Ethics: Taboo genetics

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Probing the biological basis of certain traits ignites controversy. But some scientists choose to cross the red line anyway.

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.

 

Written By: Erika Check Hayden
continue to source article at nature.com

18 COMMENTS

  1. A very good article thought.

    For what it’s worth, I voted “no” in all the polls.

    Although I’m not a scientist I think I have a good enough grasp of how science works to be able to contribute to the debate.

  2. I think the problem is “science” motivated by racism that is not really science, just lies to justify treating some group badly. I suspect over time the taboo will crumble and seem prudish and Victorian. If you find out what makes people stupid or bright, you may be able to treat various form of brain damage or defect. If you refuse to study the problem, you have no way of changing anything.

  3. I remain unconvinced that intellect can be explained through genetic studies. To me, intelligence is so fluid and diverse that I lean towards it being a trait that is determined through a very complex interplay of a myriad of components. I also think that it is highly individualized and is truly a case by case type of trait.

    Although I am sure genes are the underpinning of intelligence, environment probably plays s determining role, as well as diet, sleeping habits, mental stability…etc…. Perhaps someday our ability to analyze this complex a situation will allow us to make this issue clear. However, our current approach (even with a sample size of 2000) falls quite short of getting to a conclusive answer.

    I guess “you gotta start somewhere” and this is a start. However, this ambitious endeavor is truly in it’s infancy. I eagerly await progress, but think that with the dozens of different types of intelligence and the staggering number of variables, the going is going to be slow.

    • In reply to #4 by crookedshoes:

      No doubt the factors such as sleeping habits play a part, but this could also form part of the genetic basis. I remember that Matt Ridley mentioned in “Genome” that there is a strong correlation between IQ and body symmetry, e.g. small difference in length between left and right forearms, small difference in size between left and right earlobes etc. His suggestion in light of this is that the womb can be a hostile environment, and that genes that predispose you to being resistant to this hostile environment could also predispose you to have a well-formed brain. This was an example of genes that are not, themselves, directly involved in the building of the brain, but would have an effect on intelligence in a more indirect manner. Similarly, genes that predispose an individual to sleep well, to enjoy reading, to have a good level of discipline etc. would probably correlate with higher IQs, even though those genes might play no part in the building of the parts of the brain that are usually associated with higher processing tasks.

      • Yours is a very interesting and well constructed post. I maintain, however, that while what you say is intuitively correct (I don’t know if it will play out that our intuition is correct), this makes it even harder to research and tease out the truth. It is a very complex issue and while I eagerly anticipate progress, I think it will just be very slow to be elucidated.

        In reply to #18 by UncleVanya:

        In reply to #4 by crookedshoes:

        No doubt the factors such as sleeping habits play a part, but this could also form part of the genetic basis. I remember that Matt Ridley mentioned in “Genome” that there is a strong correlation between IQ and body symmetry, e.g. small difference in length between le…

  4. @crookedshoes

    I think we’re born with a set intelligence and all the things you mentioned can either serve to help maximize or work to diminish this set point. In other words, a very intelligent child with enormous potential could be born to alcoholic or poor parents and that person’s IQ won’t ever get up to its max potential. On the other hand you could have a person with a lower IQ who, because they were born in the right circumstances, gets to live up to their full potential passing the more naturally intelligence person, and of course, vice versa.

    I believe everything is a matter of genetics…choice, free will, etc. is all an illusion.

  5. @ MAJORPAIN

    Doesn’t the final line of your posting contradict the preceding paragraph?

    If “everything is a matter of genetics”, then you’ll automatically attain your potential because it’s decided at birth, and neither upbringing or social circumstances can affect it.

  6. I think it is really interesting to investigate the genetic component of certain talents. I’m near certain I inherited my drawing talent from my father because #1: I sure as hell didn’t get it from my mother, #2: My dad tried his hand at painting when he was 20. He had never painted in his life and only went through a very short interest in drawing when he was about 10. He painted two pictures, both from his mind. They are clearly amateurish paintings, but they are also pretty damned good for someone who didn’t spend much of his life drawing, let alone painting. He clearly has a latent talent. I also notice similar innate latent talents in my brother, who also did not pursue art.

    • In reply to #8 by InYourFaceNewYorker:

      I think it is really interesting to investigate the genetic component of certain talents. I’m near certain I inherited my drawing talent from my father because #1: I sure as hell didn’t get it from my mother, #2: My dad tried his hand at painting when he was 20. He had never painted in his life and…

      Being a highly skilled artist myself, I have wondered where this talent came from. Neither parents are artistic. There are artists on my mother’s side, but she had no skill – aesthetics yes. My father has extremely good spatial skills which I seem to have inherited. I once watched him build a uniquely shaped children’s picnic table from a picture. This is something I know I can also do. Yet, I have certain skills that I cannot seem to trace to either parent. I don’t think there will ever fully be a way to genetically see if someone has artistic skills. Each artist utilizes a variety of traits and skills – spatial reasoning, color, analytical skills, fine and or gross motor skills, some may have intrapersonal awareness while others may lack specific abilities. Artists who lack a specific skill/ability will have evidence in their work – something many cannot actually articulate or recognize. You can even identify certain mental illnesses or psychology in a person’s art. An artist who has inherited a higher level of wider skill sets – watch out – greatness here they come – if they are in the right environment.

  7. I find it interesting that there is so much effort put into trying to stop us understanding nature in case we misuse the knowledge instead of trying to work towards developing ethical standards and practices. This instinct to stop knowledge is akin to lobotomising society, if we can find the genetic basis for ‘stupid’ they would have us start screening against intelligence and the problem would be solved.

    • In reply to #9 by Reckless Monkey:

      I find it interesting that there is so much effort put into trying to stop us understanding nature in case we misuse the knowledge instead of trying to work towards developing ethical standards and practices. This instinct to stop knowledge is akin to lobotomising society, if we can find the genetic basis for ‘stupid’ they would have us start screening against intelligence and the problem would be solved.

      Knowledge and information is power (as in secret military technology or political strategies) . That is why the stupid ignorant, but politically ambitious, are anti-intellectual.

      It is the “dog in the manger” attitude, which works on the premise, “If we are too stupid to use this, we’re dam well not letting anyone else have access to it”!

  8. @ #8 InYourFaceNewYorker

    That’s the kind of subjective, anecdotal stuff of which science is not made. Thinking this way is at least part of the reason people become convinced of all sorts of daft things.

    • In reply to #10 by FrankMill:

      @ #8 InYourFaceNewYorker

      That’s the kind of subjective, anecdotal stuff of which science is not made. Thinking this way is at least part of the reason people become convinced of all sorts of daft things.

      The kind of observation from general life that InYourFaceNewYorker made is also at least part of the reason why a scientist may choose to study a particular area of nature.

    • In reply to #10 by FrankMill:

      @ #8 InYourFaceNewYorker

      That’s the kind of subjective, anecdotal stuff of which science is not made. Thinking this way is at least part of the reason people become convinced of all sorts of daft things.

      pfffft! Everyone wonders where they got certain traits. I have my mother’s face shape, father’s forehead and height, my mother’s health problems…Thinking this way is a reminder that genetics is involved. I even know some gay people who have wondered about certain grandparents…. Even theists wonder from which parent they inherited their traits. If they could only wake up and see how their acceptance of genetics is contrary to their rejecting Evolution, we’d all be in a better situation.

  9. This is rooted in Misblaming.

    Misblaming is the act of assigning blame where it isn’t warranted. If there are any criticisms of scientific research, besides the cases where research involves harming or distressing people, those criticisms can be about how at least some people might respond badly to or be able to abuse such research. In which case, those people are the problem.

    We don’t blame axe manufacturers for inadvertently giving murderers the tools to kill people; we blame the murderers. So why is genetics such a uniquely hot topic, and why do its critics seem to accuse any and all genetic scientists of unsound eugenic policies when they should be accusing the reasoning and ethics of anyone who starts promoting those policies?

    Genetic research is an important component of trying to understand humanity, though it is certainly not the only means of doing so. It’s no more or less sinister than human anatomy, studies of culture, and human psychology and cognitive sciences, all of which are trying to do the same thing: explain how people work. So where are the articles about “psychology controversies” or “anthropology controversies”, in which the scientists are accused of supporting undesirable political policies like “Euculture” or “Eupsychology” which discriminate against people with the “wrong” psychology or the “wrong” culture? It strikes me as being one-sided.

    I mean, I’ll gladly concede that genetic engineering on humans is something worth questioning and criticizing, especially given its potential for increasing a society’s socioeconomic inequality, since rich people would be the first to get their hands on this stuff. We should talk about the risk of misuse when applying genetics to human society at large – for instance, the use of genetic profiling or gene-based discrimination. But the same questions apply to any field of study trying to get the facts about human lives, facts that an unscrupulous individual could take advantage of.

    I’m not saying there isn’t a problem, but let’s at least be clear where the problem lies.

  10. IMO the dispassionate study of anything and everything is what science is all about.Knowledge in and of itself is neutral and it is generally people with an agenda who muddy the waters.

    I am a person of colour and I think that studies pertaining to race would be interesting.The other controversial areas,viz, intelligence, violence and sexuality are also coloured heavily by personal prejudice and the only tool we have at our disposal for clearing up misunderstandings is of course Science.

    Science has also proven itself to be pretty good at finding solutions and I am relying on it to find out what goes on in my very own head.
    Maybe years from now we’ll be looking back and thanking science for the breakthroughs and the easing of people’s anxieties in this now conflict ridden subject.

    Every step taken by science in the past has been hardwon because of people’s beliefs and I suppose it will not be any different in this case.

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