Friday, February 15, 2013

BGI: the genetics of intelligence

The Beijing Genomics Institute is doing interesting work on the genetic basis of IQ and intelligence.

 "In its scientific work, BGI often acts as the enabler of other people’s ideas. That is the case in a major project conceived by Steve Hsu, vice president for research at Michigan State University, to search for genes that influence intelligence. Under the guidance of Zhao Bowen, BGI is now sequencing the DNA of more than 2,000 people—mostly Americans—who have IQ scores of at least 160, or four standard deviations above the mean. 

 The DNA comes primarily from a collection of blood ­samples amassed by Robert Plomin, a psychologist at King’s College, London. The plan, to compare the genomes of geniuses and people of ordinary intelligence, is scientifically risky (it’s likely that thousands of genes are involved) and somewhat controversial. For those reasons it would be very hard to find the $15 or $20 million needed to carry out the project in the West. “Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t,” Plomin says. “But BGI is doing it basically for free.” 

 From Plomin’s perspective, BGI is so large that it appears to have more DNA sequencing capacity than it knows what to do with. It has “all those machines and people that have to be fed” with projects, he says. The IQ study isn’t the only mega-project under way. With a U.S. nonprofit, Autism Speaks, BGI is being paid to sequence the DNA of up to 10,000 people from families with autistic children. For researchers in Denmark, BGI is decoding the genomes of 3,000 obese people and 3,000 lean ones."

 Steve Hsu, mentioned above, has a blog here.

 A lot of people seem to have a problem with the large observed correlation between heredity and IQ (c. 80%). It does tend to undermine the sense that anyone can get 'from log cabin to President'. Still, that's the way Nature works. Clare may come around to this point of view after reading "Genome" by Matt Ridley, which arrived this morning by some Amazon magic.


 I was once appraised by a senior executive who compared me to my then-boss, A.

 "A." he said, "is not particularly good at anything but he is a safe pair of hands. You, by contrast, have both particular strengths and equally particular weaknesses."

I recall that this was a conversation limiting my career prospects.

The strengths he was referring to were intellectual - the normal specificities of an INTP - and were consistent with my then-job as a senior systems architect. The weaknesses ... that's more interesting.

I identify two main personal weaknesses in a corporate context (there is always a context for these discussions) and both are type-weaknesses.

Firstly I am transactional rather than directive. This is not rewarded at senior levels, where they like people to strike out with initiatives, pushing and pulling the organisation along by force of personality. Put another way, corporations tend to like J rather than P in their senior guys and are not big on Taoists.

My other weakness relates to interpersonal skills. I score pretty high on the AQ test and it's interesting to see what this means in practice. As someone whose strength lies in thinking in terms of systems, theories and logical consequences, if someone tells me something I tend to focus on what they actually said and analyse it in logical terms. But humanity is a rather devious species ...

I am quite capable of enlarging my field of view to focus on the actors concerned, their likely motives and the reasons why they might be saying what they do, but it's an additional intellectual act (and unfortunately, I sometimes forget, if what they said was interesting). There are people who schmooze and socialise and manipulate with deft ease - the natural politicians. These too are valued (or make themselves valued) at a senior executive level, but I cannot be that person.

Like that senior exec said - great weaknesses!