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Genetics of intelligence

The subject of the inheritance of intelligence is the genetics of mental abilities. Research in this field is facing a number of difficulties, because intelligence as a trait is a fuzzy concept. The genetics of intelligence is thus operationally restricted to the genetics of IQ or the underlying g factor. Nevertheless, intelligence is embedded in the personality as a whole and its development during the lifespan of an individual. Not only is the number of social and biological factors influencing the development of a person a large one, but also there are a number of underlying genes with many minor and very few major effects.

Interindividual differences in the learning ability are also known from mice, dogs and other animals, and the achievements of pure strains can be improved by breeding. In such a way also behaviour genetics is contributing to our knowledge of the inheritance of mental traits. There is an open question to which degree differences of animal behaviour have any meaning for differences in human intelligence.

The main interest of the broader public is focused on the role played by nature versus nurture in the development of IQ. However, the science of genetics is trying to discover the genes contributing to IQ differences. The area, along with the entire field of intelligence research, has been strongly criticised by some academics and the media (see The Mismeasure of Man).

Additional recommended knowledge


The genome and intelligence

It has been argued that in order to make a hypothesis for race and intelligence work the genes for intelligence need to be identified and the frequencies in the various races computed. However many studies attempting to find loci in the genome relating to intelligence have had little success. Using several hundreds of people a study of 1842 DNA markers from a high IQ group with an IQ of 160 and a control group with an IQ of 102. The study used a five step inspection process to eliminate false positives. By the fifth step the study could not find a single gene that was related to intelligence. [1]. The failure to find a specific gene associated with intelligence indicates that cognitive abilities are very complex and are likely to involve several genes. Some estimate that as much as 40% of all genes may contribute to intelligence[2]. The more genes that contribute to a trait the less likely that a trait can be race specific since most genetic variation is found within a race. The more genes that contribute to a trait the more the trait will be continuous instead of discrete, with smaller differences.

A recent study did find that a gene called FADS2 along with breastfeeding adds about 7 IQ points to those with the "C" version of the gene. Those with the "G" version see no advantage. [3][4]

In the US, critics of these studies, such as Joseph Graves say that as long as social and environmental disparities between the races exist it will be impossible to scientifically test whether there are any genetic differences in IQ between the various populations. They propose that if the historical effects of poverty and social bigotry were eliminated and differences in IQ between the races still persisted then there might be some utility in such research.

Methods and results

The similarity of relatives with respect to their intelligence

In the case of the inheritance of a certain level of IQ or a certain degree of giftedness, the relatives of probands with a high IQ exhibit a comparable high IQ with a much higher probability than the general population. In terms of correlation statistics, this means that theoretically the correlation of tests scores between monozygotic twins should be 1.00; practically the upper bound of this correlation is given by the reliability of the test.

Siblings and dizygotic twins share half of their genes and the correlation of their scores should be 0.50, half-siblings 0.25 and is halved by one additional decreasing degree of genetic relationship.

Bouchard and McGue (1981) have reviewed such correlations reported in 111 original studies in the United States.[5] The mean correlation of IQ scores between monozygotic twins was 0.86, between siblings, 0.47, between half-siblings, 0.31, and between cousins, 0.15. From such data the heritability of IQ can be estimated, varying between 0.40 and 0.80 in the United States.

In 1869, Francis Galton replaced mere speculations by statistical data through his book, Hereditary Genius:

Highly Gifted Men and the Percentage of their Highly Gifted Male Relatives

(classified by occupation and achievement)

  Galton Terman Brimhall Weiss  
  % % % % n (Weiss)
Probands 100 84+ 100 97+ 1972: 1329
1994:   357
Fathers 26 41 29 40 346
Brothers 47 - 49 49 220
Sons 60 64* - 55 77
Grandfathers 14 - 9 9 681
Uncles 16 - 13 14 615
Nephews 23 - - 22 76
Grandchildren 14 - - - -
Greatgrandfathers 0 - - 4 1290
Uncles of the parents 5 - - 5 1996
Cousins 16 - 9# 18 570
Greatgrandchildren 7 - - - -
Cousins of parents - - - 11 2250
"+": classified by occupation; 100%, if classified by test

"*": classified only by IQ; classification by occupation gives about 55%; n = 820.

"#": some cousins were still too young and did not have full opportunity to become distinguished
"-": no data


  • Francis Galton: Hereditary Genius. London 1869.[1].
    100 famous Famous men (n = 43) of science and the percentage of their famous male relatives.
  • M. H. Oden: The fulfillment of promise: 40-year follow-up of the Terman gifted group.
    Genetical Psychology Monographs 77 (1968) 3-93.
    The mean IQ (transformed to 100;15) of the sample of probands was 146 (n = 724); the cut-off score IQ 137.
  • Dean R. Brimhall: Family resemblances among American men of science.
    The American Naturalist 56 (1922) 504-547; 57 (1923) 74-88, 137-152, and 326-344.
    In 1915 questionnaires were filled in by 956 distinguished American men of science and their relatives.
  • Volkmar Weiss: Mathematical giftedness and family relationship. European Journal for High Ability 5 (1994) 58-67.[2]
    Highly gifted males (mean IQ 135 +/- 9) and their relatives in professions, typically associated with an IQ above 123.
  • Despite the differences in methods and societies, there is a notable parallelism in the published statistics. The ITO-method by Li and Sacks (1954) allows from this set of data the estimation of the underlying number of genes and their allele frequencies.

    The inheritance of cognitive deficits

    There is no doubt that genes are in many cases the cause of an IQ below 100. The number of such genes already known is in the hundreds. For example, a mutation of the gene GDI1[3] is associated with an IQ below 70. The public has free and open access to the current data in the field through the OMIM database.

    There are number of known cases where the homozygotes have severe cognitive deficits and the heterozygotes show a small decrease of IQ. In such metabolic pathways further SNPs of such genes are investigated whether they are influencing IQ or not. For example, one SNP of the gene ALDH5A1[4] causes an IQ difference of around 1.5 points.[6]

    Development of IQ

    It is reasonable to expect that genetic influences on traits like IQ should become less important as one gains experiences with age. Surprisingly, the opposite occurs. Heritability measured in infancy are as low as 20%, around 40% in middle childhood, and as high as 80% in adulthood in the United States. Plomin et al. (2001, 2003); although this could also suggest that genetic influences have an effect on a person's predisposition to learn and develop IQ.


    • McGuffin P (2000). "The quantitative and molecular genetics of human intelligence". Novartis Found. Symp. 233: 243–55; discussion 255–9, 276–80. PMID 11276906.
    • G. Meisenberg: Genes for intelligence. A review of recent progress. Mankind Quarterly 36 (Winter 2005) 139-164. abstract
    • Payton A (2006). "Investigating cognitive genetics and its implications for the treatment of cognitive deficit". Genes Brain Behav. 5 Suppl 1: 44–53. doi:10.1111/j.1601-183X.2006.00194.x. PMID 16417617.

    See also


    1. ^ A Genome-Wide Scan of 1842 DNA Markers for Allelic Associations With General Cognitive Ability: A Five-Stage Design Using DNA Pooling and Extreme Selected Groups
    2. ^ The race myth p178 ISBN 0452286581
    3. ^ Gene governs IQ boost from breastfeeding
    4. ^ Caspi A, Williams B, Kim-Cohen J, et al (2007). "Moderation of breastfeeding effects on the IQ by genetic variation in fatty acid metabolism". doi:10.1073/pnas.0704292104. PMID 17984066.
    5. ^ Bouchard TJ, McGue M (1981). "Familial studies of intelligence: a review". Science 212 (4498): 1055–9. PMID 7195071.
    6. ^ Plomin R, Turic DM, Hill L, et al (2004). "A functional polymorphism in the succinate-semialdehyde dehydrogenase (aldehyde dehydrogenase 5 family, member A1) gene is associated with cognitive ability". Mol. Psychiatry 9 (6): 582–6. doi:10.1038/ PMID 14981524.
    This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Genetics_of_intelligence". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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