Is it worth seeking a genetic basis for math genius?

The topic this week in my Human Variation and Race class is intelligence. We’ve read about and discussed what intelligence is, how it is quantified, and the extent to which ‘intelligence,’ however defined, is biologically and/or environmentally determined. Intelligence (test score) has been shown to be heritable, meaning that a proportion of the variation in IQ test scores in a population can be explained by genetic variation. But that is not the same as saying that it is genetically determined. Similarly, complex traits such as intelligence, behaviors, and diseases almost never have a simple genetic basis – a common theme over at the Mermaid’s Tale, one that seems too rarely heeded. So you can imagine my surprise and delight at finding this news piece just published in Nature: “Root of maths genius sought: Entrepreneure’s ‘Project Einstein’ taps 400 top academics for their DNA.” Of course “roots” meant “genes.”

Apparently, bioinformatics entrepreneur and multimillionaire Jon Rothberg has set out to identify the genetic bases of peak mathletics, by analyzing the genomes of hundreds of mathematicians and physicists. Good luck, buddy! My initial reaction was to be appalled that an educated biologist these days could be such a flagrant biological determinist. What’s more, when approached about participating in the study, mathematician Curtis McMullen asked about the ethics of the project and its outcomes: “The uniform answer to my questions was that ‘we are not responsible for how the information is used after the study is completed.'” Ew. The project as briefly described reeked of some eugenics programme.

My prediction is that if this study takes off, Rothberg & buddies will be horribly disappointed. Assuming they are able to identify any genetic variants, these will probably only explain a small amount of variation in “maths genius.” Which itself is problematic, since there is probably not a single manifestation of math genius, and even if there were a single way to be a math genius, there may be several genetic pathways relating to the phenotype (not an uncommon finding of many genome-wide association studies). But hey, it seems to be Rothberg’s own money going into the study, so why not.

But then, if my prediction were to hold, this wouldn’t necessarily be a failure – it would point to an important role of society and learning environment in shaping individuals’ mathematic capability. And then maybe big money could begin to be diverted to more productive programs investigating and improving how people learn, rather than to large scale projects seeking simple answers when there isn’t necessarily any reason to expect them in the first place.

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Is eugenics really dead?

My advisor passed along a USA Today story about the eugenics origins of the journal Annals of Human Genetics. Eugenics was a popular movement in the early 20th century, in which people thought it wise to take the onus of natural selection upon themselves, to encourage smart wealthy people to breed and ‘dullard’ poor folk to be sterilized. The movement was based on a misunderstanding of evolution, heredity and the genetic basis for complex traits like ‘intelligence’ (whatever the hell that term really means). Not to mention a sense of intellectual and moral superiority among moneyed white people. Eugenic thinking is what underlay the reprehensibly regrettable misgivings of the Holocaust.

I think it’s great that the Annals of Human Genetics is public about the journal’s off-color origins. Anthropology itself (and not just the biological subfield, don’t let any cultural anthropologist let you think otherwise [yes I have a specific person in mind here]) was borne of Western countries going off to figure out why the lands they were colonizing and exploiting contained humans that differed from themselves (as well as how to deal with ‘inferior races’). It’s important to know of your field’s past mistakes, lest history repeat itself.
Is it repeating itself? Nowadays, people can get ‘genetic counseling’ if they’re contemplating pregnancy, to learn their purportedly genetically predisposed risks for having a child with certain conditions like Down Syndrome. With such knowledge, people can elect not to have kids together. Is this a blessing from medical genetics, or are we seeing a resurgence of biological determinism and old school eugenics?