Many genes are behind human intelligence

August, 2011

A large-scale genome-wide analysis has confirmed that half the differences in intelligence between people of similar background can be attributed to genetic differences — but it’s an accumulation of hundreds of tiny differences.

There has been a lot of argument over the years concerning the role of genes in intelligence. The debate reflects the emotions involved more than the science. A lot of research has gone on, and it is indubitable that genes play a significant role. Most of the research however has come from studies involving twins and adopted children, so it is indirect evidence of genetic influence.

A new technique has now enabled researchers to directly examine 549,692 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs — places where people have single-letter variations in their DNA) in each of 3511 unrelated people (aged 18-90, but mostly older adults). This analysis had produced an estimate of the size of the genetic contribution to individual differences in intelligence: 40% of the variation in crystallized intelligence and 51% of the variation in fluid intelligence. (See http://www.memory-key.com/memory/individual/wm-intelligence for a discussion of the difference)

The analysis also reveals that there is no ‘smoking gun’. Rather than looking for a handful of genes that govern intelligence, it seems that hundreds if not thousands of genes are involved, each in their own small way. That’s the trouble: each gene makes such a small contribution that no gene can be fingered as critical.

Discussions that involve genetics are always easily misunderstood. It needs to be emphasized that we are talking here about the differences between people. We are not saying that half of your IQ is down to your genes; we are saying that half the difference between you and another person (unrelated but with a similar background and education — study participants came from Scotland, England and Norway — that is, relatively homogenous populations) is due to your genes.

If the comparison was between, for example, a middle-class English person and someone from a poor Indian village, far less of any IQ difference would be due to genes. That is because the effects of environment would be so much greater.

These findings are consistent with the previous research using twins. The most important part of these findings is the confirmation it provides of something that earlier studies have hinted at: no single gene makes a significant contribution to variation in intelligence.

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