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Is Intelligence All About Biology?

JPierre's picture

People will do anything to ensure that their children will be “smart”. Women, after finding out the great news of their pregnancies, force their unformed and unborn children to listen to Mozart hoping they will catch the talent for music. There are even some business that claim to have the sperm of athletes, savvy businessman, scientists, etc and therefore by buying the sperm, one can have a child just like them. People in the world that believe that there is a smart gene, and most importantly, they will do anything to insure that their child obtains it. Yet, I wonder does a “smart gene” really exist? If so, do people who were fortunate enough to possess unequivocally intelligent, while those lacking it are just stupid? And, for those that are a bit smarter than others, does that mean they just received more of the gene than others?

These aforementioned questions need consideration in the debate of the smart gene. A discovery of a so-called smart gene would not just signify that some people possess a higher degree of intelligence than other because of their biological makeup; it would also suggest that we as humans are who we are simply because of our biology and nothing else. A “smart gene” discovery would not take into account the influence of our environments, experiences, histories, and so on that all play a huge role in shaping who we are. A “smart gene” discovery would imply that I am not the best at math because I do not possess the gene for this, not because of my past history and experience with math. Moreover, it would imply that because I do not have the gene that I probably would never because of math, but that is simply not true as hard work and dedication can definitely erode my dislike of math.

Before I can even begin to research a smart gene, I need to define the effects of the smart gene on the body and its learning. For the purposes of this paper, I will define intelligence as having a strong aptitude for all academic subjects. Thus, with this definition in mind, is there a gene in the body that encompasses both of these traits?
While researching, I found no evidence definitively supporting the smart gene theory. However, in 2000, it seemed as if a Princeton University neurobiologist was that much closer to answering my aforementioned questions. In his experiment, Joseph Tsein, constructed a gene-NR2B-which would then trigger the extra production of neurotransmitter receptors NMDA (N-methyl-D-aspartate). NMDA is an essential element in the brain’s ability to retain memory. The new gene, NR2B “encodes the protein that forms the NDMA receptor.” (2) Tsein tested this gene on a mouse as mice have similar biological makeup and neurobiological processes as humans. With the new gene, the test mice were able to remember objects that had been introduced them, and realized quickly when new objects we replaced in front of them. Consequently, the mice became more perceptive and more explorative when introduced to new objects.

Although the experiment seemed to be successful, it was not successful in answering my question. The NR2B gene discover found ways to enhance one’s memory intake, therefore enhancing one’s ability to learn, however, it did not transform the mice into an all-knowing body. Thus at this point in time with the research found, I cannot conclusively state that there a smart gene exists. Moreover, I believe the term and the so-called gene are problematic. For example, if a “smart gene” does exist, how would one acquire it if your parent’s biological makeup did not possess it? For instance, if you have a “dumb gene” rampant in your family’s biological makeup, does that mean you will never be able to possess this smart gene unless you marry into a family that has the smart gene?

One inquiring mind does not seem to think so. One blogger states that “just because a trait is influenced by genes doesn’t mean that you have [any] control over it. Genes do not act alone. Gene activity is molded by behavior and vice versa. You have a choice to alter how you and your body cope with your genes.” (3) Thus, according to this blogger, a smart trait does not mean that there exists a gene to which it is directly co-related, but more so the trait is influenced by a group of genes (not just one) and also the person.

There are various genes responsible for various interactions taking place within our body. Professor Tsein was able to alter a gene responsible for memory intake, which would then increase the amount of memory one was able to encompass, and in turn would enhance one’s learning. Yet, he was unable to find a gene that would make one knowledgeable and an expert in every subject and area study. Moreover, even if he had, that would not necessarily mean that those who lacked this gene were somehow “stupid”. As the anonymous blogger stated, we as humans have control over our bodies and actions, even if we do not have the specific genes that do so. I wholeheartedly agree with this. It does not matter that I was not born with an innate ability to solve math equations; this does not mean that I will never have the ability to do so. It just means that I will have to work a little harder. This is what scientists and many others tend to forget when they rush to find a “smart gene”. Just because you do not have the gene doesn’t mean that you cannot perform the task. It will just require more work, perseverance and patience.

Furthermore, I personally believe that a “smart” gene does not exist, solely because there is no one definition of smart. Many people with autism, who unfortunately may not be considered “smart” in the mainstream sense, have a strong aptitude for music. Perhaps more so than others. I tend to do better in the humanities and social sciences more than math and sciences, yet I definitely do not consider myself as a stupid person. Thus before people can even begin to look for a smart gene, they need to think about what exactly they looking for because “smart” comes in all shapes and forms.


(1) Guynup, Sharon (2/21/2000). “The Smart Gene”. Science World. Retrieved 12.9.09

(2) Henahan, Sean (9/2/99). “Single Gene Boosts Excellence”. Access Excellence Retrieved 12.16.2009

(3)“Using Genes as an Excuse”. Retrieved 12.15.2009.


Paul Grobstein's picture

"smart" genes: the wisdom of looking for them

"“smart” comes in all shapes and forms."


"Genes do not act alone. Gene activity is molded by behavior and vice versa. You have a choice to alter how you and your body cope with your genes ... the trait is influenced by a group of genes (not just one) and also the person."


I wonder why biologists, and others, are looking for "smart genes"?