Genetics and Intelligence: A Forbidden Topic?

Intelligence has a substantial but mysterious genetic component1. Studies in twins indicate that genetic factors should explain significantly more than half of the variation in adult general intelligence — the abstract quantity measured in IQ tests. This, in turn, correlates well with attributes such as academic achievement and income. Although geneticists have identified hundreds of genes in which a single mutation can lead to developmental difficulties, the common genetic variants that lie behind normal diversity in intelligence remain elusive. It is widely assumed that, as is the case for traits such as height, there are thousands of such variants, the small effects of which combine to influence mental abilities.

The clear link between high intelligence and lifetime achievement has been painstakingly sketched out by the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth. The study was begun in the US in the 1970s, and over the decades it has continued to solidify the evidence linking high IQs and life achievement.

Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth Candidates 1983

Chinese researchers at BGI are now using data from the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, along with genetic data from Robert Plomin in the UK, to beef up their onslaught against the secret links between human genes and human intelligence.

The US adolescents who signed up for the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY) in the 1970s were the smartest of the smart, with mathematical and verbal-reasoning skills within the top 1% of the population. Now, researchers at BGI (formerly the Beijing Genomics Institute) in Shenzhen, China, the largest gene-sequencing facility in the world, are searching for the quirks of DNA that may contribute to such gifts. Plunging into an area that is littered with failures and riven with controversy, the researchers are scouring the genomes of 1,600 of these high-fliers in an ambitious project to find the first common genetic variants associated with human intelligence.

The project, which was launched in August 2012 and is slated to begin data analysis in the next few months, has spawned wild accusations of eugenics plots, as well as more measured objections by social scientists who view such research as a distraction from pressing societal issues. Some geneticists, however, take issue with the study for a different reason. They say that it is highly unlikely to find anything of interest — because the sample size is too small and intelligence is too complex.

Earlier large studies with the same goal have failed. But scientists from BGI’s Cognitive Genomics group hope that their super-smart sample will give them an edge, because it should be enriched with bits of DNA that confer effects on intelligence. “An exceptional person gets you an order of magnitude more statistical power than if you took random people from the population — I’d say we have a fighting chance,” says Stephen Hsu, a theoretical physicist from Michigan State University in East Lansing, who acts as a scientific adviser to BGI and is one of the project’s leaders.

Physicist Stephen Hsu — featured in the Google Talks video above — has worked closely with the BGI “genes and IQ” project from the beginning. Hsu recently moved from the University of Oregon to Michigan State University, to serves as a Vice President of Research and Graduate studies.

Besides promoting research into the links between genes and IQ, Stephen Hsu has been outspoken in his criticism of affirmative action admission policies, so it is surprising that he has found a degree of success in the hierarchy of a mainstream institution of higher education. Let’s hope he continues to find success in that arena.

In the modern world of political correctness, to admit that disadvantaged individuals and groups may be disadvantaged by nature, rather than by the villains du jour, is to go far out on the occupational limb — perhaps fatally far.

But if there is to be a future beyond the current suicidal leftist anti-realism and anti-westernism, someone has to step up.

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