The Genetics of Intelligence

Principal Investigators: Erik Parens and Paul Appelbaum, Columbia University and a Hastings Center Fellow

Funder: National Human Genome Research Institute, The Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University, Willard Gaylin and Daniel Callahan Funds

With the advent of new genomic sequencing technologies, researchers around the world are working to identify genetic variants that help explain differences in intelligence. Can such findings be used to improve education for all, as some scientists believe? Or are they likely to have a chilling effect on programs meant to improve educational outcomes among disadvantaged populations? These are among the questions explored in workshop comprised of a multidisciplinary group of behavioral geneticists, sociologists, psychologists, lawyers, educators, and ethicists. The workshop was led by Parens and Appelbaum in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (CTY) and the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.

The workshop came about after the CTY leadership approached some bioethicists, including Parens at Hastings and Gail Geller at Hopkins, for advice on a dilemma it was facing. A research team exploring the genetic underpinnings of high intelligence asked CTY if they could recruit people already participating in an ongoing CTY research project, the “Study of Exceptional Talent.”  The research team wanted to ask these participants if they would donate DNA samples for genomic analysis, with the ultimate goal of using findings to help improve education for highly intelligent students. CTY’s leadership was unsure how to respond. On the one hand, it respected the research team and its goal. But it also worried about the potentially ugly implications, given that the history of scientific inquiry into the genetics of intelligence is marred by assumptions about the superiority of some groups over others.

Workshop participants produced The Genetics of Intelligence: Ethics and the Conduct of Trustworthy Research, a special report of the Hastings Center Report.