Genetic data on IQ could mislead, academics say

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 December, 2010, 12:00am

Scientists believe intelligence quotient is heritable and strongly controlled by genes, through studying twins and adopted children, who tend to have IQs more similar to their genetic parents than adopted parents.

The IQ study by Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) on the genetic difference between prodigies and average children will enable people to understand human intelligence better, but could also be misleading.

As biological professor Dennis Hedgecock from the University of Southern California cautioned: 'Investigations into genetic differences among humans, whether in intelligence or propensity towards disease, always run the risk of creating a basis for discrimination.'

In the not-so-distant past, the Lebensborn, or Fount of Life, scheme by Nazi Germany set up baby farms to cultivate thousands of babies for Hitler's Aryan master race. More than 400,000 people were sterilised against their will under the Nazis' racially based social policies, while 70,000 identified as 'life unworthy of life' were killed.

Three applicants who were rejected for government jobs after they were found to be carrying the thalassaemia gene sued the Foshan city government this summer, becoming China's first case of workplace discrimination because of the gene.

China does not yet have laws against gene discrimination, although many employers measure intelligence to cull candidates from pools of applicants, through the use of aptitude tests.

An editorial in Nature this summer, 'Do scientists really need a PhD?' expressed some of these concerns. Given that the average age of BGI's 3,000 staff is 25, 'Will they understand not just the science and technology of their research, but also ethical aspects such as ... the protection of confidential human-subject information?'

Dr Hon-Ming Lam, associate biology professor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that understanding the genetic basis of human intelligence was an important task, but the privacy of individuals' genetic data should be respected. 'Learning the knowledge is one thing, while applying the knowledge is another,' he said.

'If we stop advancing our knowledge, the human race will not move forward. So we should not oppose learning more about the genetic control of human intelligence.'

There is little doubt that scientists will one day identify genes that determine human intelligence. The concern is whether it will become a disaster for those not considered genetically clever enough.

Risk of discrimination

The Lebensborn, or Fount of Life, scheme by Nazi Germany set up baby farms to cultivate thousands of babies for Hitler's Aryan master race

70,000 people identified as 'life unworthy of life' were killed, and more than this number sterilised against their will, under the Nazis: 400,000