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"There are fears that prospective parents will be tempted to test embryos for the gene"
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Tuesday, 8 August, 2000, 21:51 GMT 22:51 UK
Genius of genes
To what extent is one's IQ written in the genes
By BBC science correspondent Pallab Ghosh

US researchers believe they have identified the parts of the human genome involved in developing a person's intelligence.

This means scientists could soon test the potential intelligence of new-born babies.

The discovery has been seized on by some on the Right who claim it backs their view that the way people turn out depends more on the genes with which they are born rather than on the schools they attend.

Others have warned the discovery gives succour to those parents who would wish to improve their children through genetic engineering.

The researchers, working for the US National Institutes of Health, analysed the DNA of 200 of the brightest kids in America and compared them with the genetic material from ordinary children.

The results are due out next year, but the BBC Newsnight programme has learned that key differences have been found. In other words, the scientists are homing in on the genes for genius.

The team believe more than one gene is involved - and that these genes can make a big difference to a person's intelligence. The research was led by Professor Robert Plomin.

Shift in political thinking

"I think we need to recognise that genetic influences are important and that we will find genes for intelligence," he told the BBC. "Each may account for a small piece of the action, but together they give us a significant source of prediction for intelligence."

We have had the scientific community denying the obvious

Charles Murray
The next step will be to discover what these genius genes do. One theory is that they help make nerve cells. They help transmit signals, our thoughts if you like, from one part of the brain to another.

Some fear that this type of research could undermine attempts to create a more equal society.

They believe some groups will take the view that providing the entire population with greater educational and social opportunities is a waste of money if human nature is predetermined by our genetic inheritance.

Right-wing thinker Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve, believes that the new biology will create a seismic shift in political thinking.

In the future, the parent could become an architect and each child the ultimate shopping experience

Jeremy Rifkin
"We have had the scientific community denying the obvious," he said. "We've had people saying that IQ is virtually all determined by the environment and we can change it by the proper social interventions and a whole bunch of other things that simply are not true."

The Nature-Nurture debate has always been at the heart of the political battleground with some on the Right believing people are born good or bad, intelligent or slow-witted. The Left believes things depend more on social circumstances.

'Eugenics with a smiling face'

According to Charles Murray, the "new genetics" shows that the Right is right and that social policies will have to be changed accordingly.

But if there is one thing that has annoyed Professor Plomin more than the fact that the Right has seized on his work, it is that the Left have disowned it.

He argues that far from challenging left-wing policies, his research can help those policies become more effective.

He explained: "Depending on your values, you can say 'right, genetic influences are important in intelligence, therefore what I'll do is not put my money into those kids who are going to do good anyway. I'm going to put it into the lower end of the distribution to make sure that we don't lose our citizens - that they don't fall off the end of the curve and feel disenfranchised as citizens.'"

But, according to Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Bio-tech Century, the greatest threat comes from prospective parents rather than tyrannical or misguided governments.

"Every parent wants the best for their child," said Rifkin. "In the future, the parent could become an architect and each child the ultimate shopping experience.

"In the next 10 or 20 years we could have eugenics with a smiling face. We will no longer require the lower classes to have fewer babies; we will just have them have better babies as we learn to do gene therapy."

Professor Plomin believes that nightmare scenarios will only come to pass if research is suppressed or banned.

"Some people say this kind of research should not be done because of the questions it raises and the difficulties it raises are not worth having to deal with," he said.

"You could continue with the comfortable view that assumes people are blank slates on which the environment writes. But surely it is better to know the truth."

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See also:

26 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
Scientists crack human code
30 May 00 | Human genome
What the genome can do for you
30 May 00 | Human genome
Morality and a code of conduct
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