Why Is Studying the Genetics of Intelligence So Controversial?

Hastings Cent Rep. 2015 Sep-Oct;45(5 Suppl):S9-14. doi: 10.1002/hast.492.


From the very beginning, studies of the nature and nurture of intelligence have been closely associated with an interest in intervening, and those interventions have been surrounded by controversy. The nature of those controversies has not always been the same, however. Since the mid-nineteenth century, when Francis Galton imagined a science that would assess the extent to which a trait like "genius" was due to nature or due to nurture, science and technology have changed dramatically, and so have the interventions that have been envisioned in light of those developments. A scientist today can search for particular stretches of DNA and assess whether differences in those stretches are associated with differences in a human trait of interest; a genetic counselor today can genetically test an individual (be it an embryo, fetus, newborn, child, or adult) and provide information about what that genetic result means, allowing for interventions that can range from terminating a pregnancy to prescribing chemotherapy. So when one asks a question like, "Why is studying the genetics of intelligence controversial?," it is important to realize up front that the answer will be, "It can be controversial for a variety of different reasons, and those reasons have evolved over time." The purpose of this essay is to provide a survey of the controversies that surround genetic studies of intelligence. With the survey in place, I will then draw out several lessons both for scientists who study the genetics of intelligence as well as for science studies scholars (bioethicists, philosophers, historians, sociologists) who reflect and comment on the controversies surrounding that research.

MeSH terms

  • Blacks / genetics
  • Child
  • Dissent and Disputes
  • Ethics, Research*
  • Eugenics*
  • Genetic Research / ethics*
  • Genetic Testing / ethics*
  • Genetics, Behavioral / ethics
  • Humans
  • Intelligence / genetics*
  • Intelligence Tests
  • Preimplantation Diagnosis / ethics
  • Preimplantation Diagnosis / trends
  • Social Discrimination* / ethics
  • Social Discrimination* / prevention & control
  • Social Discrimination* / trends
  • Whites / genetics