DNA Tests for Intelligence Ignore the Real Reasons Why Kids Succeed or Fail

A child prodigy considers a math equation.

(© tournee/Adobe)


[Editor's Note: This essay is in response to our current Big Question, which we posed to experts with different perspectives: "How should DNA tests for intelligence be used, if at all, by parents and educators?"]

It's 2019. Prenatal genetic tests are being used to help parents select from healthy and diseased eggs. Genetic risk profiles are being created for a range of common diseases. And embryonic gene editing has moved into the clinic. The science community is nearly unanimous on the question of whether we should be consulting our genomes as early as possible to create healthy offspring. If you can predict it, let's prevent it, and the sooner, the better.

There are big issues with IQ genetics that should be considered before parents and educators adopt DNA IQ predictions.

When it comes to care of our babies, kids, and future generations, we are doing things today that we never even dreamed would be possible. But one area that remains murky is the long fraught question of IQ, and whether to use DNA science to tell us something about it. There are big issues with IQ genetics that should be considered before parents and educators adopt DNA IQ predictions.

IQ tests have been around for over a century. They've been used by doctors, teachers, government officials, and a whole host of institutions as a proxy for intelligence, especially in youth. At times in history, test results have been used to determine whether to allow a person to procreate, remain a part of society, or merely stay alive. These abuses seem to be a distant part of our past, and IQ tests have since garnered their fair share of controversy for exhibiting racial and cultural biases. But they continue to be used across society. Indeed, much of the literature aimed at expecting parents justifies its recommendations (more omegas, less formula, etc.) based on promises of raising a baby's IQ.

This is the power of IQ testing sans DNA science. Until recently, the two were separate entities, with IQ tests indicating a coefficient created from individual responses to written questions and genetic tests indicating some disease susceptibility based on a sequence of one's DNA. Yet in recent years, scientists have begun to unlock the secrets of inherited aspects of intelligence with genetic analyses that scan millions of points of variation in DNA. Both bench scientists and direct-to-consumer companies have used these new technologies to find variants associated with exceptional IQ scores. There are a number of tests on the open market that parents and educators can use at will. These tests purport to reveal whether a child is inherently predisposed to be intelligent, and some suggest ways to track them for success.

I started looking into these tests when I was doing research for my book, "Social by Nature: The Promise and Peril of Sociogenomics." This book investigated the new genetic science of social phenomena, like educational attainment and political persuasion, investment strategies, and health habits. I learned that, while many of the scientists doing much of the basic research into these things cautioned that the effects of genetic factors were quite small, most saw testing as one data point among many that could help to somehow level the playing field for young people. The rationale went that in certain circumstances, some needed help more than others. Why not put our collective resources together to help them?

Good nutrition, support at home, and access to healthcare and education make a huge difference in how people do.

Some experts believed so strongly in the power of DNA behavioral prediction that they argued it would be unfair not to use predictors to determine a kid's future, prevent negative outcomes, and promote the possibility for positive ones. The educators out in the wider world that I spoke with agreed. With careful attention, they thought sociogenomic tests could help young people get the push they needed when they possessed DNA sequences that weren't working in their favor. Officials working with troubled youth told me they hoped DNA data could be marshaled early enough that kids would thrive at home and in school, thereby avoiding ending up in their care. While my conversations with folks centered around sociogenomic data in general, genetic IQ prediction was completely entangled in it all.

I present these prevailing views to demonstrate both the widespread appeal of genetic predictors as well as the well-meaning intentions of those in favor of using them. It's a truly progressive notion to help those who need help the most. But we must question whether genetic predictors are data points worth looking at.

When we examine the way DNA IQ predictors are generated, we see scientists grouping people with similar IQ test results and academic achievements, and then searching for the DNA those people have in common. But there's a lot more to scores and achievements than meets the eye. Good nutrition, support at home, and access to healthcare and education make a huge difference in how people do. Therefore, the first problem with using DNA IQ predictors is that the data points themselves may be compromised by numerous inaccuracies.

We must then ask ourselves where the deep, enduring inequities in our society are really coming from. A deluge of research has shown that poor life outcomes are a product of social inequalities, like toxic living conditions, underfunded schools, and unhealthy jobs. A wealth of research has also shown that race, gender, sexuality, and class heavily influence life outcomes in numerous ways. Parents and caregivers feed, talk, and play differently with babies of different genders. Teachers treat girls and boys, as well as members of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, differently to the point where they do better and worse in different subject areas.

Healthcare providers consistently racially profile, using diagnostics and prescribing therapies differently for the same health conditions. Access to good schools and healthcare are strongly mitigated by one's race and socioeconomic status. But even youth from privileged backgrounds suffer worse health and life outcomes when they identify or are identified as queer. These are but a few examples of the ways in which social inequities affect our chances in life. Therefore, the second problem with using DNA IQ predictors is that it obscures these very real, and frankly lethal, determinants. Instead of attending to the social environment, parents and educators take inborn genetics as the reason for a child's successes or failures.

It is time that we shift our priorities from seeking genetic causes to fixing the social causes we know to be real.

The other problem with using DNA IQ predictors is that research into the weightiness of DNA evidence has shown time and again that people take DNA evidence more seriously than they do other kinds of evidence. So it's not realistic to say that we can just consider IQ genetics as merely one tiny data point. People will always give more weight to DNA evidence than it deserves. And given its proven negligible effect, it would be irresponsible to do so.

It is time that we shift our priorities from seeking genetic causes to fixing the social causes we know to be real. Parents and educators need to be wary of solutions aimed at them and their individual children.

[Editor's Note: Read another perspective in the series here.]

Catherine Bliss
Catherine Bliss is Associate Professor of Sociology at UCSF. She is the author of Race Decoded: The Genomic Fight for Social Justice and Social by Nature: The Promise and Peril of Sociogenomics.
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