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Maybe Not So Smart

Research into race and intelligence is best avoided, argues Stevens Institute of Technology's John Horgan in a blog post at Cross-Check.

"I oppose this research not only because of its potential to exacerbate racism, but also because the entire field of behavioral genetics has a horrendous track record, with a long string of sensational claims that turned out to be erroneous," he says.

In particular, he points to a paper that appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in September that he says likely came to specious conclusions.

In it, researchers led by Erasmus University's Philipp Koellinger report using a two-stage approach that combined a genome-wide association study to find SNPs associated with educational attainment to followed by an assessment of those for their links to cognitive performance. Koellinger and colleagues report that a set of genes involved in a certain neurotransmitter pathway that's related to synaptic plasticity is linked to cognitive performance.

But, as Ewan Callaway points out at Nature News, each variant researchers found can only explain a tiny portion of variation in intelligence, some 0.3 points on an IQ test.

“With effects this small, the chances that they represent false positives are vastly increased,” Trinity College Dublin neurogeneticist Kevin Mitchell tells Callaway.

Horgan adds that the behavioral genetics field is beginning to recognize its limitations.

“The literature on candidate gene associations is full of reports that have not stood up to rigorous replication…" says a 2012 Behavior Genetics editorial quoted by Horgan. "As a result, the psychiatric and behavior genetics literature has become confusing and it now seems likely that many of the published findings of the last decade are wrong or misleading and have not contributed to real advances in knowledge.”