BGI, the Chinese genome-sequencing behemoth, has been attracting attention from feature writers over the last couple of weeks (MIT Technology Review, Business Week, Financial Times). That's only going to get more intense, it seems, as BGI delves deeper into the long-standing controversy about inherited intelligence. A Wall Street Journal article on February 15th, by Gautam Naik, was headlined:
A Genetic Code for Genius?
with the subhead:
In China, a research project aims to find the roots of intelligence in our DNA; searching for the supersmart
The project is being run by Zhao Bowen, described in the first sentence of the WSJ story as "a 20-year-old wunderkind." But it's misleading to think of it as a purely Chinese effort. MIT Technology Review describes BGI as "the enabler of other people's ideas," with this as a major example. BGI is doing the sequencing and genetic comparison, and picking up half the tab, with a hefty contribution from the Shenzhen government, but the project was conceived by Stephen Hsu, now of Michigan State, and substantially relies on samples gathered by Robert Plomin, of King's College, London.
Hsu has been discussing genes and intelligence for several years, since he was a physics professor at the University of Oregon; we gave him some "mild ridicule" in 2011, noted his connection with BGI and warned that we should keep an eye on this. He made no bones about his desire to identify the alleles for intelligence, select for them, and work on "possible near term genetic engineering for intelligence."
Plomin has been working on IQ for decades. As long ago as 1976, he published an letter on "Heritability of IQ" in Science, responding (as did many others) to M.W. Feldman and R.C. Lewontin. In 1994, he and others claimed to have found "DNA markers associated with high versus low IQ" and "the genetic basis of complex human behaviors." (A 2010 survey, however, found there had been no "reliably reproducible contributions from individual genes"). In the same year, he was also one of the signatories of the Wall Street Journal op-ed "Mainstream Science on Intelligence," which weighed in on the Bell Curve controversy, essentially supporting the book and its inflammatory suggestions about the "intelligence gap" between racial groups in U.S. society.
In 1998, Plomin claimed to have found an intelligence gene, though admitting it only accounted for "about 2 percent of the variance, or 4 I.Q. points." In 2000, he was leading a research team that claimed to be "homing in on the genes for genius." Since then he seems to have been frustrated by the "missing heritability" problem — the failure to find genes that explain inheritance of specific attributes. (GeneWatch published a useful survey of his career in November 2011.) He continues to work on twin studies and supplied blood samples of high-IQ people to BGI.
The concept of general intelligence (g) itself has been for years, and remains, intensely controversial, as indeed are twin studies. Moreover, the search for the supposed genetic basis of complex human behaviors keeps coming up dry. People do, however, keep looking, as the new book Genetic Explanations: Sense and Nonsense (Harvard University Press, 2013) examines in detail. Jeremy Gruber, who edited the book with Sheldon Krimsky, told the Wall Street Journal that there are real dangers in this kind of approach to investigating intelligence, which has been used in the past
to target particular racial groups or individuals and delegitimize them. I'd be very concerned that the reductionist and deterministic trends that still are very much present in the world of genetics would come to the fore in a project like this.
Zhao Bowen, however, is undaunted. He's been working on this since 2010, when he was 17; his plan then was to sequence the genes of 1000 of his highest-achieving classmates. That didn't come off, but connecting with Hsu and Plomin must have been a dream come true. His team is now comparing the genomes of 2200 high-IQ people with several thousand random people, and he seems to be very confident:
"The genetic basis of intelligence has been ignored for a very long time," says Mr. Zhao. "Our data will be ready in three months' time."
Whatever they find is all too likely to trigger a flurry of ill-informed headlines about the genes of geniuses and the limitations of the rest of us. This could even lead to a new round of advocacy for eugenics, whether in a state-sponsored or strictly commercial implementation. We'd better be ready.
Previously on Biopolitical Times:
Posted in Eugenics, Genetic Selection, Personal genomics, Pete Shanks's Blog Posts, Sequencing & Genomics
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