Genetic Crossroads

The intersection of biotechnology, reproduction and society

Predicting the IQ of Future People

Coming soon: much more publicity about race, genes and IQ

Jason Richwine was recently forced to resign from the Heritage Foundation by a media storm about his offensive comments on race and IQ. That's remarkable, and perhaps significant, but there are likely more and bigger headlines to come, based on research being done right now in China.

The background in brief: Richwine co-authored a Heritage position paper titled "The Fiscal Cost of Unlawful Immigrants and Amnesty to the U.S. Taxpayer," clearly published to oppose immigration reform.The paper was unwelcome to all but a few extremists, for various reasons, and it soon came out that Richwine's 2009 doctoral thesis included such statements as (on p. 66):

No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against.

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His dissertation proceeded to explore "the proposition that immigration policy should select for IQ" (p. 123). That wasn't explicitly in the Heritage study, but it certainly provided a handy cudgel. The report was released on Monday May 6, his thesis was reported on Wednesday, and he "resigned" on Friday. One of Richwine's mentors was Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve, who promptly tweeted:

Thank God I was working for Chris DeMuth and AEI, not Jim DeMint and Heritage, when The Bell Curve was published. Integrity. Loyalty. Balls.

From Murray's perspective, he has a point. For the rest of us, it's actually heartening that such opinions have become toxic. And the dust-up has provoked some insightful commentary (e.g., Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic, Ari Rabin-Havt at Media Matters, Diego von Vacano at The Monkey Cage).

However, it's also important to note that "respectable" politicians have always been willing to jettison those that go too far. William Shockley, for instance, was effectively shunned in the 1970s, but Murray and Richard Herrnstein had no trouble putting their work into the public sphere in the 1990s. And indeed the backlash to the backlash may already be starting, as Andrew Sullivan (who, as editor of The New Republic, published excerpts from The Bell Curve) detects "red flags about intellectual freedom."

Race and IQ may now be a dangerous combination, but the combination of genetics and IQ is definitely on the rise. China's BGI has for a while been running a research project on "genius genes," headed by Zhao Bowen, who claimed in February that it would produce results in three months. That would be now. Well, we don't have the data or the analysis, but we are seeing a burst of publicity.

An article in the London Times on May 14 (unrelated to the news about Richwine) includes more caveats than previously:

"The reality is that the genomics of IQ will be much more complex than saying: 'Look, here are the genes for genius.' We will be talking about hundreds, possibly thousands of genes and mutations, each with a tiny effect on IQ. Will someone somewhere want to try to engineer intelligence in embryos? Will someone claim they can make your unborn child more intelligent? Of course they will. But it's not technically possible now and won't be for decades," Zhao says.

Sure. But the caption to one of the accompanying photos reads:

If Zhao Bowen discovers the intelligence gene, he may be able to determine a baby's IQ from a blood sample

A simultaneous article in Nature News says that the project "is slated to begin data analysis in the next few months." It reports that BGI is "halfway through its sequencing" but the rest of the work might take as long as a year. It also includes a noteworthy comment from Harvard geneticist Daniel MacArthur:

If they think they're likely to get much useful data out of this study, they're almost certainly wrong.

That's almost certainly true—but no real reason for comfort. The researchers will find something. And someone will abuse the findings. History tells us that's a given. The fallacy may not be that Hispanics (who, ahem, are a cultural community not a race) are dumb, or Jews (essentially a religious group) are smart, or Asians (a broad geographical set) are good at math, or any such nonsense. But suggesting that this embryo has brilliance while this one does not … that could become a very significant problem.

Pete Shanks is the author of Human Genetic Engineering: A Guide for Activists, Skeptics, and the Very Perplexed.

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