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Kevin Mitchell, a developmental neuroscientist at Trinity College Dublin, has a new take on intelligence: maybe we have been unable to discover the genes for intelligence -- decades of research have found none -- because we have been looking at the wrong end of the puzzle. Maybe there are in fact no genes for intelligence, because genetic mutations, in general, just cause stupidity. In other words, what we see as high intelligence is really just a lack of genes that make people stupid.

As Mitchell is quoted in the article, "There are simply many more ways of screwing something up than of improving it."

It's a cute idea, without doubt. Since it was floated last summer it has attracted a good deal of attention and thought -- not all of it positive. Here, from the New York Times, is an example of one of the more positive reviews:

I have some reservations about the idea, but mostly because the hypothesis is so one-sidedly genetic. Whatever happened to the effects of environmental toxins (lead, mercury, ...), the effects of chronic illness, the effects of child abuse and neglect, the effects of peer pressure, the effects of catastrophically bad teaching, and so on? To read this article, it would seem as though the environment in which we grow up has no influence whatsoever on our adult intelligence.

Surely something is missing here. In the age-old debate about "Nature" versus "Nurture", this idea seems not to recognize even the existence of nurture and environment.

Mitchell may well be right that we should be focusing on what makes people less intelligent than optimum, instead of our current fruitless search for genes that could make us smarter. But to suggest -- as the NYT article seems to do -- that we look only within genetic structures is just ridiculous. I suspect that anybody can take a bright child and make him dumb, without even trying very hard. Profound neglect from an early age will do it, all by itself. Anyone can do it, and many actually do. It's one of life's greatest tragedies, played out in a billion households all over the world, every day. It makes me ill just thinking about it.

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