Info

in the womb is three times as great as anything our parents did to us after our birth. Thus even that proportion of our intelligence that can be attributed to 'nurture' rather than nature is actually determined by a form of nurture that is immutable and firmly in the past. Nature, on the other hand, continues to express genes throughout youth. It is nature, not nurture, that demands we do not make fatalistic decisions about children's intelligence too young.8

This is positively bizarre. It flies in the face of common sense: surely our intelligence is influenced by the books and conversations found in our childhood homes? Yes, but that is not the question. After all, heredity could conceivably account for the fact that both parents and children from the same home like intellectual pursuits. No studies have been done - except for twin and adoption studies - that discriminate between the hereditary and parental-home explanation. The twin and adoption studies are unambiguous at present in favouring the hereditary explanation for the coincidence of parents' and children's IQs. It remains possible that the twin and adoption studies are misleading because they come from too narrow a range of families. These are mostly white, middle-class families, and very few poor or black families are included in the samples. Perhaps it is no surprise that the range of books and conversations found in all middle-class, American, white families is roughly the same. When a study of trans-racial adoptees was done, a small correlation was found between the children's IQ and that of their adoptive parents (nineteen per cent).

But it is still a small effect. The conclusion that all these studies converge upon is that about half of your IQ was inherited, and less than a fifth was due to the environment you shared with your siblings - the family. The rest came from the womb, the school and outside influences such as peer groups. But even this is misleading. Not only does your IQ change with age, but so does its heritability. As you grow up and accumulate experiences, the influence of your genes increases. What? Surely, it falls off? No: the heritability of childhood IQ is about forty-five per cent, whereas in late adolescence it rises to seventy-five per cent. As you grow up, you gradually express your own innate intelligence and leave behind the influences stamped on you by others. You select the environments that suit your innate tendencies, rather than adjusting your innate tendencies to the environments you find yourself in. This proves two vital things: that genetic influences are not frozen at conception and that environmental influences are not inexorably cumulative. Heritability does not mean immutability.

Francis Galton, right at the start of this long debate, used an analogy that may be fairly apt. 'Many a person has amused himself, he wrote, 'with throwing bits of stick into a tiny brook and watching their progress; how they are arrested, first by one chance obstacle, then by another; and again, how their onward course is facilitated by a combination of circumstances. He might ascribe much importance to each of these events, and think how largely the destiny of the stick had been governed by a series of trifling accidents. Nevertheless, all the sticks succeed in passing down the current, and in the long run, they travel at nearly the same rate.' So the evidence suggests that intensively exposing children to better tuition has a dramatic effect on their IQ scores, but only temporarily. By the end of elementary school, children who have been in Head Start programmes are no further ahead than children who have not.

If you accept the criticism that these studies mildly exaggerate heritability because they are of families from a single social class, then it follows that heritability will be greater in an egalitarian society than an unequal one. Indeed, the definition of the perfect meritocracy, ironically, is a society in which people's achievements depend on their genes because their environments are equal. We are fast approaching such a state with respect to height: in the past, poor nutrition resulted in many children not reaching their 'genetic' height as adults. Today, with generally better childhood nutrition, more of the differences in height between individuals are due to genes: the heritability of height is, therefore, I suspect, rising. The same cannot yet be said of intelligence with certainty, because environmental variables - such as school quality, family habits, or wealth — may be growing more unequal in some societies, rather than more equal. But it is none the less a paradox: in egalitarian societies, genes matter more.

These heritability estimates apply to the differences between individuals, not those between groups. IQ heritability does seem to be about the same in different populations or races, which might not have been the case. But it is logically false to conclude that because the difference between the IQ of one person and another is approximately fifty per cent heritable, that the difference between the average IQ s of blacks and whites or between whites and Asians is due to genes. Indeed, the implication is not only logically false, it so far looks empirically wrong, too. Thus does a large pillar of support for part of the thesis of the recent book The bell curve9 crumble. There are differences between the average IQ scores of blacks and whites, but there is no evidence that these differences are themselves heritable. Indeed, the evidence from cases of cross-racial adoption suggests that the average IQs of blacks reared by and among whites is no different from that of whites.

If IQ is fifty per cent heritable individually, then some genes must influence it. But it is impossible to tell how many. The only thing one can say with certainty is that some of the genes that influence it are variable, that is to say they exist in different versions in different people. Heritability and determinism are very different things. It is entirely possible that the most important genes affecting intelligence are actually non-varying, in which case there would be no heritability for differences caused by those genes, because there would be no such differences For instance, I have five fingers on each hand and so do most people. The reason is that I inherited a genetic recipe that specified five fingers. Yet if I went around the world looking for people with four fingers, about ninety-five per cent of the people I found, possibly more, would be people who had lost fingers in accidents. I would find that having four fingers is something with very low heritability: it is nearly always caused by the environment. But that does not imply that genes had nothing to do with determining finger number. A gene can determine a feature of our bodies that is the same in different people just as surely as it can determine features that are different in different people. Robert Plomin's gene-fishing expeditions for IQ genes will only find genes that come in different varieties, not genes that show no variation. They might therefore miss some important genes.

Plomin's first gene, the IGF2R gene on the long arm of chromosome 6, is at first sight an unlikely candidate for an 'intelligence gene'. Its main claim to fame before Plomin linked it with intelligence was that it was associated with liver cancer. It might have been called a 'liver-cancer gene', thus neatly demonstrating the foolishness of identifying genes by the diseases they cause. At some point we may have to decide if its cancer-suppressing function is its main task and its ability to influence intelligence a side-effect, or vice versa. In fact, they could both be side-effects. The function of the protein it encodes is mystifyingly dull: 'the intracellular trafficking of phosphorylated lysosomal enzymes from the Golgi complex and the cell surface to the lysosomes'. It is a molecular delivery van. Not a word about speeding up brain waves.

IGF2R is an enormous gene, with 7,473 letters in all, but the sense-containing message is spread out over a 98,000-letter stretch of the genome, interrupted forty-eight times by nonsense sequences called introns (rather like one of those irritating magazine articles interrupted by forty-eight advertisements). There are repetitive stretches in the middle of the gene that are inclined to vary in length, perhaps affecting the difference between one person's intelligence and another. Since it seems to be a gene vaguely connected with insulin-like proteins and the burning of sugar, it is perhaps relevant that another study has found that people with high IQs are more 'efficient' at using glucose in their brains. While learning to play the computer game called Tetris, high-I Q people show a greater fall in their glucose consumption as they get more practised than do low-IQ people. But this is to clutch at straws. Plomin's gene, if it proves real at all, will be one of many that can influence intelligence in many different ways.10

The chief value of Plomin's discovery lies in the fact that, while people may still dismiss the studies of twins and adoptees as too indirect to prove the existence of genetic influences on intelligence, they cannot argue with a direct study of a gene that co-varies with intelligence. One form of the gene is about twice as common in the superintelligent Iowan children as in the rest of the population, a result extremely unlikely to be accidental. But its effect must be small: this version of the gene can only add four points to your IQ, on average. It is emphatically not a 'genius gene'. Plomin hints at up to ten more 'intelligence genes' to come from his Iowa brainboxes. Yet the return of heritable IQ to scientific respectability is greeted with dismay in many quarters. It raises the spectre of eugenic abuse that so disfigured science in the 1920s and 1930s. As Stephen Jay Gould, a severe critic of excessive hereditarianism, has put it: 'A partially inherited low IQ might be subject to extensive improvement through proper education. And it might not. The mere fact of its heritability permits no conclusion.' Indeed. But that is exactly the trouble. It is by no means inevitable that people will react to genetic evidence with fatalism. The discovery of genetic mutations behind conditions like dyslexia has not led teachers to abandon such conditions as incurable - quite the reverse; it has encouraged them to single out dyslexic children for special teaching.11

Indeed, the most famous pioneer of intelligence testing, the Frenchman Alfred Binet, argued fervently that its purpose was not to reward gifted children but to give special attention to less gifted ones. Plomin cites himself as a perfect example of the system at work. As the only one of thirty-two cousins from a large family in Chicago to go to college, he credits his fortune to good results on an intelligence test, which persuaded his parents to send him to a more academic school. America's fondness for such tests is in remarkable contrast to Britain's horror of them. The short-lived and notorious eleven-plus exam, predicated on probably-faked data produced by Cyril Burt, was Britain's only mandatory intelligence test. Whereas in Britain the eleven-plus is remembered as a disastrous device that condemned perfectly intelligent children to second-rate schools, in meritocratic America similar tests are the passports to academic success for the gifted but impoverished.

Perhaps the heritability of IQ implies something entirely different, something that once and for all proves that Galton's attempt to discriminate between nature and nurture is misconceived. Consider this apparently fatuous fact. People with high IQs, on average, have more symmetrical ears than people with low IQs. Their whole bodies seem to be more symmetrical: foot breadth, ankle breadth, finger length, wrist breadth and elbow breadth each correlates with IQ.

In the early 1990s there was revived an old interest in bodily symmetry, because of what it can reveal about the body's development during early life. Some asymmetries in the body are consistent: the heart is on the left side of the chest, for example, in most people. But other, smaller asymmetries can go randomly in either direction. In some people the left ear is larger than the right; in others, vice versa. The magnitude of this so-called fluctuating asymmetry is a sensitive measure of how much stress the body was under when developing, stress from infections, toxins or poor nutrition. The fact that people with high IQs have more symmetrical bodies suggests that they were subject to fewer developmental stresses in the womb or in childhood. Or rather, that they were more resistant to such stresses. And the resistance may well be heritable. So the heritability of IQ might not be caused by direct 'genes for intelligence' at all, but by indirect genes for resistance to toxins or infections — genes in other words that work by interacting with the environment. You inherit not your IQ but your ability to develop a high IQ under certain environmental circumstances. How does one parcel that one into nature and nurture? It is frankly impossible.12

Support for this idea comes from the so-called Flynn effect. A New Zealand-based political scientist, James Flynn, noticed in the 1980s that IQ is increasing in all countries all the time, at an average rate of about three IQ points per decade. Quite why is hard to determine. It might be for the same reason that height is increasing: improved childhood nutrition. When two Guatemalan villages were given ad-lib protein supplements for several years, the IQ of children, measured ten years later, had risen markedly: a Flynn effect in miniature. But IQ scores are still rising just as rapidly in well-nourished western countries. Nor can school have much to do with it, because interruptions to schooling have demonstrably temporary effects on IQ and because the tests that show the most rapid rises are the ones that have least to do with what is taught in school. It is the ones that test abstract reasoning ability that show the steepest improvements. One scientist, Ulric Neisser, believes that the cause of the Flynn effect is the intense modern saturation of everyday life with sophisticated visual images — cartoons, advertisements, films, posters, graphics and other optical displays — often at the expense of written messages. Children experience a much richer visual environment than once they did, which helps develop their skills in visual puzzles of the kind that dominate IQ tests.13

But this environmental effect is, at first sight, hard to square with the twin studies suggesting such a high heritability for IQ. As Flynn himself notes, an increase of fifteen IQ points in five decades implies either that the world was full of dunces in 1950 or that it is full of geniuses today. Since we are not experiencing a cultural renaissance, he concludes that IQ measures nothing innate. But if Neisser is right, then the modern world is an environment that encourages the development of one form of intelligence - facility with visual symbols. This is a blow to 'g', but it does not negate the idea that these different kinds of intelligence are at least partly heritable. After two million years of culture, in which our ancestors passed on learnt local traditions, human brains may have acquired (through natural selection) the ability to find and specialise in those particular skills that the local culture teaches, and that the individual excels in. The environment that a child experiences is as much a consequence of the child's genes as it is of external factors: the child seeks out and creates his or her own environment. If she is of a mechanical bent, she practises mechanical skills; if a bookworm, she seeks out books. The genes may create an appetite, not an aptitude. After all, the high heritability of short-sightedness is accounted for not just by the heritability of eye shape, but by the heritability of literate habits. The heritability of intelligence may therefore be about the genetics of nurture, just as much as the genetics of nature. What a richly satisfying end to the century of argument inaugurated by Galton.

Brain Gain

Brain Gain

Always wanted to be able to study even more, but didn't know how? Here are some of the best brain enhancement solutions. Do you envy those people who always seem to be intelligent and witty? Do you ever wish you could unlock your own intelligence and wit?

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment