Gordon Smith

Intelligence: You may not have got it from yo momma

intelligence

Approx Reading Time-11A scientific study which pegs our mothers as the reason for our intelligence is going viral as we approach Mothers Day. Problem is, it’s complete bollocks.

 

 

 

Your mother should know: there’s more to your intelligence than fake news is telling you.

Sunday is Mother’s Day, and with it comes the thousands of mother-focused “news” articles flooding your feed.

Amidst the overdone photos of bulging appreciative breakfasts and the mindless droning of how “#blessed” and “#thankful” your Facebook friends are, you’ve probably seen a haphazardly-smacked-together post by a website called Second Nexus, telling you that “new research” has established that “intelligence is inherited from the mother”.

But with information about our aptly-named “intelligence genes” and how those genes are located on the X chromosomes of our DNA – which the female species holds two of – surely this can’t just be a case of clickbait and fake news.

Alas, this simplistic representation of human biology is exactly that.

Yes, females do have two X chromosomes, as any year 7 biology student can tell you. But those chromosomes are not simple clones of one another, and they aren’t something passed exclusively along the mother-side of the equation.

While one X chromosome absolutely comes from the mother, the other – be it X, or Y – needs to come from the father.

Anything on the X chromosome can pass from mother to child, or father to – usually – daughter, but the two X’s the mother has aren’t the same, and their double dose does not mean an automatic doubling of the odds of inheriting a specific variant.

In fact, even if you did inherit an X-linked gene variant, there’s no guarantee it will be used at all. People with two (or more) X chromosomes will have their “dosage” of genes adjusted, with each cell turning off most of one X or the other.

The X chromosome is not something limited to the fairer sex, either: quite literally every human being that has ever been has one.

While it may be nice to think that our dear mothers are responsible for our brain power, to believe so is to gloss over the complicated, wonderful way that intelligence is formed.

We may receive around half of our intelligence from our genes, but it is not simply a case of hand-me-downs. Those inherited variants are spread throughout our DNA, changing in response to the molecular world around them, and scattered across our genomes.

Intelligence is not something decided by our genes, let alone simply our X chromosome.

The article goes on to tell us that we also have “conditioned genes which only activate when inherited from the mother, and that are crucial to the proper development of the embryo.”

For this to be true, our genes would have to come bundled with information about which parent they are coming from, and would need to retain that information even as the above scattering and external-influencing occurs.

Not quite.

An article is only as good as the sources it uses, and in this case we can probably place the article firmly among the bait-iest of Buzzfeed-esque clickbait. One reference even predates the original Star Wars.

The article then makes (vague) reference to a 1996 paper reporting the use of mouse embryos that were a mix of cells.

Some of these cells were carrying double paternal genomes – that is, from the father – and some were carrying double maternal – the mother.

The viral post claims that “researchers found that embryos survived when normal embryonic cells were maintained.”

“When they manipulated the rest, they created several genetically modified laboratory mice that did not develop in the same way.”

“Mice that received an extra dose of maternal genes developed larger heads and brains, but smaller bodies.”

“By contrast, mice that received an additional dose of paternal genes had smaller brains, but larger bodies.”

But that paper has already been revised by one of its senior authors, Cambridge University neuroscientist Barry E Keverne, who wrote in 2013 that some of the findings may have been the result of a “failure of these (double paternal) cells to thrive and survive when they reach the developing cortex.”

Still not quite done, the article tells us that the paper shows “researchers have not found paternal genes in the cerebral cortex, where humans develop advanced cognitive functions such as intelligence, thought, language, and painting.”

Dubious claims of cerebral cortex function aside, such a baseless claim gives the impression that our cerebral cortex possess a superbly accurate skill in banishing the parts of our cellular genome that are inherited from our fathers.

Of course, an article is only as good as the sources it uses, and in this case we can probably place the article firmly among the bait-iest of Buzzfeed-esque clickbait.

The first is from a blog, Psychology Spot, which cites 14 references – only one of which being published in the last decade. The rest? 20 to 30 years old. One reference even predates the original Star Wars.

The references themselves are as dubious as they come. The most recent relates to maternal support in the first years of life, and makes no mention of brain genetics. Its vintage counterparts primarily deal with the discovery that an embryo requires both a paternal and a maternal genome for appropriate development, and that development fails in the absence of this pairing.

Their next source, the one that really hammers home the “intelligence is inherited from the mother” claim, comes from none other than Cosmopolitan.

Yes, the very same “10 ways to please your man in the bedroom” Cosmopolitan.

Better still, the Cosmopolitan article includes two more references, one of which sources her material right back to Psychology Spot, while still touting it as “new research”. This in spite of said research probably being older than most of the people reading this.

The other? A reference to an identical article in Good Housekeeping, written by the same Lauren Smith of Cosmopolitan fame.

It doesn’t matter how much an article reads like a flaming ball of garbage – as long as that garbage has an eye-catching headline, it will rake in as many “likes” as needed.

In spite of all of this astonishingly shoddy journalism and mockery of all things science, these articles continue to amass our social media feeds, with some articles attracting up to 2.2 million hits.

Why? Surprise, surprise, it’s the headlines.

The magic of clickbait is its ability to command a million clicks, yet zero readers.

After all, it’s the headline that catches our attention, and the headline we remember.

It doesn’t matter how much an article reads like a flaming ball of garbage – as long as that garbage has an eye-catching headline, it will rake in as many “likes” as needed. You may read the article only to realise that what they’re claiming is about as accurate as a dog’s perception of colour, but by the time you make this revelation, it’s too late; you’ve already given them the click they were hoping for.

This Mother’s Day, appreciate the woman who gave you life, the woman who has made many sacrifices for you, and the woman who raised you.

Appreciate her for the love and the care that she gave you, not for the traits a grammatically tortured website from the depths of the Internet wants you to believe.

 

Gordon Smith

Journalist by day, cunning linguist by night. A passion for politics, hypnotically involved in human rights. An Australian born with a Japanese tongue, hoping to hold the big wigs in government to account.

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