Genes could determine intelligence, but what about cleverness?

Genes contribute to intelligence, but only broadly, and with subtle effect.

First, let me tell you how smart I am. So smart. My fifth-grade teacher said I was gifted in mathematics and, looking back, I have to admit that she was right. I’ve properly grasped the character of metaphysics as trope nominalism, and I can tell you that time exists, but that it can’t be integrated into a fundamental equation. I’m also street-smart. Most of the things that other people say are only partially true. And I can tell.

A paper published in Nature Genetics in 2017 reported that, after analysing tens of thousands of genomes, scientists had tied 52 genes to human intelligence, though no single variant contributed more than a tiny fraction of a single percentage point to intelligence. As the senior author of the study Danielle Posthuma, a statistical geneticist at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and VU University Medical Centre Amsterdam, told The New York Times, “there’s a long way to go” before scientists can actually predict intelligence using genetics.

Even so, it is easy to imagine social impacts that are unsettling: students stapling their genome sequencing results to their college applications; potential employers mining genetic data for candidates; in-vitro fertilisation clinics promising IQ boosts using powerful new tools such as the genome-editing system CRISPR-Cas9.

Some people are already signing on for this new world. Philosophers such as John Harris of the University of Manchester and Julian Savulescu of the University of Oxford have argued that we will have a duty to manipulate the genetic code of our future children, a concept Savulescu termed “procreative beneficence”. The field has extended the term “parental neglect” to “genetic neglect”, suggesting that if we don’t use genetic engineering or cognitive enhancement to improve our children when we can, it’s a form of abuse. Others, like David Correia, who teaches American Studies at the University of New Mexico, envisions dystopian outcomes, where the wealthy use genetic engineering to translate power from the social sphere into the enduring code of the genome itself.

Such concerns are longstanding; the public has been on guard about altering the genetics of intelligence at least since scientists invented recombinant DNA. As long ago as the 1970s, David Baltimore, who won a Nobel Prize, questioned whether his pioneering work might show that ‘the differences between people are genetic differences, not environmental differences’.

‘Complexity catastrophe’

I say, dream on. As it turns out, genes contribute to intelligence, but only broadly, and with subtle effect. Genes interact in complex relationships to create neural systems that might be impossible to reverse-engineer. In fact, computational scientists who want to understand how genes interact to create optimal networks have come up against the kind of hard limits suggested by the so-called travelling salesperson problem.

In the words of the theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman in The Origins of Order (1993): “The task is to begin at one of N cities, travel in turn to each city, and return to the initial city by the shortest total route. This problem, so remarkably simple to state, is extremely difficult.” Evolution locks in, early on, some models of what works, and hammers out refining solutions over millennia, but the best computer junkies can do to draw up an optimal biological network, given some input, is to use heuristics, which are shorthand solutions.

The complexity rises to a new level, especially since proteins and cells interact at higher dimensions. Importantly, genetics research is not about to diagnose, treat or eradicate mental disorders, or be used to explain the complex interactions that give rise to intelligence. We won’t engineer superhumans any time soon.

In fact, all of this complexity can work against the ability of a species to evolve. In The Origins of Order, Kauffman introduced the concept of “complexity catastrophe”, a situation in complex organisms where evolution has already been optimised, with genes interlinked in so many ways that the role of natural selection becomes diminished in stepping up fitness for a given individual. In short, a species has tinkered its way to a shape that it cannot easily evolve, or improve upon.

Not in the genes

If complexity is a trap, so too is the idea that some genes are elite. In the 1960s, Richard Lewontin and John Hubby made use of a new technology called gel electrophoresis to separate unique variants of proteins. They showed that different versions of gene products, or alleles, were distributed with much higher variation than anyone had expected. In 1966, Lewontin and Hubby came up with a principle called “balancing selection” to explain that sub-optimal varieties of genes can remain in a population since they contribute to diversity. The human genome works in parallel.

We have at least two copies of any gene on all autosomal chromosomes, and having varying copies of a gene can help, especially in immune-system diversity, or any cellular function in which evolution wants to try out some riskier thing while also maintaining a version of a gene that is tried-and-true. Other times, genetic variants that might introduce some risk or novelty can piggyback or hitchhike along with a beneficial genetic variant. If there is an implication for human intelligence, it is that genes have a parasitic quality of scheming off one another; none is superior so much as its utility is developed by exploiting its fellow genes.

Importantly, we have known for a long time that 30,000 genes cannot determine the organisation of the brain’s 100 trillion synaptic connections, pointing to the irrefutable reality that intelligence is, to an extent, forged through adversity and the stress of developing a brain. We know that evolution bargains in trade-offs of risk for advantage, which is why, I believe, we will always carry genetic variations that risk autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and schizophrenia; and it is why I believe that the neoliberal view that science will eventually solve most mental-health problems is almost certainly incorrect. In evolution, there are no superior genes, only those that bargain some risk, and a few that are optimal for particular environments and tasks.

I wish I could believe that writing is in my genes, but the novel is only hundreds of years old, not long enough for evolution to be selecting novelists, per se. The truth is that writing takes hard work, and writers can exhibit psychological traits that are otherwise a disadvantage – such as neuroticism, or relentless self-examination. We all understand and share these traits to an extent. Evolution has taught us the brutal fact that nature is most competitive when the comparative fitness between competitors is the slimmest. In light of that, the wealth inequality that has emerged in recent decades is not a validation of yawning biological gaps – it is driven by our need to justify an illusion of superiority and control.

Trust me. I should know.

This article first appeared on Aeon.

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Transforming patient care by managing talent better

Active leadership roles by physicians, innovative human resource strategies and a strong organizational culture can bridge the talent gap in healthcare.

Attracting and retaining talent is a challenge for many industries – however for the healthcare industry, the problem is compounded by acute shortage of skilled professionals. India has a ratio of 0.7 doctors and 1.5 nurses per 1,000 people as against the WHO ideal average of 2.5 each of doctors and nurses per 1,000 people. This reflects the immense human resource challenge in the Indian healthcare industry.

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Role of leadership

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According to Dr. Pearl, for a leader to craft such a vision and motivate others to work towards it, he or she would require certain qualities. These include empathy, good communication and ability to make quick decisions, stay calm under stress, multitask, and take responsibility - qualities that physicians typically possess by virtue of their profession. He thus urged doctors and physicians to play a greater role in leading their institutions.

His view is supported by research - a report in a Harvard Business Review says that physician-run hospitals scored 25% higher in quality rankings across geographies over hospitals run by professionals from non-medical backgrounds.

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Managing and retaining talent

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A study by Tuck’s Centre for Global Leadership of nine Indian hospitals reiterates this. It shows that the strategy of ‘task shifting’ or the transfer of routine tasks to lower-skilled workers left specialists free to handle more complicated procedures. The result – more productive doctors performing five to six surgeries per hour.

Attracting and retaining talent was also a major topic of discussion in the panel discussion on ‘Transforming the talent ecosystem’ at the HLS summit. Some of the panelists believed that exposing professionals to areas that go beyond their core skills, such as strategy and analytics, could play a significant role in retaining talent. This would ensure constant opportunities for learning and growth and also answer the hospitals’ growing need for professionals from management backgrounds.

Dr Nandakumar Jairam, Group Director – Columbia Asia pointed out that hospitals need to look at people with soft skills such as empathy, ability to listen well, etc. So, while hospitals expand their recruitment pool and look to other industries for recruiting people, they should also train their existing staff in these skills.


The NYC Health + Hospitals in the U.S, a winner of the ‘Training Top 125’ 2017, is an example of how effective employee training can help achieve corporate goals. Its training programs span a range of skills - from medical simulations to language interpretation, leadership development and managing public health threats, thus giving its employees the opportunity to learn and grow within and outside their disciplines.

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Organizational culture and progressive HR policies

Rajit Mehta, CEO, Max Healthcare, also talked about the importance of having a conducive organizational culture that keeps the workforce together and motivates them to perform better. Every aspect of the organizational functioning reflects its culture – whether it’s staff behavior or communication – and culture stems from alignment with a strong leadership vision.

Organizational culture is also about incentivizing the workforce through performance rewards and employee-friendly HR policies. For example, at a popular healthcare facility in the US, all the 3,600 employees are actively encouraged to stay fit – they can buy fresh fruits and vegetables while at work, get healthy cooking tips from demonstrations in the office kitchen and enjoy free massages at their office chairs.

A report also talks about how some hospitals in the US inducted their employees into therapeutic activities like knitting, meditation etc., as part of their efforts to help them cope with stress. Some hospitals also have designated areas with amenities for staff members to relax and recoup.

Back home, Sir Gangaram Hospital recently helped its employees during the cash-crunched phase following demonetization by distributing currency notes to all. Such initiatives help establish trust and goodwill among the workforce.

Fostering a good culture is crucial for employee engagement. An engaged employee is one who is committed to the organisation’s goals and values and is motivated to give his or her best to the organisation’s success. Employee engagement has direct impact on hospital system health outcomes. According to a review of engagement and clinical outcomes at the National Health Service (NHS) in England, for every 10% increase in engagement there was a reduction in MRSA, a life-threatening skin infection, by .057 cases per 10,000 bed days. Additionally, a one standard deviation improvement in engagement reduced mortality by 2.4 percentage points.

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These were just some of the insights on healthcare management gleaned from the Hospital Leadership Summit hosted by Abbott. In over 150 countries, Abbott is working with hospitals and healthcare professionals to improve the quality of health services. Additionally, in more than 25 countries Abbott is recognized as a leading employer in country and a great place to work.

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This article was produced on behalf of Abbott by the marketing team and not by the editorial staff.