A new study says that the genes which “predispose people to attain higher levels of education” have been declining for the last 80 years, and the result could have drastic consequences for the future of the human species.
The research looked at over 100,000 Icelanders and discovered that people who carry the “education gene” were not as likely to have big families — in other words, “the smartest people in the room were actually contributing less to the Icelandic gene pool.”
Any negative effects wouldn’t become apparent for hundreds of years and beyond. More people are getting access to education every day; however, “over the course of several centuries into the future – well beyond the proliferation of schools and training access,” the gene effect could have “significant” consequences.
Science Alert reports:
“In evolutionary time, this is a blink of an eye. However, if this trend persists over many centuries, the impact could be profound.”
The researchers analysed the birth rate of 129,808 individuals born in Iceland between 1910 and 1990 who had their genomes sequenced, and compared this to their education levels.
They found that there was a genetic factor related to a person’s likelihood of attending school for longer, and came up with a ‘polygenic score‘ based on 620,000 sequence variations – or markers – in the human genome to determine an individual’s genetic propensity for education.
As the team points out, no one knows the exact mix between genetic and environmental factors that leads to someone’s education level, but previous studies have estimated that the genetic component of educational attainment can account for as much as 40 percent of the difference between individuals.
Once that polygenetic score was correlated with factors like educational attainment, fertility, and birth years, the researchers found that those with a higher genetic propensity towards more education tended to have fewer children.
They also found that the average polygenetic score has been declining at a small, but significant rate on an evolutionary timescale.
Researchers concede it is very difficult to predict what will happen so far into the future, and point to the value of a “continued effort towards ensuring that every human has access to education” as it could offset the negative genetic factors.