Friday, November 01, 2013

Genes and Intelligence: A Big Taboo

From Erika Check Hayden's Nature News feature.

Growing up in the college town of Ames, Iowa, during the 1970s, Stephen Hsu was surrounded by the precocious sons and daughters of professors. Around 2010, after years of work as a theoretical physicist at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Hsu thought that DNA-sequencing technology might finally have advanced enough to help to explain what made those kids so smart. He was hardly the first to consider the genetics of intelligence, but with the help of the Chinese sequencing powerhouse BGI in Shenzhen, he planned one of the largest studies of its kind, aiming to sequence DNA from 2,000 people, most of whom had IQs of more than 150.

He hadn't really considered how negative the public reaction might be until one of the study's participants, New York University psychologist Geoffrey Miller, made some inflammatory remarks to the press. Miller predicted that once the project turned up intelligence genes, the Chinese might begin testing embryos to find the most desirable ones. One article painted the venture as a state-endorsed experiment, selecting for genius kids, and Hsu and his colleagues soon found that their project, which had barely begun, was the target of fierce criticism.

There were scientific qualms over the value of Hsu's work (see Nature 497, 297–299; 2013). As with other controversial fields of behavioural genetics, the influence of heredity on intelligence probably acts through myriad genes that each exert only a tiny effect, and these are difficult to find in small studies. But that was only part of the reason for the outrage. For decades, scientists have trodden carefully in certain areas of genetic study for social or political reasons.

I found the whole article interesting. Here's one (possibly crackpot) way of interpreting the vigor of the objection: finding a biological basis for human traits undermines today's dominant religion, humanism. It gets harder to worship something once you understand it.

I signed up for Harvard's Neuroscience MB 180.X, and the first video featured the Prof holding the brain of a dead person while waxing lyrical about it's complexity. Protective coloration?

Hayden is pushing a different interpretation:

At the root of this caution is the widespread but antiquated idea that genetics is destiny — that someone's genes can accurately predict complex behaviours and traits regardless of their environment. The public and many scientists have continued to misinterpret modern findings on the basis of this — fearing that the work will lead to a new age of eugenics, preemptive imprisonment and discrimination against already marginalized groups.

But the critics seem unimpressed by repeated iterations of this fact.