Nature 458, 145 (12 March 2009) | doi:10.1038/458145a; Published online 11 March 2009

The belief that genes cannot be changed is now outdated

Gerhard Meisenberg1

  1. Department of Biochemistry, Ross University School of Medicine, Picard Estate, Dominica, Windward Islands


The relevance of race-and-intelligence research is obvious ('Should scientists study race and IQ?' Nature 457, 786–788; 2009 and Nature 457, 788–789; 2009). The most troubling feature of the world economy today is not the financial crisis, but the enormous difference in wealth, technological and cultural creativity, technical know-how and social organization between countries. The per-capita gross domestic product (GDP) is 30 times higher in the United States than in most African countries.

We do not know the reasons for the great divergence that created these inequalities, and without this knowledge we shall never be able to reverse them. Genetics is one hypothesis. It is also the one that can be tested most easily, with the aid of genome-wide association studies and whole-genome sequencing.

People have a strong desire to believe in a just world. The increasingly atheist intellectuals of the twentieth century gave up their belief in divine justice only to substitute for it the more 'scientific' belief that Mother Nature is just: that nobody is disadvantaged by his or her genes, and the undeniable inequities in the world are exclusively man-made. But the belief that individual differences in intelligence are unaffected by genes was shot down by a barrage of behaviour–genetic studies during the 1980s. Now science is threatening the very last bastion of the just-world belief: that Mother Nature cannot be blamed for inequities between entire nations and population groups.

By not investigating the race–intelligence link, we not only perpetuate ignorance and the prejudice that thrives on ignorance. We also deprive ourselves of the possibility to tackle the existing inequalities, first by a judicious development policy and — should genetic differences indeed be important — by eventually changing the allele frequencies of the offending genes. We should not get stuck in the twentieth-century assumption that environments are changeable but genes are not. This will no longer be the case in the twenty-first century.

Investigations into the genetic aspects of race and intelligence are part of a wider enterprise in basic science: the study of the recent and ongoing evolution of human intelligence. This whole area of basic research will have to be scrapped if we refuse to study allele frequencies of cognition-related genes in human populations.

See also:
Identifying adaptive differences could provide insight
The arrogance of trying to sum up abilities in a number
Is poverty better explained by history of colonialism?
Would you wish the research undone?
Measured intelligence is a product of social processes
Don't fan the flames of a dead debate
A useful way to glean social information

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