Opinion: Playing with Fire? Linking Intelligence to Our Genetics

Omar Abudayyeh*

*Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA
Address correspondence to: omar_abudayyeh@hms.harvard.edu

Reyu Sakakibara

Reyu Sakakibara

The race to map the genetic underpinnings of intelligence is on, and Chinese sequencing powerhouse BGI is in the lead. In August 2013, BGI (formerly the Beijing Genomics Institute) set out to determine the genetics of genius using next generation sequencing technologies and is arguably the most capable entity in the world to find the truth [1]. With more than 150 sequencing machines, it has the largest genetic sequencing facility in the world, and it has already sequenced more than 50,000 genomes[2]. BGI has previously applied its sequencing throughput to unraveling the genetic nature of several diseases, including autism and obesity [3]. Its workflow is fairly simple: find people with a trait to be studied, compare their DNA sequences with the genetics of people who lack the trait, and then channel the Ts, Cs, Gs, and As that make up each individual’s genetic code into large data centers where the institute’s thousand or so bioinformaticians begin digging into the heaps of data. To accomplish its next sequencing tour de force, BGI has spent the past several years investigating the genomes of approximately 1,600 highly intelligent children, and it is in the process of probing the data.

Attempts to identify such genes are usually met with criticism and embroiled in controversy; many experts claim that it will forever remain impossible to predict IQ, even with hundreds of thousands of genomes sequenced [4,5] . The intellect is a complex trait that relies on the interaction of thousands of genes. When Robert Plomin, a geneticist at King’s College London, attempted to find common genetic variants that could explain intelligence in 2010, he could not find one single variant amongst more than 350,000 possibilities across the genes of more than 7,900 gifted children [4]. And even if IQ could be mapped down to specific mutations, intelligence is still thought to be approximately 50-60% environmental [6].

However, more important than the question of whether BGI can accomplish this feat is the question of whether it should. Many scientists shy away from studying the genetics of intelligence due to ethical considerations and public pressure [4,7].  Science, public opinion, and ethics are intimately linked; ethical dilemmas have often altered the pace of discovery, recently, for example, in stem cell research when the currents of controversy slowed the advancement of science. It was not long ago that political bans prohibited the use of public funding for stem cell research, limiting progress for nearly a decade [8]. The currents were fortunately reversed in 2009 when Obama lifted the ban and opened up hundreds of millions of dollars for the field and sent a message to an international scientific community that stem cell research was open for business again. The ethical implications of sequencing controversial traits like intelligence have not resulted in any policy restrictions yet, but these could be on the horizon. Therefore, we must critically consider the implications of a genetic map for intelligence.

Some warn that success in mapping intelligence could herald a dark and gloomy future, with eugenics regaining popularity and societies scrambling to raise their collective IQs. It would be a future where prenatal whole-genome sequencing has become common practice and parents screen for desirable traits, including intelligence, and terminate as necessary. They might begin to screen in vitro for fertilized embryos with their preferred traits. Babies might one day even be genetically engineered, opening up many different possibilities. In one future, as explained by Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at NYU Business School and the University of New Mexico, each generation of selection could increase IQs by 5-15 points resulting in a society of super intelligent citizens after a few generations [9].

While this future might be hard to imagine, in some ways it has already arrived. Sixty to ninety percent of pregnant women with positive tests for Down syndrome decide to terminate the pregnancy [10]. A woman might terminate for many reasons, but on the whole it is conceptually difficult to separate this practice from terminating babies because their IQs are not high enough – both are cases where the child could reasonably be expected to live a happy and fulfilling life but is terminated due to some undesirability from the parent’s point of view. So, if we as a society permit screening for intelligence, what about for other undesirable factors such as obesity, addiction, or depression?

The controversy against sequencing intelligence is by no means a new debate. During the Human Genome Project, similar criticisms were raised, including that employers and insurance companies would genetically discriminate against people, developing a disease is not guaranteed by genetic risk factors, people would misunderstand their own genetics, prenatal screening would allow parents to select specific traits for their fetus, and that the social ramifications of behavior-based genetics would have negative societal effects  [11]. The debate regarding prenatal screening is so familiar today as Murray and LIvny argue with regards to the discovery of a gene for red hair:

“As inconceivable as it may seem to end a pregnancy because of red hair, one can imagine prospective parents recalling the misery of their own childhood as redheads and insisting that they are not willing to inflict similar suffering on their offspring.” [11]

Clearly, they were as worried in 1995 about prenatal screening traits as we are today in 2014. And the debate raged even deeper to social and moral issues like intelligence with regards to crafty individuals pushing political agendas because of behavioral implications of genetics with regards to issues like violence or socioeconomic status. Is it fair for people to be destined to a certain life of prison or poverty because of their genetics?

But the real issue is not the similarity of the debate of today with the debate of the 90s, but of the discoveries we might have never achieved if we had just given up on the promise of the genetics – that is the unknown unknowns tend to be the most fruitful results of any endeavor. After more than a decade after the completion of the Human Genome Project, the studies based on the human genome have elucidated the biological mechanisms of a variety of diseases from cancer to psychiatric disorders.  It even ushered in a therapeutic revolution with regards to targeted therapies for cancer based on the genetic mutations present in a patient’s tumor. Developments such as these would have never been predicted prior to the human genome, but yet have saved so many lives.

The present day issue of sequencing intelligence might bear similar fruits. A genetic map for intelligence could help screen for children who have a strong genetic intelligence but might not be realizing their full potential due to environmental causes or could even help isolate developmental problems in these children from birth. Because environment contributes significantly to intelligence, augmenting a child’s education early in their development could compensate and prevent permanent disabilities. There are many useful and positive interventions that could be informed by a better understanding of the genetics of intelligence, and these goals are worth pursuing – and of course there are unknown unknowns we can’t even predict, but are just as worthy.

There is enough that is uncertain in the world – let us not hesitate in answering the rare questions we are poised well enough to ask. Fear of the worst case scenario will keep us from realizing the best. Entrepreneur Jonathan Rothberg is someone forging ahead in this spirit. After having helped sequence the genomes of a Neanderthal man and James Watson, he announced in October 2013 that he is now embarking on a study he calls “Project Einstein”. Rothberg plans to uncover the roots of mathematical genius by sequencing 400 mathematicians and theoretical physicists from top institutions around the world [12].

Big steps in the history of mankind have often been met with skepticism and intense criticism; I would argue that understanding the genetic underpinnings of intelligence and having a map that would allow us to maximize it are great potential steps that lie close ahead. We live in an age of information where we know more than ever about ourselves, including our genetic backgrounds and future health. As we delve deeper into our biology and acquire more tools to probe our makeup, we must not shrink from the topics that unsettle us. Knowledge is power. The potential benefits of understanding at a genetic level every aspect of our personalities, our brains, and our health outweigh the costs and potential detriment to society – which can be limited through thoughtful social and legal policies and national legislation. We should celebrate this genetic power, but not abuse it.

About the artist: Reyu Sakakibara is an electrical engineering graduate student at MIT whose research is in quantum optics.  In her free time she likes to paint, draw, and run.


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