Genetic Future

More on race and IQ

I was surprised by the response to my brief post on the question of whether group (race or gender) differences in intelligence are a valid topic for scientific investigation: not only because of the volume of comments, but also because the ensuing debate was largely civil and on-topic. The post was sparked off by two conflicting essays in the most recent issue of Nature, one by Steven Rose opposing research into such differences, and another by Ceci and Williams arguing that sealing off certain lines of enquiry – however contentious – is dangerous and unscientific.

There’s now more on this topic on the two Gene Expression blogs. On GNXP Classic, ben g argues that Rose’s essay contains scientific flaws; I’m not at all qualified to comment on the scientific arguments (and would encourage readers to do so over at GNXP), but I agree with ben’s closing comments:

This is an argument for more research, not less.
This is an argument for genome-wide association studies, which will
allow us to pinpoint the genes that effect intelligence and how they
interact with the enviornment. This is an argument for more research on
the neuroscience behind IQ and intelligence. This is an argument for
further funding of projects to map out the genetic differences between
human populations world-wide.

There’s no debate about whether this research is “permissible” – as Razib notes in a post on ScienceBlogs GNXP, while there will never be a large NIH-funded project explicitly exploring group differences in cognition, such data will emerge naturally from the synthesis of the types of studies ben describes above, all of which are already underway to some extent. As Razib argues, the genetic studies will become faster, cheaper and larger with advances in DNA sequencing technology. It’s only a matter of time before the relevant intersecting data-sets are used to crunch the numbers.

I’d argue that this is a good thing – arguing about data is always infinitely preferable to
arguing about ideas
. So long as open scientific discourse is permitted in this field, any shoddy, politically-driven findings will be rapidly swept away by hard data from large,
well-designed studies.

But will open scientific discourse be permitted? This is why Rose’s implicit argument – that anyone who even considers the question of group differences in cognition is a bigot – is so dangerous. Who would you rather have crunching the numbers above: respectable researchers with a sound knowledge of the limitations of genetics and psychometrics, or individuals working in their basement with a political axe to grind? Labelling the field off-limits to “civilised” scientists essentially guarantees the latter.

I’ll leave it to Razib to spell out the likely consequences of studies into the genetic basis of intelligence – it’s difficult to speculate about this area given how little we currently know about the genetic architecture of cognitive and behavioural traits, but his projections seem plausible to me.

 
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Comments

  1. #1 razib
    February 18, 2009

    hitler.

  2. #2 trrll
    February 18, 2009

    While I see no scientific or social value to a study of correlations between genes affecting cognitive performance and those visibly evident physical traits associated with geographic origin that we identify (however crudely and superficially) as markers of “race.” I agree with Razib that such information will inevitably emerge as a result of other studies.

    Considering that, aside from genetic conditions producing profound mental impairment, we currently have barely a clue of what genetic alleles affect cognitive performance, this probably won’t happen in the immediate future. Nevertheless, it is time for biologists to begin the task of public education to minimize the impact of the inevitable misuse of such information to promote prejudice and discrimination.

    It seems to me that the most dangerous, public misconception is the notion that traits influenced by genetic differences are “innate,” and not subject to modification by nongenetic means. Of course, biologists and physicians know that this is false, but I think that they have thus far done a rather poor job of getting this across to the public.

  3. #3 Andrew Yates
    February 18, 2009

    trrll “While I see no scientific or social value to a study of correlations between genes affecting cognitive performance and … race.”

    Two words: Pharmacogenomics. Psychoactives.

    *Huge.* Right now the method of prescribing psychoactive drugs is about “tell me about your progress… for the next several months.”

    “It seems to me that the most dangerous, public misconception is the notion that traits influenced by genetic differences are “innate,” and not subject to modification by nongenetic means. Of course, biologists and physicians know that this is false, but I think that they have thus far done a rather poor job of getting this across to the public.”

    This smells like idle SWPL chatter to me, but what do you suggest? Academic and popular Western culture already severely censors any suggestion of racism, or as you call it, “the notion that traits are influenced by genetic differences” (which by definition are innate, so I don’t know why you added that qualifier in scare quotes.) Do you propose that the censorship possible racism is insufficient?

    Why not simply treat race as an imprecise, antiquated term for ancestry? That’s honest, and it’s scientifically and medically accurate. Race is medically sloppy like how “gravity is about 32ft/s^2″ is physically sloppy. 32ft/s^2 useful to quickly estimate the trajectory. Race is useful to quickly estimate many genetic disorders or drug metabolism influencing polymorphisms.

    You can SWPL blah blah blah about your feelings all you want, but publish something in the NEMJ if you can refute the clinical utility of the wide variety of well established screening methods by race or ancestry or ethnicity or family history or genetics or polymorphisms or variants or “the notion that traits influenced by genetic differences” or whatever you want to call it.

  4. #4 Tulse
    February 19, 2009

    race or ancestry or ethnicity or family history or genetics or polymorphisms or variants or “the notion that traits influenced by genetic differences” or whatever you want to call it.

    There is indeed medical utility in looking at genetic history, but to be fair, Andrew, that list covers a lot of very different ground — saying I am at risk to get Huntington’s because my mother had the disorder is very different from suggesting that I might be dumber that some people simply because my skin has more melanin. (I’d also note that the utility of such sloppy “race-based” medicine is largely restricted to very well characterized conditions with fairly simple genetic causes, such as differences in a single gene, which is almost assuredly not the case for the complex characteristics and behaviours that non-medical race-based research examine.)

  5. #5 Caledonian
    February 19, 2009

    “very different from suggesting that I might be dumber that some people simply because my skin has more melanin.”

    Even genuine racists usually don’t believe that melanin levels are the relevant factors in determining race — it’s just a convenient and highly visible marker of a particular type of ancestry. I suppose we could probably find a few people who believe melanin is responsible for mental differences, but the vast majority of them would believe that being dark makes black people superior!

    Tulse, you’re arguing against a strawman, and an especially crude one at that.

  6. #6 Tulse
    February 19, 2009

    Even genuine racists usually don’t believe that melanin levels are the relevant factors in determining race

    In a word, “duh”.

    it’s just a convenient and highly visible marker of a particular type of ancestry.

    Right, and my point is that it says extremely little about that ancestry, especially since those with that “marker” can come from highly diverse genetic groupings. Given this variation, to say that “blacks” have certain characteristics is silly, and one might as well say that skin colouration itself is to blame.

    Tulse, you’re arguing against a strawman, and an especially crude one at that.

    Caledonian, you need to read more carefully, and understand when hyperbole is being used.

  7. #7 Caledonian
    February 20, 2009

    Ooh, what irony. The problem with intellectual knockouts is that the loser usually doesn’t recognize when it’s occurred.

    “Given this variation, to say that “blacks” have certain characteristics is silly”

    How much variation is there between different populations of sub-Saharan Africans on IQ tests?

    More importantly, from the perspective of Americans, how much variation is there, phenotypically and genetically, among “blacks”, “Negroes”, “African-Americans”, or whatever you want to call the descendants of sub-Saharan “people of color”?

    We already know that, considered as a group, the distribution of traits among blacks doesn’t match those of groups with other ancestries. Yet when we try to talk about those differences (say, by acknowledging that a particular medication is far more likely to be helpful with a black patient than an Asian or Caucasian one) people like yourself start screaming ‘racism’.

    You’d think that refusing to offer a medication that could help black patients would itself be considered racism… but reason has little to do with politics.

  8. #8 Tulse
    February 20, 2009

    How much variation is there between different populations of sub-Saharan Africans on IQ tests?

    I don’t know, do you? If so, I’d love to see a reference.

    More importantly, from the perspective of Americans, how much variation is there, phenotypically and genetically, among “blacks”, “Negroes”, “African-Americans”, or whatever you want to call the descendants of sub-Saharan “people of color”?

    Why are you referencing “Americans”? I thought the question was about the genetic nature of IQ and how that might be associated with different genetically-related groups — the best test of this would not be to use an immigrant population.

    when we try to talk about those differences (say, by acknowledging that a particular medication is far more likely to be helpful with a black patient than an Asian or Caucasian one) people like yourself start screaming ‘racism’.

    Wow, talk about a dishonest characterization of what I have said! I have never “screamed” racism, and never denied that medically relevant genetic factors may be distributed differentially among groups with different genetic histories (I noted that explicitly above). What I have repeatedly offered are multiple arguments that are well-supported with scientific evidence that strongly suggest genetic factors are unlikely to play a major role in IQ differences among the traditionally-defined “races”. To this point, in both this thread and earlier one, you have failed to engage in discussing these specific arguments, and instead have repeatedly mischaracterized my position and thrown up straw men, which leads me to strongly suspect that you have no interest in debating in good faith.

  9. #9 Caledonian
    February 21, 2009

    This is rapidly becoming a Gish explosion.

  10. #10 Gianmarco Franco
    March 8, 2009

    Since its inception in 1895 till the last presentations in 2007, there have been 155 Nobel Prize laureates who are of Jewish lineage.

    Out of the total 684 Nobel laureates, 22.66% of them have been of Jewish lineage who comprise just 0.1955% of the world population.

    That is a statistical over-representation of Jewish people among Nobel Prize laureates to the value of 11590.793% (i.e there are 115.9 times as many Jewish Nobel laureates as there would be if every race had equal representation among the Nobel Prize winners).

    This warrants further research…

  11. #11 tom
    March 8, 2009

    The more genetically adapted different populations are to their environments, the better for all of us when we start modifying our own genetic code. What a great palate of genes to choose from and to learn from.

    Any time you have strong localized selection pressure, you’re going to get some shared adaptation which “might” be unique to that population.

    It’s foolish to think that there has never been any selection for people who’s brains contain specific problem solving circuitry.

    While the definition of intelligence may be too ambiguous for scientific measurement, there is plenty of room for the study of specific types of problem solving.

    Once we start altering our own genetic code we’ll have to know how genes affect brain circuitry so we might as well start learning about it now.

    Anyhow I’m all for studying problem solving and mental ability as long as 1)the science is VALID. 2) the science is EMPATHETIC. Both of these have been problems with the study of intelligence in the past.

    To tell people that a certain subject is off limits to valid and empathetic science is a really stupid thing to do.