• Fri, Jun 16 2006

Dr. Bruce Lahn – Genetics Trendsetter

Dr. Bruce Lahn, whose research on the genetics of race and intelligence, human evolution and brain size created a storm of controversy, is no longer feeling so motivated to continue the investigation.

Excerpt from the Wall Street Journal (subscription only):

The data showed that evolution had continued in recent millennia. A statistical analysis of DNA patterns suggested that new mutations in each of the two brain-related genes had spread quickly through some human populations. Evidently, these mutations were advantageous among those populations — just as the genetic variant promoting milk digestion was advantageous to early Europeans. Dr. Lahn and his team further observed that the new mutations are found most frequently outside of Africa.

What the data didn’t say was how the mutations were advantageous. Perhaps the genes play a role outside of the brain or affect a brain function that has nothing to do with intelligence.

While acknowledging that the evidence doesn’t permit a firm conclusion, Dr. Lahn favors the idea that the advantage conferred by the mutations was a bigger and smarter brain. He found ways to suggest that in his papers. One mutation, which according to his estimates arose some 40,000 years ago, coincided with the first art found in caves, the paper observed. The other mutation, present mostly in people from the Middle East and Europe, and estimated to be 5,800 years old, coincided with the “development of cities and written language.”

That suggested brain evolution might have occurred in tandem with important cultural changes. Yet because neither variant is common in sub-Saharan Africa, there was another potential implication: Some groups had been left out.

These fascinating observations made many people uneasy. Genes that differentiate between groups of people always do. After all, we like to think we’re all born equal. Must the illusion be shattered?

More recently, Dr. Lahn says he was moved when a student asked him whether some knowledge might not be worth having. It is a notion to which he has been warming. Dr. Lahn says he once tried testing himself for which version of the brain genes he has. The experiment’s outcome was blurry “but it wasn’t looking good,” he says. He hasn’t tried testing himself again.

I feel kind of sad that Dr. Lahn no longer feels comfortable doing the kind of research that he feels driven to do especially since he doesn’t appear to have any racist motives (being Chinese himself). It’s always the trendsetters and risk takers who make the greatest contributions but catch the most flak. Very depressing to think that those of us too scared to go out on a ledge aren’t encouraging others who are willing to go out there for us.

NB: Some more info about Dr. Bruce Lahn at Gene Expression.

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  • http://river2sea72.livejournal.com river2sea72

    That’s what I was talking about in answer to one of the questions in my interview. It’s a serious ethical problem to explore human genetic differences due to race or ethnicity. Jared Diamond goes into this a bit in Guns, Germs, and Steel, and I thought did a pretty good job of deflecting the assertion that some races are genetically more “intelligent”. You might want to pick it up again and re-read those sections.

  • http://river2sea72.livejournal.com river2sea72

    p.s. did he get tenure? [I have tried working with pre-tenured professors and they are incredibly unwilling to work on controversial topics....]

  • http://geneticsandhealth.com Hsien Hsien Lei, PhD

    river2sea72: If I could find my copy of Guns, Germs, and Steel, I would. :P And, yes, I think Dr. Lahn did eventually get tenure. Suffice it to say that most everything in science and life is tinged with bias. Everyone thinks they’re right.

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    he got tenure. unanimous.

  • http://None Name

    I think Diamond can gain far more from reviewing this research than we can from reading Diamond. Diamond’s book is mere speculation, and does nothing to suggest that the envirornmental conditions he lists could not have largely served as selective pressures for higher intelligence.

  • http://geneticsandhealth.com Hsien Hsien Lei, PhD

    razib: I think the dept. committee or something was unanimous and then it went to higher committee which was not. Regardless, he did get tenure.

    Name: Thanks for the comment! Diamond’s book has some fascinating theories, but as you said, largely unproven.

  • http://river2sea72.livejournal.com river2sea72

    Is it not possible to allow for different “types” of intelligence? Northern Europeans may lay claim to a certain type of book smarts, but how many of them could survive in the Kalahari desert? I think part of Diamond’s point was that human cultures “evolved” with the environments around them (and alongside certain advantages due to contact with other cultures, etc.) Cultures developing in areas abundant with resources that could be exploited to a level that allowed for non-food-seeking members of society to seek out other avocations. Cultures developing in resource-poor environments concentrated more on getting very good at exploiting what resources they had at hand.

    Obviously, we can’t do the experiment of taking a newborn from a primitive tribe and raising it with all the advantages of a western lifestyle and education, but if we did, what do you think we would find?

    Yes, I’m just speculating here, but think about the implications….

  • http://geneticsandhealth.com Hsien Hsien Lei, PhD

    river2sea72: Certainly, the definition of intelligence is relative. But, it’s hard to deny that there is a global standard of intelligence–especially in this time of globalization–that enables the “elite” to succeed and achieve goals at a level that most people worldwide would agree upon. I know when I first meet people, I make a snap judgment as to their intelligence and most everyone I know would probably agree on the general level of intelligence for specific people. Just as you would qualify to be in my top tier of intelligent friends. ;)

  • http://river2sea72.livejournal.com river2sea72

    that enables the “elite” to succeed and achieve goals at a level that most people worldwide would agree upon.

    I\’m not so sure that I agree that there is agreement on success and goal achievement worldwide. I can\’t even define what I consider success and goal achievement for myself!

    I know when I first meet people, I make a snap judgment as to their intelligence and most everyone I know would probably agree on the general level of intelligence for specific people.

    Right, but personal biases and rushes to judgement about individual people don\’t justify or equate to labeling an entire race or group of people as inferior. You wouldn\’t judge someone to be less intelligent automatically if you looked at them and saw they were black, would you? That\’s the implication of this research (at least, that\’s how I read it).

    Furthermore, definitions of intelligence and superiority change over time and space. Remember that once the Nazis thought they were promoting the development of a superior race by wiping Jews (and others they considered inferior) off the face of the earth. Today, look at how many of the top academics are of Jewish heritage.

    I\’m not saying Dr. Lahn shouldn\’t do this research. He just has to be extremely cautious in examining his motives and in the language he uses to describe the implications of the outcomes.

  • http://geneticsandhealth.com Hsien Hsien Lei, PhD

    river2sea72: Given that neither of us (I’m assuming) has read the actual papers, I’ll wait until Razib or someone else chimes in. But, from the bits I’ve read, I don’t believe that Dr. Lahn ever stated any inferior/superior conclusions. Like most scientific papers, he simply described his observations.

    As for definitions of success, we can nitpick and say that none of us knows what that really means. But I think we can all agree that to some extent, people with money and power are successful in many people’s eyes whether we like the way they live or conduct themselves.

    Money/material possessions and power have been at the pinnacle of aspirations for hundreds of years.

  • http://geneticsandhealth.com Hsien Hsien Lei, PhD

    Oh, and if I’m going to be honest, I DO judge people on appearances. Probably more in the way they speak and dress, but I can’t help but profile people in some way. It’s human nature.

    (BTW, I helped edit your comment to close the italics but now it has those backslashes in it. Don’t know why…. :( )

  • http://river2sea72.livejournal.com river2sea72

    Money/material possessions and power have been at the pinnacle of aspirations for hundreds of years.

    He who dies with the most toys wins, eh? Anyway, it’s not always the most intelligent people who have the most material wealth. But I suppose business savvy could be framed as a type of intelligence, just as musical talent or any other talent could. That’s my point.

    No, I haven’t read the papers – he doesn’t seem to list them on his published works page either, unless I’m missing something. I’d like to read them and see what they say.

  • http://geneticsandhealth.com Hsien Hsien Lei, PhD

    Intelligent, smart,…. To me, there’s a difference, but I’m sure definitions vary. Let me just say that I’m still busy collecting my toys. :D

  • http://www.gnxp.com/ JP




    the two papers present evidence that two genes which, when mutated, cause microencephaly, have been under recent natural selection.

    there’s a sentence or two of speculation about the timing of the mutations and their relation to certain events in human history, but speculation is just that…

  • http://river2sea72.livejournal.com river2sea72

    JP – thanks for the links. Is human brain size positively correlated to intelligence?

  • Mr. Unite Us


    Lahns conclusions are based on ignorance.
    i.e. his ignorance of Ancient African Art.

  • http://geneticsandhealth.com Hsien Hsien Lei, PhD

    Mr. Unite Us: Thanks for your comment! Care to elaborate?

  • http://www.gnxp.com JP

    Is human brain size positively correlated to intelligence?


    but keep in mind that the variants lahn is talking aobut might not be associated with normal variation in brain size

    in any case, it will be interesting to see what lahn’s microencephaly genes do (they’re also expressed outside the brain)

  • Maila

    While i believe that Mr. Lahns research is by no doubt enlightening , I agree with the student who asked him “Is some knowledge worth having?”. If the outcome of Lahn’s research did indeed indicate that mutations among ethic groups outside of africa are linked to intelligence, then I think those conclusions will have a more damaging rather than positive effect. Even though Lahn may not have racist motives , beyond a doubt his research will be misused by people who already have an inclination to believe that certain groups and races are more intelligent than others.

    As for his hypothesis that these two genes coincide with the creation of cave art , and the other with the beginnings of cities and writing, I find that rather amusing.

    I think anyone who studies history should be aware of the motives behind groups developing civilization and writing. From what I have read, this has little to do with intelligence and more or less to do with resources and agriculture. The area know as Mesopotamia was fertile land, thus enabling that group of people to develop agriculture which then leads to developing a writing along with civilization. Also the link Mr. Unite kindly provided us shows that africans also have ancient art, and some of this art was deemed to been created much earlier than cave art in Europe. So what exactly is Mr. Lahn implying? He favors the idea that this mutation may be linked to a bigger and smarted brain, enabling Europeans to create their first cave art, whereas sub saharan africans who lack this mutation still managed to create cave art before Europeans? But yet these mutations are supposed to be linked to greater intelligence? Im sorry, but that doesnt make sense to me. So pertaining to that part of his argument, I think he would need more evidence before he jumps to such a huge conclusion as that.

  • http://geneticsandhealth.com Hsien Hsien Lei, PhD

    Maila: Thanks for the thoughtful comment! It’s debate like this that makes genetics and life so much more interesting! And while I can understand that maybe we don’t need to know everything about everything especially topics that make people uncomfortable, I think we owe it to ourselves to face them. Ignorance is no way to combat evil.

    So again, I’m really glad you shared your thoughts with us!

  • Pingback: Genetics and Health » Dr. Bruce Lahn at Gene Expression

  • http://www.futurebird.com futurebird

    I think it’s also valuable to ask why this kind of research gets so much media attention? Why is there so much fascination with even the slightest possibly of african inferiority? I’m glad that people are studying the brain and the way it works, but the way these results are reported will be misused by people with racist motives.

    Let’s just assume that black people are on average dumber. Would any of you treat me any differently?


    Most interesting. However, I had to take pause at the following statement:

    “The other mutation, present mostly in people from the Middle East and Europe, and estimated to be 5,800 years old, coincided with the “development of cities and written language.”

    Really? According to archaeology and paleo-biology, advanced ancient civilizations were well established in Egypt (apparently by Negroid or Negroid-admixture peoples), in South America and in Asia before the 5,800 year mark Dr. Lahn mentions. There is absolutely no evidence of any advanced culture or civilizations in Europe before their exposure to the Egyptian culture. Whats more, Neanderthals had larger brains than Homo Sapiens and they did not civilize or create written language. How did Dr. Lahn come to his conclusions?

    Why has no one addressed the fact that Europeans were the LAST to civilize, and that white skin is clearly a genetic disadvantage? It has been speculated that Neanderthal may have mated with Homo Sapiens and created a viable hybrid which later became the modern day Western European. Excessive body hair, and the lack of the ability to “sync” with a regular audible rhythm are evidence that the average European brain is not as genetically advanced as is generally thought.


    Interesting. You did not choose to post me rather well thought out comment on this subject, and instead chose to post the comment above:

    “Let’s just assume that black people are on average dumber. Would any of you treat me any differently?”

    I suppose this should be an indication of the relevance of this page. You should be aware that excerpts from the lead article are being used by racists on white supremecist boards to “prove” superiority. Fortunately for the rest of us (college graduates with Master’s degrees), Dr. Lahn is not exactly considered an “authority” on genetics.

    You may proceed with deleting this response now.

  • manish kumar asthana

    sir i’m doing masters in cognitive science and i did my graduation in applied science i want to do my research in evolution of brain: few things i’ve to ask 1st i can work with you or not 2nd what things i should know in order to do research under you.

  • Paul R Dierks

    I am a super healer. Dr Andrew Bazos can confirm. I also have unusually high cognitive ability. My specialty is identifying hla genetic hunter gatherer loctaion. My abilties leave many to doubt me. My healing is not limitted to physical. I claim to have self cured my scitzophrenia. What do I know about this? I am a celiac. I have the asian pacific rim HG gene, HLA DQ8. I have no doubts in my natural savants. They are stable and are no long associated with autism. I am willing to do nearly anything to prove this. My strongest savant seems to be science. I am almost OCD obsessed, but it feels healthy and normal. OCD is more like keeping the eye on the ball once proper diets and requirements have been implimented.

  • Paul R Dierks

    Let me see if I can tip the scales. There is no race safe from painfully high intelligence. These successful hunter gatherer genes are found where dietary evolutionary requirements were readily available. Basically the diet of the bear. Grazing mammal, most importantly an availability to fatty acids found in nuts and fish. The equalities of the races to become superior, are no different than any pure bread canine animal. Combine two species and the strengths begin to outway the inherant genetic shortfalls. What basically happened in the experiments of germany involving the super soldier were quickly dispatched when they found out that the dark haired, light skinned, light eyed Aryen was a hybrid.So to ignorantly think that blacks are less intelligent, is cromagnin in thought processes associated with the fear of the different. I am as mysterious of a gene as it comes. I have more races in me than most, and I am pure aryan.I say if wolfgang von beetoven and Fats Domino were to actually put aside color differences, we would see a most righteous JAM. I state that all races have their highest functioners. Most of which are impure in gene. I have found, in america, every gene holding systemic thought. This evolutionary process is responsible for our heightening intolerance to gluten. To finish the dietary requirements chart, there is no race, that didn’t have an abundance of omega fatty acids, unless someone took the fish away from black people in african shoreline communities. Maybe orientals didn’t evolve eating fish. Maybe spanish people don’t like food without taco seasoning, so they never fished before. Maybe American Indians, didn’t like salmon and trout. There is not one racist bone in this aryan body. If I were to insult any race, I would insult myself. By the way, I have seen amazing cortisolic systemic thought in people with amazingly small heads. I have seen some pretty dumb, big headed people. I know someone who has an amazing head, even bigger than mine, I have an america 7 and a half of 3/4 sized hat. I am 5 11. I have one of the highest recorded OCD pack mentallity asperger, emotional identifying stares. It came from the pack hunting skill of the Neanderthal who hunted with blunt force spears. Doc.! I am here! I am 43 with 1/3 heal time to my traumatic injuries. I was doing pushups in less than the amount of time, that most people are in a sling. My staples had 14 days heal time in 5. I cannot get one person to listen. I have also rewritten the book on IQ. My IQ has been measured as high as 145 and as low as 120. That makes no logical sense. I measure those I view with OCD potiential learning capabilities, measured no different than the police search for canine intelligence. With the ability to focus on the ball and be aware of their surroundings.

  • Petr Jandacek

    Ostensibly, Neanderthalers (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis) had very large brains (perhaps on the average larger than contemporary Homo sapiens sapiens.) Can Dr.
    Bruce Lahn or anyone else suggest if the same or different microcephalin gene mutations accounted for the Neanderthal large brains.
    P. Jandacek LOS ALAMOS NM