Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Genetics and education

Morning all. I’m handing over to my guest blogger today as it’s Wednesday. Enjoy!


This week’s subject is quite challenging so get your thinking caps on.

The results of a study (in the UK) and a recent book (G For Genes) about the academic achievements of 10,000 sets of identical twins have caused something of an uproar. Why? Firstly because the report was leaked to a newspaper when it was meant for internal use only and secondly because of its potential implications. The senior policy advisor to the UK Government’s Education Secretary reckons that genetics are the largest factor in educational achievement.

Let me explain. The identical twins were born 1994-96 and the results of their GCSE exams (at 16 yrs old) have been analysed. A recent radio programme (The Moral Maze, Radio 4) tackled the subject and one of the authors of the book quoted a figure saying that 52% of the variance in the results was down to genetics. Their suggestion was that we should consider the idea of “genetically sensitive schools”. Wow! Does that make you think (like me): “I wonder where this is going?”

If you fancy a listen to the discussion programme here’s the link:

Now it’s this radio programme I’d like to refer back to for this brief survey of some of the issues involved. For those who don’t know the format there is a panel who question the speakers (called witnesses in the prog) about the view they are putting forward either in favour of the subject or against it. The idea is to focus on any moral issues that do (or could) arise from the subject under investigation.

The first speaker was one of the authors of the book. Their view was that, as scientists, they simply put the facts out and it’s up to others to interpret or from the government side formulate policy based on the results of that research. In other words they did not see any moral dilemma in deciding whether to publish or not. They’re basically saying they do not see they have any responsibility for the possible outcomes. Do you agree with that? Should science incorporate a moral responsibility to the society round about it and possibly further afield? Despite the authors of the book claiming that it was not the scientist’s job to formulate policy one of the panel (who had read the book) said that they did actually suggest policy matters towards the end of their book.

The genetic information would enable schools to be able to personalise learning through understanding a child’s genetic as well as social background. I’m wondering at this point how on earth they could possibly keep data like this safe. I don’t what security is like in whatever country you live in but over the past few years, here in the UK, there have been a number of whole databases lost, stolen or compromised: laptops have been stolen (one from the seat of a car of a Ministry of Defence employee), memory sticks have been left where they shouldn’t have been and sometimes corrupt employees have changed information on a person (and more recently even patients in a hospital have had their “information” changed). Just think of the implications of say your whole genetic make up being stolen. Supposing you play in a group and someone finds out that you don’t have a “musical” profile in your genetic make-up. Do you get fired or asked to leave?

When a panel member suggested that it seemed that the research was leading us to a situation where when a child is born their genetic “profile” established & stored so that when they were of school age their learning could be tailored to suit that child; the author said that the research did not support such a view. They re-iterated the view that their role was simply to put the facts out and let others make decisions based on it.

The second speaker was a teacher from the south of England who works in a school (Years 1-6, ages 5-11) where they have a different view about how children should learn.

There is a video of some of the kids and the teaching in class on their site (

Now before giving you their idea he claimed that their results in exams provide proof that the system they use works. So what is the system? I can base what I write only on what the speaker said as I have no experience in the field (and don’t know anyone with it). The school ethos is “Learning Without Limits”. The difference is that they do not use the term “able” or “ability” (either high or low or any variation of it). He explained that the school allows the children to “choose their level of differentiation (or challenge)” in each lesson. If you watch the video you can see children explaining a bit about how this “challenge” idea works. The children make the decisions that affect the pace of their learning and ultimately I suppose their future. “Able” he feels has negative connotations so they speak of a child working at a particular “level”. The child makes the choice on the next level of challenge. They are the learner in the process; they are part of a “learning journey”. Now obviously I don’t know how that works in practise but I think most of us probably came through the old system of “streaming”: the clever ones in a subject went into “Set 1” (the top set) or whatever your school called it with the rest going downwards in 2,3,4 etc so it is very hard for us to imagine how we could choose what our next learning level would be. All I can say is that, if the school results which he says are very good are anything to go by, it seems to work where he teaches. When asked about whether genetic information would (or could?) help him in his job he was rather non-committal. I wonder what you think of the idea. I also wonder how the children will fare when they have to go into a senior school where this particular idea is not used; how well will they be able to adapt? Well, it’s food for thought for anyone who has left school behind even just a few years ago. Would this system have suited you?

The programme couldn’t go into many different areas because of its remit but think about some of these scenarios. Can you imagine a staff room conversation in which teachers would be talking about whether pupil X or pupil Y should be taught music or art because they did not have the “musical gene” or the “artistic gene” in their profile? Suppose a child just loves music and wants to do it. Why shouldn’t they? They might not be the next classical composer or pop sensation but they could enjoy doing music for its own sake and be willing to practise. Under this new idea they would probably be excluded because they didn’t have the right genetic profile for musical ability. Don’t know about you but it sounds scary to me! More importantly where does it go next? Do interviewees, for example, take their genetic profile to a potential employer to demonstrate why they should be given the job rather than someone else? What about relationships between people? Would dating agencies request genetic profiles so they could “match” the same sort of people? You might be offered potential dates only with those who are “most suited” genetically. Suppose the country is short of scientists would you be happy if the government decided to look for any of the population who had the scientific ability gene? They might then be given special “treatment” in certain areas: educational, financial & even social. I’m sure you can think of a number of other areas in which research like this would have a major impact. If you thought 1984 (Orwell) was scary the potential of this research takes things to a whole new level. If you weren’t scared before I hope you can see why now you could have reason to be. I’ve only been able to look superficially at some of the implications but where do you see this sort of thing going?

(There were two more speakers in the programme but I’ll leave them till next week as they cover a number of different areas to the two people I’ve covered here.)  


I’m handing over to my guest blogger today for a bit of philosophy. Enjoy!

Today’s subject is in the area of philosophy but please don’t switch off. It will be, as you will see, very personal & very practical. What follows will I think challenge you to take stock of what you really believe about right & wrong. This particular area of philosophy has become known as something called “The Trolley Problem”.

Although the problem is as old as the human race this particular way of representing it is fairly recent & only goes back to 1967. It is defined as “a thought experiment in ethics” (Wikipedia). It is called “Trolley-ology” (I kid you not). Never heard of it? Let me explain. There are many situations we all meet in our day-to-day lives which are dangerous: crossing the road, driving, getting on/off buses or trains and for some people even swimming! However if I was to start by asking you if there are any circumstances under which you would take a decision resulting in the death of another person you would probably say normally ‘no’ but ‘yes’ only in very special situations – maybe in self-defence or in war. What I want you to consider is some situations that have to have an action taken which will unfortunately result in death. That can’t be avoided but it is how we make the decision which is important. We will look at a few imaginary scenarios, in order to do this, but with very direct applications to real life.

You may not think what comes next has any bearing on reality but I assure you it does and with situations which have to have a decision made. In other words you can’t choose to do nothing because people will still die if you do nothing. You can’t do nothing just because you don’t like what is going to happen or because you say, well, it will never be me who has to make that decision so I don’t need to bother.

Have a think on the following and see what you come up with.

Scenario 1: Suppose you are standing by a railway track and an out-of-control train (called a ‘trolley’ in the terminology of this field of study) is hurtling along. It is going to hit and kill 5 railway workers who are doing some work further down the track. You notice you are standing by a lever which operates the “points” at a junction on the track before the place where the men are working. If you pull the lever you can divert the train along another track where there is only one person working who would be killed. What would you do? Easy isn’t it? You divert the train (trolley) and only 1 person is killed so in the final settlement 5 out of 6 people are still alive. Job done. Feel comfortable? Probably, although obviously you still regret the one person dying. However their life lost has resulted in 5 being saved. Still good?

This type of situation is faced in various guises in real life but let me use an example from WW2. When the German military were sending rockets over to attack London the British found they were falling short of their target (London) and landing in the Kent countryside. The government took a decision to feed info back, via double agents and false reports, that targets in London had actually been hit. This would cause the Germans to send more rockets to similar positions but with the risk now that towns and villages in Kent could be hit and innocent people would die. It was a strategic decision and had to be taken in order to preserve the organisations dealing with the war effort in London itself. Ok for London? –Yes; not OK if you live in the Kent countryside where the rockets are exploding. Winston Churchill had to make that decision and he did – he fed the false info back and the bombs dropped in the Kent area, in some cases, hitting residential areas.

However consider a variation on Scenario 1 – what happens if I tell you that the 5 workers were all in their 60s nearing retirement and the one worker on the other track was just 18 yrs old. Would make the same decision now? On what basis would you either keep to your original decision or change it? Not so easy now, eh?

Scenario 2: You are standing on a footbridge over the railway. The same train (trolley) is hurtling out of control down the track. This time though there are no points nearby. However next to you on the footbridge is an obese gentleman. His bulk, if you pushed him off the bridge onto the track, would be enough to slow the train sufficiently for it not to reach the 5 workers. You know the question now don’t you? Would you push him off the bridge to save those 5? Well would you? Now it’s a lot harder because instead of just pushing a lever you actually have to push another human being to their death. More issues are raised, I think, because of the physical contact which now involves you in committing a criminal act to save the 5 people whereas pushing a lever didn’t seem to.

If you’re interested, in surveys done on this subject, most people answer Scenario 1 with a ‘yes’ but Scenario 2 with a ‘no’.

Scenario 3: You are a GP Doctor and one day a homeless man comes into your surgery. After speaking to him and examining him you find he just has some minor medical problem causing him the pains he’s complaining about. However you know you also have 5 patients who are all awaiting an organ transplant – each one a different organ. All of this man’s organs are healthy and intact. By killing him you could give life to 5 of your patients. Seems easy doesn’t it? A quick injection and it’s all over; he has no known relatives, no-one apparently will miss him or complain if he dies – 1 life taken and 5 saved. What would you do? Does the age of the homeless man matter – whether he is 18 or 70? Does it make a difference if among the 5 some may possibly be old or even terminally ill but would gain an extra 5 or more years of life with the transplant? Suppose, on the other hand, the homeless man is terminally ill (but the required organs are still ok to use)? Would you change your mind now?

To bring this one into the real world – a situation faced on-goingly by hospitals across the world: how do you allocate the money you have available and to which patients? A recent radio prog highlighted the difficulty. One hospital said they had a lady who required life-saving treatment which would cost £20,000 and her family, naturally, were pressing for that op to be done to save their relative. However the hospital also had 100 patients who would have their situations (not life-threatening) improved by a course of treatment costing £200 each. At this point, the hospital had only £20,000 to spend – so they could treat either the 1 or the 100. What would you do?

I hope you can see these scenarios are not really about runaway trains (trolleys) or imaginary doctor’s surgeries. They are about real life and a finite supply of money which cannot treat everybody. On what basis do we make decisions which have to be made and yet sadly involve the death of at least one person. They are about ethics and how we determine the rules we will live by. Is it more important for the individual to be granted his/her wishes for a longer life or that society takes a view on how to benefit the greatest number of people with the resources (financial & material) it has available?

There are a number of other scenarios in this field and I hope to look at a few more next week. For the moment ask yourself the question – what would you do if faced with the real life versions of these imaginary scenarios. What variations of the situations would make you think again? Definitely tough, isn’t it?