Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Another confirmation: High IQ goes with better health and longer life

And a further advance in finding the genes behind IQ

Clever people live longer due to so-called 'intelligence genes' that promote old age, new research suggests.

More than 500 genes linked to people having greater IQs have been identified by scientists, which is 10 times higher than previously thought.

It raises the possibility of testing for intelligence using simple saliva DNA tests.

Past research suggests intelligence genes boost the transmission of signals between different regions of the brain, as well as protecting against dementia and premature death.

Study author Dr David Hill from Edinburgh University said: 'Intelligence is a heritable trait with estimates indicating between 50 and 80 per cent of differences in intelligence can be explained by genetic factors.

'People with a higher level of cognitive function have been observed to have better physical and mental health, and to have longer lives.'

Their IQ was investigated by assessing their arithmetic, vocabulary and understanding of information, as well as their ability to arrange images and sort codes.

Results further suggest 538 genes play a role in intelligence, while 187 regions of the human genome are associated with thinking skills.

Dr Hill said: 'Our study identified a large number of genes linked to intelligence.  

'First, we found 187 independent associations for intelligence and highlighted the role of 538 genes being involved - a substantial advance.

'We used our data to predict almost seven per cent of the variation in intelligence in one of three independent samples.

'Previous estimates of prediction have been around five per cent at most.'

The findings were published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

The researchers analysed DNA variations in more than 240,000 people from around the world. Gene samples were taken from the UK Biobank, which assesses the role of genes in health and disease.  The researchers then compared people's DNA against their IQ scores on verbal and numerical tests.


Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Book Review of "Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That is a Problem, and What to Do about It" by Richard V. Reeves

What reviewer Robert Whaples reports below is a fairly conventional sociological analysis of social stratification in America.  And there is undoubtedly something in it.  The big problem is said to be that the people who have already got to the top of American society tend to keep it for themselves and their children.  There is little social mobility upwards from lower down in the social hierarchy.  And you will read below about a variety of ways in which that "closed shop" is maintained.

I think that sociological account does however miss a large elephant in the room.  And to see that elephant you need to go to psychology.  A couple of decades ago Charles Murray showed that IQ was a strong predictor of economic success.  So the existing elite will already be high IQ people and it is actually their high IQ that gives them their dominant position, not what schools they went to etc. 

Toby Young offers a very extensive exploration of that possibility.  He thinks we already have a ruling INTELLECTUAL elite.  That being so, nothing will help you to get into that elite unless you have the requisite high IQ.  With that everything is possible; without it very little is possible

The American labor market “does a good job of rewarding the kind of ‘merit’ that adds economic value—skills, knowledge, intelligence” (p. 75). “The idea of moving away from a market economy is foolish as well as far-fetched. Markets increase prosperity, reduce poverty, enhance well-being, and bolster individual choice” (p. 77). These aren’t the words of someone from Cato, the AEI or the Heritage Foundation, but from Richard Reeves, a senior fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution. But, warns Reeves, this “meritocratic market” is embedded in an unfair society. Meritocracy is great for adults, but not for children. The problem is that upper middle class parents have built a system that gives their own children massive advantages—they hoard the prerequisites for the American dream and block the children of others from flourishing.

Market merit is a great thing, but we need to reform our social institutions so that they “aggressively equalize opportunities to develop market merit” (p. 84). “The problem is not that society is too competitive. It is that it is not competitive enough, partly because of ... anticompetitive opportunity hoarding ... but mostly because the chances to prepare for the competition are so unequal” (p. 124). Reeves seems to realize that it would be exceptionally difficult (and probably quite destructive) to eliminate all the advantages that children of successful parents have over other children. These advantages include having caring parents (two of them, not just one), who are good role models and spend time simply talking to their children—one study he cites examines the “conversation gap” and estimates that children in families on welfare hear about six hundred words per hours, working-class children about twelve hundred words per hour, and children of professionals about twenty-one hundred words per hour. Reeves doesn’t aim to undo these immense advantages. Rather, he takes aim at a higher level—at legal rules and institutional arrangements, constructed by the upper middle class to make life better for themselves and their children without considering the potential harm imposed on others—and suggests that we could use “more downward mobility from the top” (p. 58).

So, how do upper middle class professionals—“journalists, scholars, technocrats, managers, bureaucrats, the people with letters after their names” (p. 4) hoard the dream? Reeves focuses on three tactics—exclusionary zoning, college admissions policies, and the allocation of good internships. The most important of these is the first. The upper middle class have segregated themselves into towns and neighborhoods where the cost of living is high, mainly by using zoning rules that make it impossible for poorer people to be their neighbors and enjoy these communities’ amenities—especially good schools. The rich practice an “inverse ghettoization” (p. 102)—building enclaves where they live healthy, safe lives together and don’t have to deal with the annoyances of non-elites and their children, to the detriment of everyone else, argues Reeves. These zoning practices—such as banning multi-family dwellings and setting high minimum lot sizes—mean that those outside the top groups cannot afford to live in the most economically prosperous places. And the dirty secret is that these zoning requirements are stricter in cities with more left-of-center voters. Enrico Moretti and Chang-Tai Hsieh have estimated that if only San Francisco, San Jose and New York adopted zoning regulations of the median American city, the entire U.S. economy would be 10 percent larger because more people would be able to afford to move to opportunity.

The problem with higher education, as Reeves sees it, is that the game is rigged so that children of the upper middle class have huge advantages in getting into the best colleges and universities—because they live near the best high schools and because, for example, their parents have the wherewithal to spend money on college admissions consultants (who can charge over $10,000 for their top tier of services). “Post-secondary education ... has become an ‘inequality machine” (p. 11), as it “takes the inequality given to it and magnifies it” (p. 55). Elite schools pay lip services to serving all of society, but they are “locked into an equilibrium that militates against serious reform efforts” as it “is simply not in the interests of the most powerful institutions to change things very much” (p. 88-89). Reeves offers a tantalizing sentence or two about supply-side reforms to improve opportunity and access to higher education but doesn’t press the issue. Instead, he focuses on an interesting, but probably not very important, symptom of dream hoarding in higher education—policies that make it easier for “legacy” students, the children of alumni, to be accepted to the top colleges. He makes a strong case that this practice is immoral and downright un-American, citing evidence from a couple cases where abolishing the practice has not reduced alumni giving. He’s a fan of extending affirmative action to encompass social class. He also advocates the abolition of granting special advantages for well-connected students who apply for internships at top firms, non-profits and government positions. The playing field needs to be leveled—so that having parents who know the right people doesn’t give applicants a leg up.

As you can see from my overview of Reeve’s arguments, this is a book that will appeal to people across the political spectrum—in fact, it will probably appeal more to conservatives and libertarians than the “progressives” who run our colleges and have enacted these zoning laws. Reeves’ policy proposals strike me as mostly mild afterthoughts—his primary goal seems to be to open “dream hoarding” up to the disinfectant of sunlight, to encourage us to realize the inconsistencies between our stated creeds and our practices, so that we begin to voluntarily give up our hoarding. In this task he may have failed. I conclude this after having discussed Dream Hoarders with a group of students at an elite college (Wake Forest University). They accepted many of his arguments but ultimately few saw a burning need to give up on legacy admissions (which might benefit their own children) and using special connections to snag good job internships.

I won’t enumerate his proposals, but will object to his take on contraception for teenagers, when he declares that “Causal sex is fine. Casual child bearing is not” (p. 127). One doesn’t have to dig too deep to realize that treating other people so casually, so disposably, as if they are just there for one’s own pleasure, is the root of many of the problems he discusses. Would he advise his own children that “casual sex is fine”? Do parents now say this to their children? The thought of this saddens me deeply.

Finally, Reeves has a fresh take on John Rawls. Rather than considering how we would want things to be arranged if we didn’t know our own original position (shrouded behind the veil of ignorance), Reeves asks us to think about the best arrangement if no one knows his “children’s place in society, their class position or social status; nor does he know their fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, intelligence and strength and the like” (p. 72, emphasis in the original). He senses that if this were the position facing us, we’d be more supportive of redistributive policies and institution, if we were less certain where our own children were going to end up. I’m not so certain.


Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The EQ dream

The whole idea of IQ is poison to the "all men are equal" crowd because it demonstrates that they are not. So the game is on to show that IQ differences may exist but those differences are unimportant. And the prime way of doing that has been to promote the idea of Emotional Intelligence (EQ), which can be trained.  In any activity taking part among a group EQ is said to be very important.  It's an attractive dream but it is at variance with reality.  Because it is so attractive it has been much researched and the Wikipedia entry on it summarizes the findings pretty well.

Chief among the problems with EQ, is that there are a variety of things which are called Emotional Intelligence but they correlate poorly with one another  So which is the "true" emotional intelligence?  The concept is fine but going out there among the population and assessing it is very difficult.  One could argue that if it can be measured, nobody so far has achieved that.  Different tests will pick out different groups of people as emotionally intelligent.  Does it exist at all in reality?

The second problem is predictive power.  No matter which version of EQ that you use does it predict success (however defined) any better than IQ?  And it does not in general.  All the enthusiasm for it is misplaced.  It is a unicorn concept.  It sounds attractive but it does not exist out there in the world.

So why on earth is Ezekiel Emanuel pushing that old barrow of rubbish below?  Easy. He is a far Leftist and the chief architect of Obamacare. His brother is Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.  His ideology makes him WANT to believe in EQ.  The editors of JAMA were very incautious to let his blatherings into the pages of their journal.  Obviously, they knew nothing about the psychological research into EQ

Does Medicine Overemphasize IQ?

Ezekiel J. Emanuel, MD, PhD; Emily Gudbranson, BA

Everyone wants the best physician. Patients want their physician to know medical information by heart, to possess diagnostic acumen, and to be well-versed in the latest tests and treatments. Finding the best physicians often involves looking for resumes with stellar attributes, such as having graduated at the top of a collegiate class, attended the best medical schools, completed internships and residency training at the nation’s most prestigious hospitals, and been awarded the most competitive fellowships. Many medical schools, likewise, want only the smartest students, as assessed by the highest grade point averages and MCAT scores.

This selection process has persisted for decades. But is it misguided? Do the smartest students, as measured by science grades and standardized test results, truly make the best physicians?

Overemphasizing IQ

By prioritizing academic pedigree, the medical profession has traditionally overemphasized general intelligence and underemphasized—if not totally ignored—emotional intelligence. With “objective” assessments and little grade inflation, performance in hard science courses and on the MCAT have been the primary determinants of medical school admissions.1,2 Although good test scores and grades in calculus, physics, or organic chemistry may signal one kind of intelligence, reliance solely on those metrics results in an incomplete and inaccurate assessment of a student’s potential to be an excellent, caring physician.

Medical schools often conflate high MCAT scores and grades in the hard sciences with actual intelligence. For instance, good test takers can score extremely high on multiple-choice examinations but may lack real analytic ability, problem-solving skills, and common sense. Scoring well on these metrics reveals nothing about other types of intelligences, especially emotional intelligence, that are critical to being an excellent physician. Knowing how to calculate the speed of a ball rolling down an inclined plane or recalling the Bamford-Stevens reaction are totally irrelevant to being an astute diagnostician, much less an oncologist sensitively discussing end-of-life care preferences with a patient who has developed metastatic cancer.

The prioritization of student grades and test scores in the US News & World Report rankings of medical schools fuels a vicious cycle. Medical schools have placed more emphasis on these criteria, ultimately striving to select students with higher scores to maintain their ranking. From 2000 to 2016, the grade point averages of students admitted to US medical schools have actually increased from 3.60 to 3.70,3 and MCAT scores in both biological and physical sciences have also increased by 5% to 10%.4 European universities may emphasize IQ even more in medical student selection, because they rely on standardized tests at the end of high school, such as A-level examinations in England.

Providing high-quality care certainly requires intelligence. A high IQ may help a physician diagnose congestive heart failure and select the right medications and interventions, but it is still no guarantee that the physician can lead a multidisciplinary team or effectively help patients change their behaviors in ways that tangibly improve their health outcomes.

The Ubiquitous Importance of Emotional Intelligence
A certain threshold of intelligence is absolutely necessary to succeed in any field. In medicine, IQ is necessary to master and critically assess the volume and complexity of information integral to contemporary medical education. But past this threshold, success in medicine is ultimately more about emotional intelligence.

Psychologists have identified 9 distinct kinds of intelligence, ranging from mathematical and linguistic to musical and the capacity to observe and understand the natural world.5 Emotional intelligence (EQ) is the ability to manage emotions and interact effectively with others. People with high EQs are sensitive to the moods and temperaments of others, display empathy, and appreciate multiple perspectives when approaching situations.

Is EQ really necessary for success? A major part of what distinguishes human brain functions from those of primates is a larger prefrontal cortex and extensive intrabrain connections, which endow humans with significantly greater ability to navigate social interactions and collaborate. It makes sense, then, that humans should use this unique ability to its greatest extent.

Consider a simple negotiation session. Participants—executives, physicians, and others—are grouped into teams and given the exact same starting scenario and facts. When told to come to the best possible deal, as measured in a hard outcome such as the most money, results vary 4-fold or more. The best deals are reached by teams that exhibit mutual trust, an understanding of the interests of the other side, and the ability to reach a mutually beneficial arrangement. These variations are not the result of differences in brain power but rather differences in EQ. According to Diamond, “[In negotiations] emotions and perceptions are far more important than power and logic in dealing with others. [EQ] produces four times as much value as conventional tools like leverage and ‘win-win’ because (a) you have a better starting point for persuasion, (b) people are more willing to do things for you when you value them, no matter who they are, and (c) the world is mostly about emotions, not the logic of ‘win-win.’”6

EQ in Medicine

Vitally important to the success of 21st-century clinicians are 3 capabilities: to (1) effectively lead teams, (2) coordinate care, and (3) engender behavior change in patients and colleagues. (Both 1 and 3 require negotiating skills.) Thus, effective physicians need both an adequate IQ and a high EQ.

For the 10% of chronically ill patients who consume nearly two-thirds of all health care spending,7 the primary challenge is not solving diagnostic conundrums, unraveling complex genetic mutations, or administering specially designed therapeutic regimens. Rather, physicians caring for chronically ill patients with several comorbidities must lead multidisciplinary teams that emphasize educating patients, ensuring medication adherence, diagnosing and treating concomitant mental health issues, anticipating potential illness exacerbations, and explicitly discussing treatment preferences.

These activities depend on listening, building trust, empathy, and delineating mutual goals. Chronic care management, in addition to sufficient intelligence, therefore primarily requires a high EQ. As Goleman suggested, “Analytics and technical skills do matter, but mainly as ‘threshold capabilities’—that is, they are the entry-level requirements for executive positions… [But] emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership. Without it a person can have the best training in the world; an incisive analytical mind; and an endless supply of smart ideas; but he still won’t make a great leader.”8

Minimizing or ignoring EQ when selecting and training medical students may partially explain why US medical professionals fare so poorly in assembling well-functioning teams to care for chronically and terminally ill patients.


Monday, January 29, 2018

Smart people are less likely to go mad

That's an easy to understand heading, is it not?  It's my summary of an article titled: "Association of Heritable Cognitive Ability and Psychopathology With White Matter Properties in Children and Adolescents".  It appeared in JAMA Psychiatry. Published online January 24, 2018

By a Norwegian, a German and a Vietnamese (Dag Aln├Žs, Tobias Kaufmann and Nhat Trung Doan), all of whom work at Oslo University Hospital, Oslo, Norway


Importance:  Many mental disorders emerge during adolescence, which may reflect a cost of the potential for brain plasticity offered during this period. Brain dysconnectivity has been proposed as a common factor across diagnostic categories.

Objective:  To investigate the hypothesis that brain dysconnectivity is a transdiagnostic phenotype in adolescence with increased susceptibility and symptoms of psychiatric disease.

Design, Setting, and Participants:  We investigated clinical symptoms as well as cognitive function in 6487 individuals aged 8 to 21 years from November 1, 2009, to November 30, 2011, in the Philadelphia Neurodevelopmental Cohort and analyzed diffusion magnetic resonance imaging brain scans for 748 of the participants.

Main Outcomes and Measures:  Independent component analysis was used to derive dimensional psychopathology scores, and genome-wide complex trait analysis was used to estimate its heritability. Multimodal fusion simultaneously modeled contributions of the diffusion magnetic resonance imaging metrics fractional anisotropy, mean diffusivity, radial diffusivity, L1 (the principal diffusion tensor imaging eigen value), mode of anisotropy, as well as dominant and secondary fiber orientations, and structural connectivity density, and their association with general psychopathology and cognition.

Results:  Machine learning with 10-fold cross-validation and permutation testing in 729 individuals (aged 8 to 22 years; mean [SD] age, 15.1 [3.3] years; 343 females [46%]) revealed significant association with general psychopathology levels (r = 0.24, P < .001) and cognition (r = 0.39, P < .001). A brain white matter pattern reflecting frontotemporal connectivity and crossing fibers in the uncinate fasciculus was the most associated feature for both traits. Univariate analysis across a range of clinical domains and cognitive test scores confirmed its transdiagnostic importance. Both the general psychopathology (16%; SE, 0.095; P = .05) and cognitive (18%; SE, 0.09; P = .01) factor were heritable and showed a negative genetic correlation.

Conclusion and relevance:  Dimensional and heritable general cognitive and psychopathology factors are associated with specific patterns of white matter properties, suggesting that dysconnectivity is a transdiagnostic brain-based phenotype in individuals with increased susceptibility and symptoms of psychiatric disorders.


Comment:  Aren't you glad I summarized that for you?  To be fair, they had to tell you all that stuff to make their point.  And what they say goes well beyond my simple summary. They found that a particular brain feature was associated with (and probably caused) both low IQ and a variety of mental disorders.  And it was all genetically inherited.

So to make it simple again: Some people are born with defective brains.  That's not terribly new news, of course.  What is interesting is that a particular brain feature,  "dysconnectivity", underlies both personality and IQ.  You can be both dumb and off your head at the same time!

And that relates well to something I have been saying for a long time:  That a high IQ tends to be just one symptom of general biological fitness.  "To him that hath, more will be given him", as Jesus said several times (Matthew 13:12 & 25:29; Mark 4:25). There is no equality in nature.  We knew that already but it is nice to see it in a particular brain feature. 

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

IQ: Matzo with sauce get it nearly right

The journal abstract:

The paradox of intelligence: Heritability and malleability coexist in hidden gene-environment interplay.

Sauce, Bruno; Matzel, Louis D.


Intelligence can have an extremely high heritability, but also be malleable; a paradox that has been the source of continuous controversy. Here we attempt to clarify the issue, and advance a frequently overlooked solution to the paradox: Intelligence is a trait with unusual properties that create a large reservoir of hidden gene–environment (GE) networks, allowing for the contribution of high genetic and environmental influences on individual differences in IQ. GE interplay is difficult to specify with current methods, and is underestimated in standard metrics of heritability (thus inflating estimates of “genetic” effects). We describe empirical evidence for GE interplay in intelligence, with malleability existing on top of heritability. The evidence covers cognitive gains consequent to adoption/immigration, changes in IQ’s heritability across life span and socioeconomic status, gains in IQ over time consequent to societal development (the Flynn effect), the slowdown of age-related cognitive decline, and the gains in intelligence from early education. The GE solution has novel implications for enduring problems, including our inability to identify intelligence-related genes (also known as IQ’s “missing heritability”), and the loss of initial benefits from early intervention programs (such as “Head Start”). The GE solution can be a powerful guide to future research, and may also aid policies to overcome barriers to the development of intelligence, particularly in impoverished and underprivileged populations.



The above article is in the Psych. Bulletin, a top journal in psychology which is devoted to surveying the research literature on a particular subject and attempting a theoretical integration of it.  Sauce & Matzel, however, don't come up with much. Their concept of gene–environment (GE) networks is really just a rehash of the well-known finding that to maximize your  final IQ you need good environmental influences on top of your genetic given. 

Considering that the article is a research summary, it is however interesting how high the genetic given is rated.  They say that measured IQ is 80% genetic. Around 70% is the figure that has mostly been quoted in the past and people who hate the idea of IQ have on occasions put the figure as low as 50%.

The authors are aware that an enriched (stimulating) environment from early childhood on can bump up IQ but they are also aware that the gain is not permanent once the enrichment fades out. Headstart kids, for instance, test as brighter while in the program but revert to an IQ similar to their peers when they get into normal schooling.

But what the authors conclude from that is, I think, too optimistic.  They seem to think that the environmental enrichment should be kept up into much later life.  What they overlook is that all environmental influences tend to fade out  as maturation goes on and by about age 30 environmental influences seem to zero out entirely.  Identical twins reared apart will have very similar IQs at whatever age that is measured but the greatest similarity occurs when it is measured around age 30.

So growing up is a process of your genetics coming to the fore and the advantages/disadvantages of your environment fading out.  So enriching the environment throughout childhood is pissing into the wind.  What you are trying to manipulate will have less and less influence as maturation goes on and it will have NO final influence.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Pregnant women who eat up to NINE eggs a day have babies with higher IQs, study suggests

Is this too good to be true?  It is.  Note the word "suggests" above.  It seems to be another case of rodent studies not generalizing to humans.  The key ingredient, choline, does perk up mice babies but the same clear finding has not been found among humans.  The authors of the study reported below set out to do a really tightly controlled study that would settle the matter. 

The tight controls they put in place do indeed make it an admirable study but that also greatly limited their pool of people they could experiment with.  There were only 13 women each in their two experimental groups.  And from a statistical viewpoint that is far to few to rule out chance effects.  They did report statistical significance for their findings but that rules out only purely statistical effects, not unrepresentative sampling effects. So they were aware of obvious criticisms but were not in a position to rule them out.

They were also aware of criticisms of the measuring instrument  they used -- saying it correlates with adult IQ. But they still have the difficulty that IQs at different ages correlate rather poorly and that IQ measured at any time during childhood correlates rather poorly with IQ at age 30 -- which is about when environmental factors cease to be influential. In other words, the younger the child, the less well you are able to predict their final IQ.  And in this study we were dealing with neonates, which is very young indeed.

So it would need much stronger evidence than we have so far to make any policy recommendations.  If you like eggs, eat them. If you don't, there is no cause for concern

I follow the summary article below with the journal abstract

Pregnant women who eat up to nine eggs a day have babies with higher IQs, new research suggests.

Eggs contain high amounts of choline, which boosts infants' memories and abilities to process information.

However, nine is an unusually high number to eat in a day and they are linked to high cholesterol which can be deadly.

Recommendations advise 480mg of the nutrient a day in expectant mothers, however, the study suggests nearly double that amount is required for optimal results.

Yet, the researchers warn many pregnant women fail to even consume the recommended choline intake, which may be due to eggs' reputation for causing raised cholesterol levels, as well as warnings against expectant mothers eating them if undercooked.

On average, one egg yolk contains around 115mg of choline. Other sources include red meat, fish, poultry, legumes and nuts.

The NHS says that mothers-to-be do not need to go on a special diet, but stress it's important to eat a variety of different foods every day to get the right balance of nutrients that she and her baby need.

It recommends eggs for pregnant women but warns you should avoid eating some raw or partially cooked eggs, as there is a risk of salmonella. 

How the research was carried out 

The researchers from Cornell University analyzed 26 pregnant women entering their third trimesters.

Half of the study's participants ate 480mg of choline every day until their delivery, while the remainder consumed 930mg.

The participants' babies were assessed for their information processing speed and memories at four, seven, 10 and 13 months old.

Results reveal babies have significantly faster reaction times if their mothers ate 930mg of choline a day during the final stage of their pregnancy.

Infants are also faster at processing information if their mothers consumed around twice the recommended choline intake every day of their third trimester. 

A person's IQ is partially determined by their memory. 

Study author Marie Caudill said: 'In animal models using rodents, there's widespread agreement that supplementing the maternal diet with additional amounts of this single nutrient has lifelong benefits on offspring cognitive function.

'Our study provides some evidence that a similar result is found in humans.'

The findings were published in the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.


Maternal choline supplementation during the third trimester of pregnancy improves infant information processing speed: a randomized, double-blind, controlled feeding study

Marie A. Caudill et al.


Rodent studies demonstrate that supplementing the maternal diet with choline during pregnancy produces life-long cognitive benefits for the offspring. In contrast, the two experimental studies examining cognitive effects of maternal choline supplementation in humans produced inconsistent results, perhaps because of poor participant adherence and/or uncontrolled variation in intake of choline or other nutrients. We examined the effects of maternal choline supplementation during pregnancy on infant cognition, with intake of choline and other nutrients tightly controlled. Women entering their third trimester were randomized to consume, until delivery, either 480 mg choline/d (n = 13) or 930 mg choline/d (n = 13). Infant information processing speed and visuospatial memory were tested at 4, 7, 10, and 13 mo of age (n = 24). Mean reaction time (RT) averaged across the four ages was significantly faster for infants born to mothers in the 930 (vs. 480) mg choline/d group. This result indicates that maternal consumption of approximately twice the recommended amount of choline during the last trimester improves infant information processing speed. Furthermore, for the 480-mg choline/d group, there was a significant linear effect of exposure duration (infants exposed longer showed faster RTs), suggesting that even modest increases in maternal choline intake during pregnancy may produce cognitive benefits for offspring


Sunday, December 31, 2017

Matt Ridley is wrong on IQ and designer babies

Matt Ridley is sound on a lot of things.  He is a climate skeptic, for instance.  But he has succumbed to political correctness below and ends up with an illogical argument.

Some of his arguments may be correct.  His point that the polygenetic nature of IQ makes genetic modification to increase it impossibly difficult, for instance.  Such is the rapid pace of progress in science, however that I would not rule out it one day becoming possible.

But his final argument -- that intelligence is a collective thing -- is just plain sleight of hand.   He is using "intelligence" where he should be using "achievement". It is true that scientific progress and human achievement generally is the product of a huge collectivity but one person can sometimes make a major contribution -- Einstein, for instance. And if genetic modification towards high IQ becomes a common thing, high IQ could give us the "great leap forward" that Mao longed for. Though what its end might be one can only imagine

Christmas Day marks the birthday of one of the most gifted human beings ever born. His brilliance was of a supernoval intensity, but he was, by all accounts, very far from pleasant company. I refer to Isaac Newton.

Would you like your next child to have the intelligence of a Newton? It may not be long before this is a consumer choice, according to an ambitious new company founded in America a few months ago. Genomic Prediction initially plans to offer people who use in-vitro fertilisation the chance to identify and avoid embryos that would be likely to develop diabetes, late-life osteoporosis, schizophrenia and dwarfism. The key is the application of smart software to gigantic databases of genomic information from the population at large so as to spot dangerous combinations of gene variants. The founders also talk of being able to predict intelligence from genes, at least to some degree.

It is of course already common practice to screen embryos for terrible diseases, but only those simply caused by single genes: cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease and so forth. The new idea is to extend this capability to disorders caused by the interaction of many genes, each of small effect: and that is most of them.

This is welcome and potentially ethical, but is it also, after many false starts, the beginning of the slippery slope to designer babies? No, it is not. If anything, the new knowledge will cause such a threat to dissolve.

It is true that intelligence is one of the most strongly heritable human traits, like height. In childhood, among people who get sufficient food and a reasonable education, genes account for about 40 per cent of the variation in IQ. Later in life this rises to more like 80 per cent. If this sounds puzzling, consider this friend of mine: left a bad school at 15, worked as a lorry driver for a big company, which spotted his intelligence and paid for him to attend a top university, where he got a first, rejoined the company and is now a global senior executive: his achievement at 45 better reflects his innate intelligence than his achievement at 15. As a child we don’t get to choose our environments, so clever kids often don’t get to read as many books or do as many mind-bending maths puzzles as they would like, while stupid children read more books and get more maths tutoring than they would if left to their own devices. By adulthood, we are choosing and modifying the life that suits us.

Hence it has always been possible selectively to breed for intelligence. Francis Galton in 1869 pointed out that just as it was easy to ‘obtain by careful selection a permanent breed of dogs or horses gifted with peculiar powers of running, or of doing anything else, so it would be quite practicable to produce a highly gifted race of men by judicious marriages during several consecutive generations’.

However, human beings proved surprisingly unwilling to do this, and most governments eventually gave up trying to coerce them to do it, often with horrific eugenic policies. Then along came artificial insemination and test-tube babies, and surely now we would see a rush to have bright babies, by using sperm banks of Nobel Prize winners? But we did not. People used these technologies to have their own children, not those of Newton-like sperm donors. It is curious
how wrong most experts were about where the demand for IVF would come from: mainly from infertile couples wanting their own children, not fertile people wanting other people’s.

Strange as it may seem to academics, not everybody thinks intelligence matters all that much. They would rather have good- looking or athletic or happy or kind children than super-bright ones. And healthy comes first for almost everybody, so if there is any risk of poor health as a result of selecting an embryo for intelligence, people will, and for all we know very wisely, avoid it.

That is the first reason we will not see designer-intelligence any time soon: there will be little demand, especially if the procedure carries risks. For 50 years we have fretted about designer babies every time there is a new reproductive technology: mitochondrial donation and cloning were the most recent reason for dusting off the old canard.

The second reason is that the genes involved are too numerous and too feeble to be of any practical use. For a long time there was a puzzling gap between what studies of twins and adopted children said about the heritability of intelligence (that it was high), and what genetic surveys found (next to nothing). The first genome-wide association studies — or GWAS — came up empty when looking for gene variants associated with high IQ.

That has changed, thanks to much bigger sample sizes, such as the UK Biobank, which has looked inside the genomes of half a million people of a certain age. Thus, a recent study of nearly 80,000 people, published in May, found 40 new gene variants associated with intelligence. Another study  published in Nature of 1,238 extremely gifted intellectuals turned up more gene variants, including three in a gene called ADAM12.

But the more we find, the more ridiculous the idea of selecting for intelligence looks. Each variant seems to have a small effect, so you would need to fiddle with scores of genes to make a child bright, and fiddling with them might have unforeseen consequences for the health of the child. ADAM12, for example, is hard at work in every organ of the body.

As for the concern that genomic selection for intelligence, if it comes, will be available to the rich but not the poor — well, the same is true for good education. Opportunities to buy the best genes for your children will be dwarfed for decades to come by the ability of the rich to buy the best education for their children. If you must do something, do something about that instead: and preferably do so by making all education as good as the best, rather than as bad as the worst.

Finally, staring us in the face is a more obvious reason why intelligent designer babies will not happen soon and if they do, will not matter much. Individual intelligence is overrated. This is partly the well-worn argument that lots of other characteristics determine success, especially energy and diligence. We know people who are too bright to be decisive; or conversely achieve much in spite of their apparent disadvantages.

However, I mean something more than this. I mean that human achievements are always and everywhere collective. Every object and service you use is the product of different minds working together to invent or manage something that is way beyond the capacity of any individual mind. This is why central planning does not work. Ten million people eat lunch in London most days; how the heck they get what they want and when and where, given that a lot of them decide at the last minute, is baffling. Were there a London lunch commissioner to organise it, he would fail badly. Individual decisions integrated by price signals work, and work very well indeed.

And here is the key insight from evolution. Our brains grew big long, long before we achieved civilisation. We’ve had 1,200cc of intelligence for half a million years: even Neanderthals had huge brains. For 99 per cent of that time we were just another hard-pressed species, as bottle-nosed dolphins are today, and around 75,000 years ago we teeter-ed on the brink of extinction.

What changed was not some bright spark of a new gene being turned on, but that we began to exchange and specialise, to create collective intelligence, rather than rely on individual braininess. To put it another way, dozens of stupid people in a room who talk to each other will achieve far more than an equal number of clever people who don’t. The internet only underlines this point. Human intelligence is a distributed, collaborative phenomenon.