in an enormously broad and vivid way, and what we find out about the consciousness and behavior of a specific person is always the result of this edifice and its confrontation with the world in which the possibilities of inheritance first become realities.” (Hermann Giesecke, Introduction to Pedagogy, 1971, p.24)

This concords with the second side of the gene theory in one respect: it also claims that it is entirely up to education what becomes of the ability which is redefined as possibility. But the inheritance theorist wants to maintain the absurdity that education only gives the child what he already has.

But the two theories have more in common than this. Because, secondly, the environment argument wants to know about the result of an environmental impact that has already taken place: Once an impact has occurred, humans are no longer arbitrarily malleable, as was assumed at the outset. For once the “water” is in a certain “channel,” it resists any further random diversions. What was once engraved in the wax tablet is “permanent,” i.e. it should determine and limit what can still be engraved in the future:

“For the educator, the aspect of stabilizing and channelling is important insofar as the direction taken in the course of development can rarely be changed again. The course is set at an early stage, and all influences on the child later on can only be successful within the framework already set.” (Rolf Oerter, Modern Developmental Psychology, 1976, p. 26)

Once formed, a person loses his malleability – and obtains in terms of substance specific aptitudes which are so firmly established they might as well have come with his genetic make-up. This is a very contradictory idea: because if the child can be moulded, then every new influence on him will produce a new remoulding. Otherwise, however, pedagogy assumes that the child has a tendency towards immutability. But then again it is not foreseeable why a moulding should be possible at all: Why then does the child not defend his original openness by refusing any influence? All this in the image of the wax tablet: Why should the soft wax suddenly solidify into cement with the first molding?

Resolving the appearance of debate

It is therefore not true that there is a genes-environment debate in education theory in which gene theorists and milieu theorists are irreconcilably opposed to each other. That this “debate” among pedagogues – there is no talk of biologists here – is an invention can be seen from the fact that all the textbooks present the debate in the same way, but a proponent of one of the allegedly conflicting positions can’t be found in the pages of any textbook. The differences lie at most in the emphasis on the two complementary errors. And in its own way pedagogy admits this.

It has long since declared that the alleged conflict between genes and environment is capable of peaceful coexistence in a very crude way:

“Geneticists estimate the effect of hereditary factors on the development of intelligence at 60-80%.” (Theo Dietrich, Time and Basic Questions..., p. 136)

So geneticists differ from environmental theorists in that they give more weight to hereditary factors than to environmental impacts – expressed in the argument about 20%, 80 or 50%, 50 or 80%, 20% ... The absurd consensus here is that hereditary factors and environment are assumed to be quantitatively complementary determinants and that there is at best a dispute about how much causality the environment contributes and how much causality the genes contribute. This is absurd because the same intelligence is now based on two contradictory causalities, which are treated at the same time as if they were one shared causality consisting of two parts of the same quality, so that one can count causative proportions. Two conflicting causalities thus become two half causalities that can be added together: mastery of French comes half from the genes, which apparently contains half the vocabulary. The other half come from the environment, which contributes the rest of the vocabulary. So the lack of a factor should then probably result in the classic half-formation!

This logic of adding genes and environment can be avoided by plugging in another pedagogical mediation:

“The dynamic understanding of aptitude mediates between the extreme positions listed so far. The proponents of this tendency assume that inherited dispositions – as endowed abilities – must be accepted for a type and degree of achievement, but that they can only develop in close interaction with the environment. The genes can therefore always only be viewed as a potency or drive that needs to be addressed by the environment. Without such help from the environment, the existing genes-related possibility would not be able to become a reality … The intertwining of heritage and environment does not allow a decision to be made in individual cases as to what and how much of a person’s behavior is based on endogenous conditions or exogenous influences. The consequence of this for child rearing and teaching is that parents and educators on the one hand must not prematurely abandon their educational efforts, and on the other hand they must bear in mind that the genes-related prerequisites for giftedness must always be observed...” (Theo Dietrich, Zeit- und Grundfragen..., p. 133f)

This way of speaking about the “interweaving” of environmental and hereditary influences in every intellectual achievement simply spares one the need to prove what is supposed to operate together and how. The scientific information is: somehow in a confused way the two work with each other, on top of each other, against each other, one after the other... Nothing specific is said at all, except that genes and environment are influences. So the two contradictory causes then fit together perfectly, because one simply doesn’t ask how they are supposed to fit together.

This nonsense is also supposed to be extremely relevant to practice. This is supposed to be an important decision-making aid for the practitioner: He must not declare further instruction to be pointless too early or too late! Of course, pedagogy cannot say when is too early, too late or just in time – because of the above-mentioned entanglement, it should not be possible to decide whether someone has not understood the ABCs because of his genes or a bad environment. Pedagogues therefore answer the question: “How long do I have to leave the cake in the oven?” with the helpful tip: “Not too short, but not too long either!”

A nice piece of information about the practical relevance of this science: If it were up to it, no decisions would be made at all in school – neither for the continuation nor for the termination of an educational endeavor. Conversely, the decisions constantly made about childrens’ educational careers definitely do not follow the criteria come up with by pedagogy. Admittedly, pedagogy has nothing to do with this. This is what it finds in the form of state guidelines on how to decide on the educational path of children.

What this science contributes is something quite different: it provides the executive organ of state directives, the teacher, with a way to interpret the sorting of children into the various sections of the educational hierarchy. He can now imagine that he is not executing the state’s interest in supplying the various departments of the occupational hierarchy with useful material, but that he is ultimately constantly struggling with the problem of not overburdening the children in terms of their capabilities, but also of providing them with sufficient support. It is thus already certain for the theory that school is an institution for the advancement of children. It is also certain that ignorance at some point does not prove the need for education, but the child’s inability to learn, which school can’t avoid even with the best will in the world. It also proves that the education system corresponds in principle with human nature when it excludes the “stupid” from further education. At best, one can doubt whether school in general and any teacher in particular has found the right point to switch to “stupid stays stupid...” Maybe a little more encouragement would have been good...?

In this way, pedagogy provides the agent of class schooling with the appropriate ideology for the decisions that need to be made about a child’s life: Sometimes there has to be instruction because there has to be encouragement – perhaps because of an “education crisis.” Sometimes the system has proven to be unfundable – when more emphasis is placed on the development of the “elite” again. And that is why it is so useful that every teacher has learned one thing about genes and environment: Pedagogy does not want to tell him when to use the genes argument and when to apply the environment idea. So the decision can always be made entirely according to the purpose of the educational institution.