Monday, June 27, 2016

Genetics and intelligence differences: five special findings


R Plomin1 and I J Deary2,3
  1. 1King's College London, MRC Social, Genetic & Developmental Psychiatry Centre, Institute of Psychiatry, DeCrespigny Park, London, UK
  2. 2Department of Psychology, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK
  3. 3Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK
Correspondence: Professor R Plomin, King's College London, MRC Social, Genetic & Developmental Psychiatry Centre, PO80, Institute of Psychiatry, DeCrespigny Park, Denmark Hill, London SE5 8AF, UK. E-mail:
Received 14 March 2014; Revised 18 July 2014; Accepted 22 July 2014
Advance online publication 16 September 2014


Intelligence is a core construct in differential psychology and behavioural genetics, and should be so in cognitive neuroscience. It is one of the best predictors of important life outcomes such as education, occupation, mental and physical health and illness, and mortality. Intelligence is one of the most heritable behavioural traits. Here, we highlight five genetic findings that are special to intelligence differences and that have important implications for its genetic architecture and for gene-hunting expeditions. (i) The heritability of intelligence increases from about 20% in infancy to perhaps 80% in later adulthood. (ii) Intelligence captures genetic effects on diverse cognitive and learning abilities, which correlate phenotypically about 0.30 on average but correlate genetically about 0.60 or higher. (iii) Assortative mating is greater for intelligence (spouse correlations ~0.40) than for other behavioural traits such as personality and psychopathology (~0.10) or physical traits such as height and weight (~0.20). Assortative mating pumps additive genetic variance into the population every generation, contributing to the high narrow heritability (additive genetic variance) of intelligence. (iv) Unlike psychiatric disorders, intelligence is normally distributed with a positive end of exceptional performance that is a model for ‘positive genetics’. (v) Intelligence is associated with education and social class and broadens the causal perspectives on how these three inter-correlated variables contribute to social mobility, and health, illness and mortality differences. These five findings arose primarily from twin studies. They are being confirmed by the first new quantitative genetic technique in a century—Genome-wide Complex Trait Analysis (GCTA)—which estimates genetic influence using genome-wide genotypes in large samples of unrelated individuals. Comparing GCTA results to the results of twin studies reveals important insights into the genetic architecture of intelligence that are relevant to attempts to narrow the ‘missing heritability’ gap.
Anticipating that GPS will be available for research on intelligence, we close by revisiting the five special findings about genetics and intelligence, drawing hypotheses that can tested using a GPS for intelligence, an exercise that we hope will help to make the five special findings more concrete.

Heritability of intelligence increases dramatically from infancy through adulthood despite genetic stability

GPS hypotheses follow directly from the finding that the heritability of intelligence increases throughout the life course despite strong genetic stability from age to age: Variance explained by a GPS should increase with age, and a GPS discovered at one age, adulthood for example, is expected to predict intelligence at other ages such as childhood.

Intelligence indexes general genetic effects across diverse cognitive and learning abilities

A GPS hypothesis follows directly from finding strong genome-wide pleiotropy across diverse cognitive abilities: A GPS that is discovered for any cognitive or learning ability should also predict any other ability. Also, a GPS for intelligence should predict better than a GPS for any other trait. It has been suggested that a pleiotropic GPS that explictly targets the substantial covariance among diverse cognitive and learning abilities will be even better than a GPS based on a single composite measure of intelligence.115

Assortative mating is greater for intelligence than for any other trait

GPS support for the previous two hypotheses seems likely because preliminary GCTA results discussed above already provide some support for these hypotheses. In the case of assortative mating, GPS could provide a novel test of the extent to which assortative mating for intelligence is mediated genetically by correlating GPS between spouses. Another question that emerges from previous genetic research is whether GPS assortative mating is greater for verbal than for nonverbal ability.

Thinking positively: the genetics of high intelligence

Finding that the same genes affect high intelligence to the same extent as the rest of the normal distribution leads to the hypothesis that a GPS for intelligence from unselected samples can also be used to predict high intelligence.

Intelligence brings (some) genetics to ‘social’ epidemiology

Finding that, in twin and GCTA studies, the same genes influence intelligence and social epidemiologists’ ‘environmental’ variables of education, social class, and height can enlighten research in health and social inequalities. It leads to the hypothesis that GPS scores for intelligence might contribute to health outcomes and mortality, and that these might account for some of the associations between education and class and mortality.

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