Could intelligence be compared to genes?

This may sound an odd question to ask. Bear with me, as I think the answer is helpful.

In 1953 a biologist, James Watson, and his colleague Francis Crick announced the discovery of a structure for deoxyribonucleic acid, a term far harder to remember and say than ‘DNA’. Then in 1990 a huge collaborative effort was announced, and a $3 billion effort to decipher the human genome was under-way. Imaginations ran wild as people envisaged all manner of developments and applications that might follow. If anybody at the time had said, “I think you will find things will turn out to be more complicated than you think”, then they’d have been right.

It was thought genes would have singular associations with outcomes. Very soon after the hacking of the genome that idea was blown out of the water. Several or alternate genes were noticed for having a part or involvement with one trait or health issue, and conversely two quite different health concerns appeared to associate with mutant form of just one gene. It was a shock and one that marked the beginning of another learning curve.

There are about 25,000 genes in the human genome, and that seemed relatively few, not least because seemingly simpler lifeforms may have more, and in case of that 25,000 around 95% seem not to have much significance at all. There are a lot of junk genes in the genome.

Yet another intriguing and unanticipated finding was that genes can be quite dynamic; genes can be present and be inactive, and they can be switched, not just in the cross-generational sense, but also in vivo. Genes can be switched ‘on’ and be switched ‘off’ in the course of a life. Some of these ‘switchings’ may be lasting, and some quite transient. This focussed minds.

So now geneticists think of the genome in terms of that string of genes that’s scripted into DNA and now think of famous double helix as being shrouded in a kind of filter-layer. They call this filter-layer the epigenome and it isn’t really a layer at all, but that’s a convenient way to think of it.

The epigenome is really a switching layer that can sit above individual genes, as my limited understanding has it. Some little molecules made of carbon and hydrogen can be attached to individual genes. (I hope I have the case the right way round !) These methylated markers as they are called deactivate the gene, and if it is removed the gene is allowed to be active – or to ‘express’ itself. This side to genetics is the new kid on the block, and it helps explain a lot. The more it’s understood how it works the more it will aid general understanding.

The long and the short of all this is that any person is possessed of a lot of genes that rarely see any active service; some appear to be junk genes, and some appear to be important but deactivated for some reason.

Psychologists, I think, are trending to see our minds in similar way. The human is a species that has intelligence, but it has also evolved to use intuition as a substitute for hard and intelligent thinking. For one thing the mind likes to recognise patterns, and it likes to identify recurring patterns. It makes sense if you think about. A pattern may be made up of a number of features. The first time the mind encounters a set of unfamiliar features it has to seek out the features and assimilate them into a pattern it can recognise. Once it has a sense of the pattern and the features it has a blue-print by which it can recognise a recurrence of the same, or a similar, pattern.

When I was young a picture hung on the wall. It was an artists recreation of a street scene and it featured a café with outside seating. It may have been Parisian, or it could have associated with Malta. I could not make sense of this picture. It used to haunt me, almost. To my young and underdeveloped mind it looked like a diesel locomotive, face on, and steaming (that’s a poor choice of word) out of the frame towards me, the viewer. My mind didn’t have the ability to register the features correctly, so it did the best job it could, and it did badly. It used an inappropriate short-cut.

If you think about quick and intuitive recognition of patterns could have aided our survival. Suppose its the stone age and your out gathering berries or something. In the corner of your eye you see Could intelligence be compared to genes?a fleeting flash of black and orange in the hues of the vegetation. It makes sense to think, ‘tiger!’ and then to move purposefully in the other direction, doe it not. It might not do to be too analytical or to wonder if it is your mate George with his face painted in ochre and charcoal, or with a skin thrown over his shoulders. Judge it badly and you end up on the menu. In an evolutionary sense your rewarded for being intuitive, or instinctive, and of course much animal behaviour is directed by instinct.

Two books have sold well of late.

Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman

You Are Not So Smart – David McRaney

Within these two books, and annexed to something of a thrust in psychology, is content that points to human traits that have us think economically. Sometimes this helps us and sometimes it lets us down. The thing about this is that we are up close and personal with ourselves, and we don’t notice so readily when our willingness to think intuitively may be letting us down. Hard thinking is hard work, and so with experience and advancing years we seem less inclined to ask questions in the way that we did as children. We think we understand affairs and ourselves when actually we may not, or may not understand matters so well as we think we do. The upshot is were not so in control of our own minds as we tend to believe we are, and if psychology can tailor the explanation in a way that suits ease of cognition amongst the likes of you and me then psychology has come of age. The sales of the two titles above indicate it may have.

Neither of these two books indicates the presence of filter-layer in quite these terms and neither seems to make comparisons to the genome and epigenome, but if you venture to read either of these highly readable and interesting titles then I think you will agree the concept of a filter-layer is a useful one, because each of these two books point to aspects of the human psyche that may be constituent to that filter-layer. Hence we have intelligence, but aspects of the psyche frequently deny us access to all the intelligence we have.

So I have come to think that average human is possessed of intelligence in broadly equal measure. Where one human differs most is in the ability to make optimal use of the intelligence it has. It can do so via channels too. One person may be good at maths, the next can be perceptive in art, in the event both are examining and applying patterns to good and intelligent effect, but elementary features of those patterns can be quite different.

We should always keep an open mind, and we should always be ready to learn something new, yet aspects of lives conspire that we place greater emphasis and trust in the familiar, and shy away from that which is unfamiliar, and in the main it is in the defence of our time. But we cannot know the importance of that which we do not know, nor above all that we do not know we do not know, so the will to be economical with our intellectual horsepower can let us down sometimes.

I think it is useful to have it pointed out that there is potential in unused intellectual horsepower in everybody, for knowing it is there is a good step on route to making better use of it.

Einstein himself thought he was quite normal in almost every way, but he did acknowledge he had curiosity in buckets.

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