Commission study provides food for thought

Dr. S-W – 02/2020

Is intelligence hereditary? Probably not. Is intelligence innate? Quite possibly. These are the conclusions of a report published by the European Commission under the somewhat unwieldy title 'Genome-wide association studies, polygenic scores and social science generics: overview and policy implications'.

The dead live longer…

The possible correlation between genetic makeup and intelligence and social success has long been the subject of heated socio-political debate. These discussions always involved justifying ‘inequalities’ with regard to personal dispositions – or focusing more on the importance of the environment for successful personal development.

This debate was actually over in practice; the focus is now on attempts to reduce inequalities through targeted educational and social policy interventions. The emphasis on genetic predispositions was originally unable to gain a foothold because, other than studies on twins, it has not been possible to establish an empirically robust link between a clear genetic deviation (in a particular gene) and personal characteristics.

This now seems to be changing in the age of growing computing and storage capacities and the availability of big data. Genetic variants are now no longer isolated on one or a few genes, but rather in dozens or even hundreds of individual variations (polygenic scores) using genome-wide association studies.

In this respect, the question of the hereditability of certain personality traits is obsolete. It is extremely unlikely that a large group of individual genetic traits will be passed on completely to the next generation. What remains, however, is the interest in using them in order to make individual prognoses.

This involves finding answers to old questions about the genetic background of more complex traits such as depression, intelligence, behaviour, confidence, income, political orientation, reproductive behaviour (number of offspring), success at school, well-being, choice of career, decisions in financial matters, longevity, willingness to take risks (interesting for insurers), etc.

However, such links are always subject to misinterpretation of the purported correlations, because the outcomes (social success, etc) are not the result of genetics, but of the way the environment treats the person with that specific genetic trait, something which is liable to change.

Baby’s got blue eyes

...If all babies, unlike Elton John’s song, still had blue eyes in adulthood, the thought experiment used in the report to explain the phenomenon of environmental feedback loops or environmental reinforcement would be useless. However, it does illustrate quite impressively how statistically correct genetic correlations, which are translated into instructions for action without reflection, can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy (environmental feedback loop).

Let us assume that a certain genetic combination (polygenic score) can be correlated with increased success at school. And further assume that this combination codes for blue eyes. And finally, suppose that teachers tend to prefer children with blue eyes. How do you deal with this knowledge? Although the report is silent on this, several alternatives are possible:

  • Limited public education resources could be used more ‘efficiently’, especially for the benefit of children with the above-mentioned characteristics. However, this type of negative discrimination is also the most ethically reprehensible solution.
  • Public funds could be used specifically to support those who do not possess the characteristic (positive discrimination).
  •  The teachers could be replaced (targeted manipulation of the environment).

The danger of misinterpreting correlations is especially high when certain characteristics are concentrated in a ‘group’. The report deliberately avoids the terms ‘ethnic origin’ or even ‘race’ which were still in use after WWII. If, for example, it turns out that these characteristics are statistically significantly associated with poor educational attainment, this is most likely due to the fact that the members of this ‘group’ had inadequate access to educational institutions. Political intervention would then have to start with that issue.

We’re not that far yet, but...

As the report acknowledges, even the best polygenetic scores are currently unable to provide useful insights into predicting the behaviour or future personality traits of an individual carrier. At best, genetic correlations seem to allow some probability statements, but they are far from being biological/causal explanations. 

... Policy makers are called upon to act

However, it is possible that one day more precise statements on individual genetic potential will be possible. In view of rapid scientific progress, the report recommends starting a broad dialogue on the effects and use of these new findings for the benefit of all. This includes clarifying the question of what type of society we want to live in, especially given the danger of (negative) discrimination based on genetic information. 

The report contrasts this with the vision of positive discrimination in the sense of targeted solidarity and redistribution in favour of those who have been given worse chances by the ‘genetic lottery’. 

The report can be downloaded here.