Monday, January 9, 2012

Neurogenetics and its Implications

In October 2007, The Sunday Times Magazine ran an interview that contained the following:
"He says that he is 'inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa' because 'all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really', and I know that this 'hot potato' is going to be difficult to address…His hope is that everyone is equal, but he counters that 'people who have to deal with black employees find this not true'."

So who said this? None other than James Watson, the Nobel Prize-winning geneticist famous for discovering the structure of DNA.  The interview, understandably, generated a storm of controversy and led to Watson retiring from his position at the ColdSpring Harbor Laboratory. He later clarified his statements and said: "To all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologize unreservedly. That is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief."

 James Watson

This incident could be written off as a one-off remark from a man (with a history of being controversial) who, while brilliant, is still entrenched in the racist views of an earlier time. But it could also be seen as part of the larger issues relating to the field of neurogenetics (the relationship between genes and the brain), which will need to be addressed as scientists continue to learn more in that field.  

Genes definitely play a role in human brain development, just like they do in the development of other bodily systems. For example, genes such as Microcephalin and HAR1F are thought to be responsible for making the human brain unique among primates and jumpstarting human evolution. But the idea that the genes we are born with can explain our intelligence, behavior, and even personality can be troubling, and, at first, might seem to support ideologies ranging from determinism and the absence of free will to racism and eugenics.  

RNA secondary structure for HAR1F

In a talk titled “Subjectivity and Healing in the Neurogenetic Age: Where is the Person? Where is the Culture?” (which was part of a lecture series hosted by The Emory Center for Ethics at the end of October) Emory Anthropology professor Melvin Konner argued that neurogenetics does not support those ideas and, in fact, can even provide evidence against them. Regarding ethnicity and culture, Konner argued that neurogenetics can oppose racism, since despite our cultural and (external) physical differences, all people have human brains with similar capacities for learning, thinking, and feeling. He supported this with data from his fieldwork with the hunter-gatherer !Kung Bushmen who are, in many ways, socially, emotionally, and intellectually similar to those living in modern, industrialized societies despite their radically different culture. 

But is this correct? Are the genes that influence brain development, intelligence, and behavior the same across all populations? Konner pointed out that not everyone thinks so.  A paper published in Futures of Evolutionary Psychology argues against the commonly held notion that human behavior has not been significantly influenced by evolution since our ancestors began migrating out of the African Savannah. According to the author, Peter Frost, evolution has shaped the behaviors of different populations in response their different cultures and has also had an influential effect on how the cultures themselves developed. Similarity between genomes is often used to show how little variation there is among people, but Frost claims that is more important to look at specific genes with adaptive functions than the whole genome. One example he gives is the development of language. Research suggests that a new variant of the ASPM gene (involved in brain growth) that emerged in the Middle East and spread to Europe was responsible for the spread of phonetic alphabets.  The variation was less common in East Asia where an ideographic (symbolic) writing system was used. Since the ability to read and write was highly valued, this gene proved to be adaptive in a culture where a phonetic alphabet was used which led to an increase in the gene (and, in turn, the alphabet) among the population   

Another study that Konner mentioned in his talk specifically addresses the issue of intelligence and ethnicity. The paper is titled “Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence” and claims that the social environment in which Ashkenazi Jews in Medieval Europe lived selected for certain mental traits (including verbal and mathematical intelligence) leading to higher average intelligence in the population. 

It may seem that making general claims about the intelligence of various ethnic groups is a regression to the racist pseudoscience of past centuries (and, in fact, the definition and significance of “intelligence” and IQ are themselves controversial issues, but that’s a discussion for another time). But should potential social implications prevent the discovery and dissemination of neurogenetic knowledge? We need to remember that people are ultimately individuals and understand that overarching trends among populations do not describe every individual in that population.  If a behavioral trait is more common among one group, that in no way means we should treat members of that group differently. There is no need to be afraid of doing such research because of the possible implications, as long as we keep our cultural biases and ideologies out of the science. And although this is easier said than done, neurogenetics is, in fact, more likely to disprove those existing biases than it is to reinforce them.

Want to cite this post?
Queen, J. (2012). Neurogenetics and its Implications. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from

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