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Senior Vice-President for Research and Innovation, Professor of Theoretical Physics, Michigan State University

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Genetic Architecture of Intelligence

Video from a talk I gave recently at the Cognitive Science Forum at MSU. This is a more reliable source of information about the BGI intelligence study than coverage in the popular media  :-(


James D Miller said...

How long before parents could use embryo selection to give their kids, say, on average at least one standard deviation higher IQ?

steve hsu said...

As I mention at the end of the talk, the reproductive technologies are already here -- it is already possible to sequence a zygote from a single cell. Freezing fertilized eggs does not seem to damage their viability. The main thing that is lacking is the ability to predict phenotype from genotype, which is necessary for pre-implantation selection. My rough guess is that it will take GWAS samples of order 10^6 to determine the effect sizes which are the necessary inputs for genomic prediction. At the moment we are far from this level of statistical power (two orders of magnitude short!), but the situation will likely be different in 5-10 years.

Mitor said...

Hello Prof. Hsu

Do you have a link to the slides of this talk?

steve hsu said...


Michael Bacon said...

In the "popular" article you link to I found this gem of a quote from the guy that was interviewed:

In reference to China he said "they’re not going to act like Nazi Germany or America in the 20th century". My gripe is the idea that there was some meaningful equivallence between Nazi Germany and the United States in the 20th Century. Hope the guy has a better grasp of genetics than history.

yulva said...

Off topic but good results for Asian admissions to specialized high schools in New York City where one can still compete based on academic achievement:

—Stuyvesant offered admission to 9 black students; 24 Latino students; 177 white students; and 620 students who identify as Asian.
—Bronx Science offered admission to 25 black students; 54 Latino students; 239 white students; 489 Asian students; and 3 American Indian/Alaskan Native students.
—Brooklyn Tech offered admission to 110 black students; 134 Latino students; 451 white students; 960 Asian students; and 5 American Indian/Alaskan Native students.

One can only hope that someday all race based admission policies, including labeling, will be ended.

de Broglie said...

Did you see the recent article about high achieving poor in the NYT.

I think part of the reason the NYC specialized schools are so Asian is because high achieving whites typically have parents that can pay for private schools.

Robert Ford said...

Steve, are you optimistic that drugs could eventually be used raise IQ for the rest of the world (similar to a USAID nutrition program)? Also, are online Mensa tests legit? It seems like everyone I know gets "about a 130" so I think the tests are misleadingly easy. And welcome to Michigan! Thanks a lot for coming.

BlackRoseML said...


It would seem that finding intelligence-related loci would be more difficult than height-related loci. For instance, look at the quantile-quantile plot of Weedon et al. 2008 which studied height and compare it to the recent study by Plomin, Visscher, and Deary on childhood intelligence. It is instructive to compare these studies since both studies had similar power in their discovery samples (around 12000-14000), but only the study on height showed an enrichment in significant loci based on Q-Q plots and discovered 20 height-related loci. Perhaps, using children significantly reduces the power of intelligence GWAS due to the lower heritability of intelligence in children, but nevertheless, the Plomin, Visscher, and Deary study has enough power to reveal a loci of large effect.

Most of the found height loci have minor allele frequences > 10%. See http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v467/n7317/extref/nature09410-s1.pdf

But rare variants have not been explored yet due to the limitations of DNA microarrays and the statistical power needed to detect polymorphisms with low MAF.

BellcurveOli said...

Thank you for the post, professor. As a parent, I am interested in applying population statistics to individual family and using assortive mating to minimize mean regression. Given the little effect of typical range of environment as determined by twin studies, what mating strategies makes it feasible to maintain average IQ of ~130 in subsequent generations, assuming IQ of 130 for the subject with, say, family mean IQ of 123 and SD of 12? Would a spouse with IQ of 135 with family mean of 128 and SD of 12 give the offsprings a fair shot? What is your take on the effect of truly exceptional environmental stimuli (E) in increasing and maintaining higher IQ (maybe not to the level of high level physics) up till early adulthood (typical marriage years)? If reproductive technologies becomes mature and widely available in 20 years and everyone is born similarly intelligent, it seems that E and effort/tenacity would be an even more important factor in differentiating oneself in terms of career or financial success, as those are more relative in nature. I shudder at a world when everyone around me have average IQ of 130.

BlackRoseML said...

Don't worry about everyone having an IQ of 130. The tests would just be renormed.

dwbudd said...

There was an interesting op-ed in this Sunday's Times.

All one has to do is look at, inter alias, the fact that people like Professor Hsu (our gracious host) who really ought to know better is in thrall of President Obama, to see that this "hope" has pretty much zip.

BellcurveOli said...

Yes, indeed. It would be renormed, as in the Flynn effect. I was referring to how the IQ scores for future generation would compare to current IQ scores. There is much implication of such reproductive technologies, probably on a much larger scale than sex selection based on ultrasound findings in certain countries. After all, many parents do want to have girls (or boys) but who wouldn't want to have "smarter" kids?

boogieman87 said...

Clearly it's with regards to the context of the article and not about all policies of the two, which is genetics and the possibility of eugenics and this there were similar policies. Both places had strong proponents of making superior future generations and making sure those who are inferior should not be allowed to reproduce and was implemented in both places (including "feeble-minded", mentally retarded and such). Now you can argue not all US states implemented and various extents but a very clear and meaningful equivalence. It was a short comment said with understanding audience knew what the proper history was and so didn't require going into detail and nuances of differences and similarities. The main ideas, it's presence among rich and powerful elite and various associations, and its implementation by state authorities and the clear horror of such a situation in modern times. (which is why he was addressing it as this is what people are worried about). So it doesn't detract from his expertise at all.

Emil Kirkegaard said...

If you take tests over and over again, you will improve scores without getting smarter. Mensa uses normal, good IQ-tests. Improvement with practice is not a particular fault of their tests.

Dima Klondt said...

Freezing fertilized eggs does not seem to damage their viability

Really, Steve? Can you really be this oblivious to reality?

steve hsu said...

I only know what the experts tell me about this. But if you google ivf freeze embryo the results seem to support what I wrote.

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Ken Condon said...

Lee Silver thinks sooner or later one should and will be able to design their child. And his premise was from eons ago- in 2007. Why not one might ask.
Remaking Eden: How Genetic Engineering and Cloning Will Transform the American Family

Alexander Gabriel said...

Hi Steve, I was curious to know how the reproductive technologies are already here. That was not my impression. For example, see this article:


"Some experts think that within five years, doctors may be able to sequence the entire genome of an embryo from a single cell."

This seems to imply that is not possible today.

steve hsu said...

Who should I trust: a journalist at Technology Review, or people who are actually doing this kind of thing in the lab? ;-)

Alexander Gabriel said...

Well, what are the names of these people? Is there published research on this?

steve hsu said...

You might start here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Preimplantation_genetic_diagnosis , esp. the PCR section. I'm not sure what's published but this is something that needs to be fine-tuned in the lab. If you have a serious interest in this you can email me.

Michael Bacon said...

No, really? For the interested, here is the entire question and answer:

"Do you think global domination is in the cards, then?

The Chinese Communist party has never really sought global domination. They think of it as restoring China to its rightful and historical place as the central culture of humanity. Europe got a temporary advantage, but they’re just restoring the natural balance as the world’s most populous country. I don’t think they have any imperial ambitions to spread China’s borders—they’re not going to act like Nazi Germany or America in the 20th century—but they do want respect and they do want influence and they don’t trust America or Europe to run the world in the right way, in terms of issues like global warming or equality or economic stability."

He's not talking about "global domination" by or through genetics. Or about Europe getting a "temporary advantage" through genetics. Or, "imperial ambitions" through genetics. Or, "running the world in the right way, in terms of issues like global warming or equality or economic stability" through genetics. Sorry, but the answer the guy gives has nothing to do with genetics or eugenics at all. No, this entire quote deals strictly and exclusively with good, old fashioned, political issues of imperialism and the like.

How can one conclude that he is not clearly and unambiguously treating Nazi Germany and the United States in the 20th century as basically equivalent in their political world dominating behavior when he says: "I don’t think they have any imperial ambitions to spread China’s borders—they’re not going to act like Nazi Germany or America in the 20th century . . .?

Sorry, my friend, but I think I'll stick with my original comment that he'd better have a better grasp of genetics than he does history. :)

ben_g said...

Steve I have to disagree with your saying that intelligence is qualitatively like height. Height is objectively defined as how high you are off the ground. Intelligence is defined by the g-men based on how well you do on the principle component of cognitive tests.. The definition of the latter varies based on the tests that exist in the world, the people taking them, and any number of variables other than intelligence which may be causing the tests to correlate with each other. The reaction time stuff is cool, but again it's a correlation rather than the trait itself.

A "vegetarian" interpretation of the tests would say that they're useful predictors which likely capture cognitive ability to some degree. My guess is that you fall somewhere between the extremes of "Intelligence is a social construct" and the g-men's "g is intelligence". What would you recommend as good reading on the *construct* validity of IQ/g?

ben_g said...

One thing I'm wondering is how “direct” are the genetic effects on IQ? To what extent is it a result of high level gene-environemnt correlations (e.g. if you look a certain way you're treated better, or if you aesthetically prefer the written word to pictures you develop better verbal intelligence, etc.) versus more direct genetic effects (e.g. you have a genetic blueprint for a bigger brain in any normal environment).

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