by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.
In the 1997 film GATTACA, when a child is born, a reading of their DNA is done within minutes. The analysis includes things like the child’s IQ and major health concerns. The readings determine the person’s life—what schools they can attend and even what jobs they can have. While presented as a dystopian fantasy, just such a scenario is being spun by behavioral geneticist Robert Plominin his Nature Reviews Genetics article titled “The new genetics of intelligence.”
Plomin says “Intelligence is highly heritable and predicts important educational, occupational and health outcomes better than any other trait. Recent genome-wide association studies have successfully identified inherited genome sequence differences that account for 20% of the 50% heritability of intelligence.” Thus, he proposes that in the future parents will want to use [not yet existing] direct-to-consumer genetic IQ tests to determine their children’s’ intelligence to choose the best schools for them. Plomin calls this, “precision education” which is a bow to “precision medicine” where medical treatment is tailored to the patient—drugs that will respond specifically to their genotype. In the case of education, the idea is to provide a learning program tailored to the student’s DNA.
You can already do a primitive version of this testing. While most DTC gene testing companies do not offer information on IQ, there are some secondary analytic companies that do. For example, GenePlazaand DNALandallow you to upload your sequenced DNA to help researchers and to find out additional information about yourself. These resources will provide a rating of how your intelligence DNA compares with other people. Note that these services are not free.
The idea that DNA determines your IQ, your health, and your behaviors is known as “genetic determinism”—that human behavior is influenced/dictated by one’s genes. According to Harvard geneticist, David Reich, the evidence is getting stronger that we will find a genetic basis for intelligence: “Is performance on an intelligence test or the number of years of school a person attends shaped by the way a person is brought up? Of course. But does it measure something having to do with some aspect of behavior or cognition? Almost certainly. And sinceall traits influenced by genetics are expected to differ across populations (because the frequencies of genetic variations are rarely exactly the same across populations), the genetic influences on behavior and cognition will differ across populations, too.”
These ideas minimize the effect of environment and experience on a person. For example, as a child I had an above average IQ, but nothing that said I would pursue a life of scholarship. In fact, after first and second grades (in an experimental open classroom) I was not doing well academically at all. But in third grade I had a teacher who really pushed me and who made learning exciting for me. She changed everything. Could a DNA test predict Mrs. Ehrlich and the effect that she would have on me?
The genetic intelligence test approach has some concerns. First, as Plomin says, less than half of our IQ comes from DNA. He also states that there may be 1,000 genes that are involved with determining intelligence. Knowing how these genes interact to create this thing we call “intelligence” is not so easy. Second, DNA may allow a propensity but it does not dictate if a person is actually “smart”: Genotype does not fully dictate phenotype. Third, IQ is a social construct created by educational psychologists as a way to measure what they believe is intelligence. However, that measurement is one that gives preference to people who are like them—white, upper socioeconomic status; in other words, privileged. The IQ is a test that perpetuates the idea of privilege. After all, what counts as intelligence is defined by those who get to write the test questions. Just as an IQ test can be used to preserve discriminatory status quo, so could the genetic tests, since they could similarly be calibrated. However, Reich argues that the social science notion of social construction has biased us against seeing a genetics of intelligenceand that we must keep an open mind.
This discussion leads back to the original question of whether we ought to test ourselves now or our children in the future when these genetic tests for intelligence exist? Should we allow our children’s lives to be dictated by the outcomes of a DNA test? As readers of this space know, I am not a huge fan of DNA testing for entertainment purposes or even for medical purposes when the knowledge will not make a difference in options or choice. I have written against testsfor Alzheimer’s gene onthe argument that it could limit the range of one’s will in making life choices.
One could argue that my grade school experience is why we need precision education—if my DNA had shown that I would not do well in an open classroom, that could have been avoided. I also know of many cases where someone with a high IQ did not succeed because they were bored in a traditional classroom; could a DNA test ensured their placement in a more active learning program? Yet, it should be possible to know what learning environment is best for a particular student without resorting to a blunt, and presumptive, DNA test. We cannot underestimate the self-fulfilling element to these tests—if a parent learns that their child is gifted in history, critical thinking, or math, those parents might push their children to focus on those areas, provide extra tutoring, and display excitement when the child is engaged in related activities. The DNA test would be proven right, but the reason is that the parents created expectations and circumstances for the child to succeed in those areas.
The world presented in GATTACA is one of a genetic hierarchy where those who have desirable genetic traits go to the best schools, get the best jobs, and have the best lives whereas all others are forced into a second class status. Although brilliant, and hardworking, the protagonist of the story is relegated to being a janitor and assuming another’s identity in order to reach his dreams. DNA could not measure his determination or his ambition to learn. He “borrows’ his DNA from someone who had the perfect double helix but was broken by the expectations that put on him. We have seen laws and societies organized around rating our genetics: We call this eugenics and saw it through the United States and in Nazi Germany.
Even if it turns out that DNA is 100% driving our intelligence and behaviors, I would still not want the test. After all, part of the human experience is discovering ourselves and the IQ test is a shortcut to meaninglessness.