Genetic Explanations

Why Poorer Students Are Underrepresented In Top Universities – an Evolutionary Perspective



“Top” universities are under pressure to recruit poor students with lower grades and to do more to recruit more pupils from “poorer” backgrounds.

7% of children go to private schools and make up a much bigger proportion of top university places.  Intuitive logic leads us to believe that it must be the private schools that make the difference. So something must be done to level the playing field for equally talented poorer children.

However, there is little hard evidence that proves conclusively that good quality private schools give an unfair advantage.  So recently the UK Government’s university funding body did some research on 132,000 students to try to prove this “causal link” between good quality schools and academic success.   If this link was proven they could demand that pupils from poorer schools should be given lower grades to enter the top universities on the assumption that it would take higher levels of intelligence to get the same grades as pupils at better schools.  Surprisingly for many, the study showed the effect of the quality of schooling was much smaller than was imagined.  Astoundingly, for the very brightest pupils the quality of schooling made no difference at all to their ultimate academic success.

So this intuitive “conclusion” that affluent children attending good schools have an unfair advantage over equally talented children at poorer schools is not supported by the facts.

The expected “causal link” between academic success and private schools failed to take into account three massive confounding factors:

1. Personality and intelligence is largely genetically inherited from our parents.

2. We do not mate randomly.  i.e. we carefully choose our sexual partners.  This is a phenomenon called “assortative mating”.

3. We now have adequate social mobility so bright children eventually find their due place in society before they have children.

So how do these factors affect society? It perfectly explains these facts:

Let’s start by looking at a few seemingly unrelated facts:

1. The research highlighted in The Times on 17th June 2013 shows that the 24 largest research universities in the Russell Group admit a lower proportion of undergraduates from state schools and from poor families than ten years ago.

2. Children from wealthier families were nearly twice as likely to leave school with five good GCSEs, including maths and English, as those from poorer families — 63% against 36%.

3. After the ludicrously embedded class system in UK was largely dismantled after the last war we saw a massive surge in social mobility, which has now come to a screeching halt.

4. It seems poor white children do worse than poor ethnic minorities despite having a similar “poor” upbringing and environment. i.e. poorer outcome, same nurture.

5. Of the 20 top local authorities in terms of sending pupils to the prestigious Russell Group universities, 19 are in London and the south. Of the 20 worst-performing councils on the same league table, 18 are in the north.

Overwhelming evidence from identical twin studies, adoption studies, molecular genetics and Mendelian genetics give us a big clue. But it is difficult to piece all the strands together causing billions of tax pounds to be wasted on closing a “perceived” gap in equality.

First we must acknowledge that talent and motivation are largely heritable (i.e. we receive them through our genes).  The massive data from identical twin / adoption studies have shown that the “environment” of pupils before World War 2 accounted for some of the differences in a person’s eventual social status by age 35. For example, an intelligent working class child born into a 1920s Welsh coal mining community had little chance of getting to university.

After World War Two there was an enormous amount of social mobility due to Grammar Schools, public school scholarship and much improved State schools.  As the social restrictions in our society were removed children with the genes that coded for talent and motivation broke free.  This happened across Britain with working class children shooting up the social scale with talent in science, engineering, law, sports and the arts.

These talented people did well.  They earned a good living, achieved a higher social status and joined the affluent middle classes.  Combine the fact that talent and motivation is largely inherited through our genes with one of the most passionate and time consuming aspects of human behaviour, i.e. finding a mate, and you have a very powerful natural force. Talented, motivated women generally seek and marry talented, motivated men.  They then generally have talented, motivated children. i.e. they cluster the genes responsible for these talented, motivated characteristics into certain sections of society. As these characteristics generally lead to higher earning potential they are more likely cluster in the affluent parts of society. Also these talented genes will move and cluster to where the best jobs are.  i.e. in London and the South East of England.

This is unfair, but I’m explaining the is not the ought. This biological process is called “assortative mating”.   As these (now middle class) children had parents who were more affluent they also had a higher chance of being sent to a private school.

So effectively, genes for talent and motivation starting leaving the working class areas (such as coal mining villages) after World War Two and became middle class. 

We would predict that eventually we would see a more polarised genetic society as the genes for talent and motivation are slowly leached out of the working class areas.  Eventually social mobility will slow down and humanities educated journalists and politicians will scratch their heads and wonder why, and then conclude that more must be done to help the talented working class children who used to exist but have now mysteriously disappeared.

Genetic studies since World War 2 (in the developed world) shows upbringing makes little difference to our eventual social status, peer groups makes some difference but the largest driver is the genes for talent and motivation we inherit from our parents.  Our upbringing, education and experiences are transient, so the  influence of different “nurture” experience on our lives will be diminished over time.  Our genes exert their influence consistently throughout our whole life.

This explains what we have seen in recent history. A strong genetic determinant of talent and motivation combined with a sudden dismantling of unfairness in society will lead to an initial surge in social mobility. However this social mobility will then fade as beneficial genes cluster into the affluent parts of society by the process of assortative mating.

The top private schools are highly selective and have rigorous academic entry requirements.  This alone would explain why private schools have a disproportionate number of students at top universities.  Assortative mating further explains why private schools and affluent families provide a disproportionate number of students to top universities on merit, and why they are providing slightly more now than 10 years ago.  As assortative mating continues its influence this trend is likely to continue, unless our politicians want to start choosing with whom we mate?

Top universities may be becoming less socially representative, but they are representing where the talent has clustered because in a relatively socially mobile environment, talented genes will cluster in affluent parts of society.

For new immigrants the social factors which have limited their progress until now are relatively recent, so we expect the genes for talent and motivation to be more numerous in poorer parts of their society as they haven’t had time to cluster in the more affluent parts of society.

This explains why poorer students from ethnic minorities out-perform their white peers. i.e. same nurture but better outcome.

As the better paid jobs in the UK are predominantly in London we could also predict that there would eventually be a migration of talented genes from other parts of the UK to the south-east of England causing an academic north-south divide. This also seems to be the case (reference and explanation).

Remember is not ought.

The breathtaking irony is that social mobility has stopped because society is more equal. Social mobility has allowed genes that denote talent and motivation to cluster in affluent parts of society by the process assortative mating.

The class-war warriors and socialists had a laudable dream of equality whereby poor working class children would be fairly and equally represented in society.  They made the assumption that talented and motivated children were thrown up by society at random.  i.e. that talented and motivated children are equally spread across class and relative affluence.  So once “equality” was achieved they imagined a world where there would be a fair representation of working class originated talent in the top echelons of society in perpetuity.

They were wrong. Society is now much more equal, but because talent and motivation are largely genetically encoded the talent has just migrated to the affluent parts of society by the process of assortative mating.

Or put another way, intelligent and motivated individuals tend to increase their social and economic status in a relatively socially mobile society. It’s not the posh getting cleverer, but the clever getting posher.

Our future is not entirely genetically determined and I have no doubt that good schools with quality teachers make a difference.  We should continue do everything we can to ensure that individuals from all parts of society have access to an excellent education and quality careers with equal opportunity to succeed on merit alone.  But if we are to have a serious debate on helping “disadvantaged” children we need to look at all causes of inequality and move away from the discredited 1960’s assumptions that it is explained by “nurture” and “class”, which is what most press articles on the subject imply. We should learn a little about evolutionary biology and genetics before making these wild assumptions.

It is in our interest as a society that we have the best people in the right jobs. We all benefit from a genuine meritocracy.  There should be no discrimination based on colour, class or sex. But this includes “positive” discrimination too. We should not be giving people a leg-up because of a perceived injustice unless we can prove beyond doubt that they really have been disadvantaged.

Governments should set their expectations correctly before spending billions more tax pounds trying to save all pupils from a “perceived” injustice. They should instead target Government spending on developing each child’s individual and innate talents and motivations.

Further listening on the genetics of intelligence:

Intelligence: Born Smart, Born Equal, Born DifferentThree BBC Radio programmes on the genetics of intelligence.

What makes some children smarter than others?  Professor Robert Plomin talks to Jim Al-Khalili about what makes some people smarter than others and why he’s fed up with the genetics of intelligence being ignored.


Differences in degree outcomes: Key findings  (examines the extent to which a student’s background affects their chance of obtaining an upper second or first class degree)

Twins early development studies

Differences in students’ GCSE results owe more to genetics than environment:

IQ is in the Genes

We can’t ignore the evidence: genes affect social mobility

One Cause of Inequality: More Rich Marrying One Another

Marry Your Like: Assortative Mating and Income Inequality

Women, Men and the New Economics of Marriage

Why is there an academic north-south divide in Britain?

How Much Difference Does a Good School Make to Your Child’s Academic Achievement?

Getting ’em young (The Economist looks at the impact of early years education)

Genetic influence on GCSE results

Genetics and general cognitive ability : Article : Nature

Genetics – How Intelligence Changes with Age

Access : Childhood intelligence is heritable, highly polygenic and associated with FNBP1L 

Genes may play role in educational achievement

Access : Genome-wide association studies establish that human intelligence is highly heritable and polygenic 

Genetic and environmental contributions to the covariance between occupational status, educational attainment, and IQ


4 thoughts on “Why Poorer Students Are Underrepresented In Top Universities – an Evolutionary Perspective

  1. Pingback: Gender based learning difficulties – why do many more boys struggle than girls? | RGAmbler

  2. Pingback: Dr. Rachel Cohen is wrong about the modern causes of social inequality. | RGAmbler

  3. Pingback: Why is there an academic north-south divide in Britain? | RGAmbler

  4. Pingback: How Much Difference Does a Good School Make to Your Child’s Academic Achievement? | RGAmbler

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