Sex Chromosomes are linked to Human Intelligence
While it did nothing to calm the maelstrom swirling around Summers, the new understanding of the chromosome revealed tantalizing clues to the role genes might play in shaping cognitive differences between the sexes. And while these differences seem to be largely to the female's advantage, permutations during the genetic recombination of the X chromosome may confer to a few men a substantial intellectual edge.
Considerations of this sort are mired in politics and sensationalism, but one fact is beyond dispute: Three hundred million years after parting ways in our earliest mammalian ancestors, the X and the Y chromosomes are very different genetic entities. The Y has been whittled down to genes governing a handful of functions, most entailing sperm production and other male-defining features. Meanwhile, the gene-rich X is the most intensely studied of the 23 chromosomes, largely because of its role in rendering men vulnerable to an estimated 300 genetic diseases and disorders associated with those mutations—from color blindness to muscular dystrophy to more than 200 brain disorders.
The sex chromosomes lay the foundation for human sexual difference, with women having two Xs, one from each parent, while men get an X from their mom and a Y from their dad. Only 54 of the 1,098 protein-coding genes on the X seem to have functional counterparts on the Y, a dichotomy that has led scientists to describe the Y chromosome as "eroded." This diminutive chromosome offers little protection against the slings and arrows of genetic happenstance. When an X-linked gene mutates in a woman, a backup gene on the second X chromosome can fill the gap. But when an X-linked gene mutation occurs in a man, his Y stands idly by, like an onlooker at a train wreck.
The brain seems particularly vulnerable to X-linked malfunction. Physician and human geneticist Horst Hameister and his group at the
Gillian Turner, professor of medical genetics at the
The X chromosome provides an unusual system for transmitting genes between sexes across generations. Fathers pass down nearly their entire complement of X-linked genes to their daughters, and sons get their X-linked genes from their mothers.
Although this pattern of inheritance leaves men vulnerable to a host of X-linked disorders, Hameister contends that it also positions them to reap the rewards of rare, beneficial X-linked mutations, which may explain why men cluster at the ends of the intelligence spectrum. "Females tend to do better overall on IQ tests; they average out at about 100, while men average about 99," Hameister says. "Also, more men are mentally retarded. But when you look at IQs at 135 and above, you see more men."
To understand his hypothesis, consider that during the formation of a woman's eggs, paternal and maternal X chromosomes recombine during meiosis. Now suppose a mother passes to her son an X chromosome carrying a gene or genes for superintelligence. While this genetic parcel would boost the son's brilliance, he could pass that X chromosome only to a daughter, where it could be diluted by the maternally derived X. The daughter, in turn, could pass on only a broken-up and remixed version to the fourth generation, due, again, to the recombination that occurs during meiosis. Odds are that the suite of genes for superintelligence wouldn't survive intact in the remix. "It's like winning the lottery," Hameister adds. "You wouldn't expect to win twice in one day, would you?"
The theory is controversial. Among its detractors is David Page, interim director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in
Intelligence is a multifaceted quality that is unlikely to be traced to a single gene. Yet the link between gender and cognition is far too persistent for the public—or science—to ignore. Until recently sex differences in intelligence were thought to result chiefly from hormones and environment. New findings suggest genes can play a far more direct role. Working constructively with that insight will be a delicate challenge for the new millennium, one perhaps best avoided by college presidents.
Kemo D. (a.k.a. no.7) www.beyondgenes.com