Nature | Editorial

Fighting chance

Collaboration between geneticists and economists has the potential to bear fruit.


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One side is accused of supporting ethnic cleansing; the other of being intellectually naive. Does that sound like the beginning of a fruitful collaboration? Perhaps not, but read on.

As we report on page 154, an increasingly bitter spat has emerged between geneticists and economists over a paper that links a country's genetic diversity to its economic development.

At its heart, the argument boils down to cold statistics and methodological differences. A team of prominent geneticists and anthropologists at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says that the paper's economist authors did not properly account for historical and cultural connections between genetically similar countries, so correlations are mistaken for cause.

The work is part of an emerging trend to blend economics with genetics. Daniel Benjamin, an economist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, who is trying to identify the genetic basis for economically relevant traits such as risk aversion, is among those who say that the combination has yet to prove its worth. Nonetheless, he and others assert that understanding how genetics influences individual and international economies has the potential to inform policy.

For this to happen, both sides must take seriously the standards, methodology and history of the other. Geneticists have spent years grappling with the difficulties of getting useful information out of genomes. They have made mistakes, and learned from them, and it is naive for social scientists to think that they are immune from these errors, or that they can learn all they need to quickly. Benjamin says that nearly every study that links individual economic traits with specific genetic variants, for example, is riddled with false positives.

Social scientists should also remember that human geneticists bear the historical scars of eugenics, and more recent accusations of insensitivity to indigenous populations. Any whiff of biological determinism will draw a strong response.

Geneticists, for their part, should acknowledge that quantitative social scientists are experts in measuring human behaviour, both individual and collective. An entire subfield of economics, called econometrics, exists to make sense of data that are just as seemingly random as the string of As, Ts, Cs and Gs that comprises a genome. Moreover, many of the statistical methods that economists now use have their roots in the work of early-twentieth-century geneticists. Closer collaboration between the two fields could unlock the knowledge and expertise of social scientists, enabling them to draw conclusions that geneticists would never have conceived.

One hopeful model is the Social Science Genetics Association Consortium, a collaboration between social scientists, geneticists and epidemiologists that aims to bring more rigour to the search for the genetic basis of economic and other behavioural traits. In addition to combining the expertise of scientists in disparate fields, the consortium also has access to dozens of cohorts, encompassing more than 100,000 people.

The consortium was started after Benjamin's team uncovered a genetic variant linked to educational attainment in some 2,000 Icelanders, only to find that the association could not be replicated in other populations, raising questions over whether it is real. The group's expertise and infrastructure give it a chance of finding genuine links that will hopefully see geneticists working on follow-up studies, rather than writing angry letters.

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In the original text, we implied that the link between a genetic variant and educational attainment was identified by the Social Science Genetics Association Consortium. In fact, it was identified, and refuted, in earlier work done by Daniel Benjamin and his colleagues. The text has been amended to reflect that.

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