In 1869, Francis Galton reasoned that if human intellect was determined to be hereditary, then it “would be quite practicable to produce a highly-gifted race of men by judicious marriages during several consecutive generations.” If this quote gives you pause, it may be because Galton and this line of thinking were foundational to the eugenics movement.
Galton had no idea about the concept of genes, let alone DNA, but the latest science suggests that the hereditary link he theorized about may be real.
Recently, neuroscientists have found several clues that may account for intelligence, including brain size, brain signaling efficiency, and now genes. A genome-wide association study published in Nature Genetics last month identified 52 genes that influence intelligence.
But with these findings, Galton’s words and the specter of eugenics loom. Beyond the scope of designer babies and drugs that could boost intelligence are much more practical ethical concerns, like the possibility of genetic essentialist thinking that could unintentionally intensify stigmas, leading to prejudice and discrimination.
Genetic essentialism follows the notion that one’s human essence is predetermined by genetic make-up. It is a line of thinking that is not only false, but dangerous. Addressing concerns of essentialism will help ensure future discoveries are not undermined.
A scientist interested in identifying genes linked to intelligence may have no desire to support genetic essentialism. Important genetic contributions are often misunderstood and can lead to the perception of an exclusively genetic underpinning for human skills and attributes, without keeping in mind the important role of environmental influences.
An example of this type of misinterpretation is in drawing associations between intelligence and race. Endorsement of biogenetic explanations for intelligence among races has been associated with increased discrimination. This scientifically inaccurate position is genetic essentialism, and does not take into account environmental or educational shaping.
To diminish genetic essentialist biases, neuroethicists, scientists, and science journalists must communicate clearly with the public about the complex connection between genes and environment. News media have produced an enthusiastic buzz that perhaps overestimates the deterministic nature of the 52 identified genes.
The researchers behind the study believe these genes account for less than 5 percent of IQ score variation, and therefore each gene has only a miniscule effect. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of genes may influence intelligence outside of environmental impact.
While there is potential for bad outcomes if bioethical considerations are not properly addressed, there is also the potential for good if solutions are found. The identification of genes that influence intelligence is an important scientific discovery, but ensuring essentialist biases are tamed by addressing ethical issues head-on works to preempt undesirable outcomes.
– By Cody Brannan, intern with the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine and graduate student of Bioscience and Health Policy at Rice University