Quirks and Quarks·QUIRKS & QUARKS

We've found 50 genes for intelligence. Could that lead to discrimination?

The discovery of a large number of genes for intelligence means being smart is more complicated than we thought.
Testing for signs of intelligence begins at an early age. New research has identified 52 genes that are linked to intelligence. (Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Behavioural scientists have long believed that genes were a big part of intelligence. Studies by Robert Plomin, a behavioural geneticist at Kings College London, and other researchers, of twins separated at birth, showed their intelligence to be too similar not to be at least partly genetic. 

But the search for specific genes associated with intelligence has been long, and, until now, largely fruitless. But a new study led by Danielle Posthuma, a statistical geneticist at Vrije University in Amsterdam, has identified 52 genes linked to intelligence.

Those 52 genes, however, are only responsible for a tiny part of the genetic contribution to intelligence. So Professor Posthuma and Professor Plomin, who also participated in the study, think there may be hundreds, or more than a thousand genes involved in building our intelligence. But that means that you have to understand the function of all of those genes to understand the genetics of intelligence – a gargantuan task.

James Tabery, who studies applied ethics and the philosophy of science at the University of Utah, thinks it's going to be very difficult to apply this new knowledge of the genetics of intelligence in any concrete way. He thinks, for example, we won't be able to find individual gene-based drugs that aid intelligence, for example. And he's concerned that some of this new information could be misused to build offensive and invalid arguments about race and poverty.