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An Introduction to Thinking about Trustworthy Research into the Genetics of Intelligence

Parens E, Appelbaum PS. An introduction to thinking about trustworthy research into the genetics of intelligence. Hastings Center Report 2015;45 Suppl 1:S2-8.


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The advent of new technologies has rekindled some hopes that it will be possible to identify genetic variants that will help to explain why individuals are different with respect to complex traits. At least one leader in the development of “whole genome sequencing”—the Chinese company BGI—has been quite public about its commitment to using the technique to investigate the genetics of intelligence in general and high intelligence in particular. Because one needs large samples to detect the small effects associated with small genetic differences in the sequence of those base pairs, to make headway with the new sequencing technologies, one also needs to enlist much larger numbers of study participants than geneticists have enrolled before. In an effort to increase the size of a sample, one team of researchers approached the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University. They wanted to gain access to records concerning participants in CTY’s ongoing Study of Exceptional Talent, and they wanted to approach those individuals to see if they would be willing to share samples of their DNA.

We agreed that CTY’s dilemma about whether to give the researchers access to those records raised larger questions about the ethics of research into the genetics of intelligence, and we decided to hold a workshop at The Hastings Center that could examine those questions. Our purpose was to create what, borrowing from Sarah Richardson, we came to call a “transformative conversation” about research into the genetics of general cognitive ability—a conversation that would take a wide and long view and would involve a diverse group of stakeholders, including both people who have been highly critical of the research and people who engage in it. This collection of essays, which grew out of that workshop, is intended to provide an introduction to and exploration of this complex and important area.