Every preceding generation of humanity loudly proclaims their successors will make society stupider, more selfish, and slip farther away from our core morality. If you don’t at least suspect this, you’re probably a millennial.
But a new report indicates that attitude from ancestors could hold some validity. The Reykjavik genetics firm deCODE found genes linked to people spending more years in education had decreased in Iceland from 1910 to 1975.
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Pinpointing gene variants predisposed to educational attainment, scientists examined a database of more than 100,000 Icelanders and discovered a small decline over time. This could indicate natural selection to steer away from organized learning. Perhaps more startling was the effect these genes had on procreation.
Those who carried more “education genes” tended to have fewer children than others. This led the scientists to propose that the genes had become rarer in the population because, for all their qualifications, better educated people had contributed less than others to the Icelandic gene pool.
This report goes in hand with a recent Harvard study by Jonathan Beauchamp who found evidence that humans are still evolving by focusing on the lifetime reproductive success (rLRS) of a small portion of the U.S. populace. (For the record: The scientific community debates whether humans have or have not stopped evolving yet.) Beauchamp reported that natural selection was working very softly against educational attainment.
After studying the data, Beauchamp found evidence of evolution in two phenotypes—a slight uptick in the age of first menstruation and a trend toward a lower rLRS for people who had more education—conversely, people with less education had more kids and thus more opportunity to pass on their genes.
Beauchamp did, however, acknowledge the limitations of his small data set and that using this data to indicate future trends could be problematic. The rates of technological advancement, along with various other social progression, could have profound effects.
Natural selection opting away from educational attainment remains a recent development. Kari Stefansson, who led the Icelandic study, warned that if the trend continued for centuries, it could lead to serious implications.
As he told The Guardian: “The cumulative effect over time means this is going to have a dramatic effect on the genetic predisposition to educational attainment, and unless something comes along to counteract that, it could have a profound effect on educational attainment in our society.”