A Brave New World in China?


China has some outstanding scientists. Unfortunately, none of them seem to work at the Shanghai Biochip Corporation, which has organized a summer camp in the city of Chongqing where they test for children's gene-based talent.

From the CNN written report:

Nowadays, competition in the world is about who has the most talent," said [Director Zhao Mingyou]. "We can give Chinese children an effective, scientific plan at an early age."

The test is conducted by the Shanghai Biochip Corporation. Scientists claim a simple saliva swab collects as many as 10,000 cells that enable them to isolate eleven different genes. By taking a closer look at the genetic codes, they say they can extract information about a child's IQ, emotional control, focus, memory, athletic ability and more.

"For basketball, we can test for height and other factors," said Dr. Huang Xinhua, a leading scientist on the project. "We also test listening ability so that can tell us if (the child) might be talented at music."...The scientific results, combined with observations by experts throughout the week, will be used to make recommendations to parents about what their child should pursue.

The actual scientific validity of this approach is somewhere between preposterous and fraudulent. I've asked two thoughtful developmental systems experts to weigh in with critiques:

CUNY's Massimo Pigliucci:

If there is one thing that we have learned from genetic studies of human diseases is that in most cases the genetic contribution is scattered among a large number of loci with small effects, which means that it is next to impossible to actually "diagnose" the condition ahead of time. No reason to think that's going to be any less hard for more complex and nuanced traits, such as cognitive ones. They are basing this on *11* genes! Are they kidding? 

Even their own example of height ("for basketball") picks on a trait with obvious large environmental effects. (And do we really need a genetic test to tell us that a child is uncommonly tall?)

Massimo Pigliucci
Biologist and Philosopher of Science
City University of New York-Lehman College
Author, Phenotypic Plasticity: Beyond Nature and Nurture (Johns Hopkins University Press)

UI's Mark Blumberg:

Imagine thirty years ago, sitting in a typewriting class and struggling to transfer the words on the page beside you without looking over at the keyboard. I can remember the feeling of failure vividly. I was a miserable typist. Now imagine that Chinese scientists had swooped into the classroom to swab our cheeks so as to identify those lucky children with the "manual dexterity gene," whereupon those possessing this gene would be whisked away to a typing camp designed to alleviate a shortage of typists that was crippling China's competitive edge in... typing. Would such a program have worked?

Before answering that question, I have an admission to make. Despite my pathetic introduction to typing, I am now an excellent typist. I type all day without looking at the keyboard. You probably do, too. We all do. And what effected this transformation was a simple, unstructured education program driven by the powerful incentives afforded by personal computing. Whereas great professional typists excel at transferring the words of others to the typed page, the rest of us excel at transferring our thoughts to the computer screen. And this skill is now showing up in very young children who, without any training, quickly exceed the skills of the best of my classmates way back in middle school.

The announced efforts of a Chinese corporation to use genes that supposedly mark children with particular future skills to build tomorrow's superstars is just the latest bad use of bad biology. The effort will fail, but we may never be able to prove it. Why? Because this Chinese corporation is not interested in assessing the effectiveness of the program in a scientific way. The production by this program of a single success -- say an Olympic champion in gymnastics or a concert violinist -- will be touted as proof of concept. What we will never see are two groups of subjects, chosen randomly or chosen based on the possession of certain genes, who are then afforded the greatest enrichment and training programs available. The question would then be: Are there significant differences in accomplishment and excellence between the two groups? 

The noted physicist Wolfgang Pauli once commented about a bad theory that "It isn't even wrong." The same can be said about this latest effort in China. There is no gene for "a child's IQ, emotional control, focus, memory, athletic ability..." Take memory. There are many memory systems in the brain, each requiring different connections within the brain that are assembled in complex fashion throughout early development. Emotional control? We scientists barely understand what that concept means, let alone found a gene for it. One of the Chinese scientists wants to test for height to identify good basketball players and test for listening ability to reveal a talent for music. Do you really believe that height and listening ability predict exceptional talent in those domains? 

Just as athletic skills and musical ability are complex products of development, so, too, do our physical traits and behavioral capacities depend upon a complex matrix of interactions among developing systems -- systems that include genes but require so much more. That is why a program that focuses on many dimensions of a child's observable characteristics across time -- movements, thinking, attention, focus -- and how she responds to various challenges over time is more likely to yield the kind of success that this Chinese corporation is seeking. For such programs, skilled and motivated and knowledgeable observers are needed. In the best of worlds, we would know them as parents.

Mark Blumberg 
F.  Wendell Miller Professor of Psychology at the University of Iowa
Editor-in-chief of the journal Behavioral Neuroscience
Author, Freaks of Nature: What anomalies tell us about development and evolution (Oxford University Press).

We're never going to be able to stop charlatans and snake oil salesmen. But perhaps it's more reasonable to expect respectable news media outlets to be more careful about their stories on genetics. Not even firm nativists would have greenlit this story. And from the viewpoint of more progressive developmental scientists, a piece like this helps further spread the unfounded mythology that the key to our differences in talent and intelligence lay in our genetic differences. 

Further reading and viewing:

A few papers demonstrating Pigliucci's point about how complex gene associations have proved to be:

An article supporting Blumberg's point about multiple memory systems.

An article supporting Blumberg's point that "our physical traits and behavioral capacities depend upon a complex matrix of interactions among developing systems -- systems that include genes but require so much more."

Link to the CNN video