To (Possibly) Understand the Genetics of High IQ, We Should Test Poets, Not Mathematicians

There are at least two studies I’m aware of that are attempting to untangle the genetics of high IQ. They both involve looking at mathematical and sciencey types of people. I don’t think they’ll be that successful*. One reason has to do with covariance. But another reason is that I think these studies might be looking at the wrong type of people. Usually, mathematical aptitude is thought to be related to fluid intelligence–solving novel problems, identifying patterns and relationships, and applying deductive and inductive logic (though the JUMP program’s success at improving mathematical ability would argue this is absolutely not the case). Crystallized intelligence, on the other hand, involves memory, skills, and experience. Vocabulary and general knowledge are good proxies for crystallized intelligence.

What’s interesting is that a recent study argues that tests typically thought to focus on fluid intelligence show very little heritability, while tests that emphasize crystallized intelligence have a higher heritability. This makes sense when we consider the Flynn Effect–the three points per decade IQ increase that has occurred during the last century (and, yes, that means an average twenty year old in 2010 (IQ = 100) dropped into the midst of twenty year-olds from the Greatest Generation would rank at the ninth percentile–IQ = 121. Your grandparents are right; you’re smarter than they are). What’s notable about the Flynn Effect is that it’s mostly an increase in fluid intelligence, not crystallized intelligence.

So I would argue if we stand any chance of finding a genetic basis, we need to focus on things like a strong vocabulary and linguistic skills, as well as memory and recall.

Forget the scientists, get some poets (and probably actors too).

*Both studies are ludicrously underpowered, meaning if anything is found, it’s probably a statistical fluke.

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5 Responses to To (Possibly) Understand the Genetics of High IQ, We Should Test Poets, Not Mathematicians

  1. Joe Shelby says:

    Well, yes and no. I think “true” intelligence requires both – in a sense you’re dividing left-brain-right-brain a bit, and people work their best when both halves are being applied – poetry is, if you study Chomsky a tiny bit, as much a matter of rules-systems programming as it is the vocabulary itself. The transition from essay to poetry is merely a matter of deletion of excess words, including the deletion of “like” to move out of the essay’s simile and into the poem’s metaphor.

    There’s also the nurture aspect of heritability – are you in an environment that encourages memory? Memory is something that needs to be trained, and while we are ‘smart’ now, from the standpoint of facts memory the average person today is somewhat behind someone from the late middle ages who had to rely on memory because writing things down wasn’t something the average person did. Games like memory theater trained people how to memorize, which is something we don’t do today – the system simply assumes people just do, or just don’t, and tests and attitudes like these examples above seem to reflect that. Memorization itself needs to be taught, and trained, rather than just punished if you ever give the impression you couldn’t do it, which is how schools seem to operate today.

    My other gripe is that this would seem to support the current NCLB attitudes that only math and ‘english’ are worth teaching. Building a vocabulary doesn’t have to just come from literature and fiction. One develops a vocabulary by wide exposure, and that exposure should include much more emphasis on non-fiction (modern social studies/geography, science, and history) than the attitudes in education reform today seem to think is necessary. Common Core is an improvement over NCLB, but in my opinion not enough.

    The drawback of emphasis on literature is that all literature is meant to also have an emotional effect/affect, and that can in some kids (like me as I grew up) lead to emotional burn-out against English classes just as strongly as the modern test-first attitude can destroy kids’ attitudes to math. Promoting vocabulary development in science and history can remove the emotional responses that can allow one to continue to want to read.

  2. Min says:

    Excuse me, mathematics is poetry. Mathematics uses condensed language. So does poetry (Ezra Pound). Mathematical statements have no intrinsic meaning. “A poem should not mean, but be” (Archibald MacLeish). The idea that poetry does not involve fluid intelligence is nuts.

    Maybe you want to study academics in fields not known for creativity. Like literary critics or historians?

  3. dr2chase says:

    You might study families, though good luck with nature vs. nurture. Because if what we’re looking at in my family is also nurture; it’s a powerful effect, and that alone is worth knowing. Math skills appear to run in my family, but the pattern for inheritance doesn’t make sense (i.e., generations get skipped, it seems like there’s more of it than a simple recessive gene would cause — though it could be dominant, I guess, but that doesn’t make sense either unless being good at math confers no reproductive advantage, which is unpossible 🙂 ).

    There’s also a fair amount of language skills, and also a non-trivial amount of left-handedness.

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