Are we on the cusp of developments in genetic coding that will be game changers in how we understand inherent difference between groups?

This being a  question derived from some recent remarks by Matt Goodwin[i] (remarks which I reproduce in full below[ii]).

If you view the complete context for Goodwin’s remarks, they seem to flow from his complaints about "diversity" policies at Universities and a story in the Telegraph about white students allegedly being blocked from applying for a course at Cambridge University. It is not entirely clear why Goodwin suddenly starts talking about health differences between groups in the context of differences (or the absence thereof) in academic achievement between groups, but, in either case, similar principles apply and we can address the question posed in the title.

I suppose the short answer to this question is “probably not”, or at least, “probably not in the way that Matt Goodwin imagines".

There are many reasons for my saying this but I should like to focus on just one of them.

Most human genetic traits are polygenic in nature rather than controlled by a single gene.

Perhaps you remember school-textbook pictures like this:


Figure 1 Simple four-generation Mendelian Pedigree of Brown and Blue eyes[iii]

Now there is nothing wrong with diagrams like this are far as they go, but it turns out that, even eye colour, is a lot more complicated than our school textbooks would suggest and is controlled by dozens of genes working together in complex waysiii.

And when it come to things like height, or academic ability, or health conditions, or nearly everything actually, the genetics gets really really complicated.

So why is polygenic (cf monogenic) control such a big deal? 

After all, one might reason, I used to naively imagine that there was only one gene for being good at cricket (or whatever) and now I know that there are twenty-seven genes for being good at cricket and I can search for the presence of this set of genes in different groups of people and thereby make generalizations about the average cricket-abilities of those different groups.

But, as the song goes, “It ain’t necessarily so!”

Let us pursue a simple thought experiment:

We note that some people in Littleengland have a condition called “Dysportia[iv]” which renders them incapable of understanding or successfully joining in any sporting activities. We then discover that everyone in Littleengland with Dysportia has genes A and B (whereas everyone else in Littleengland has A, or B, or neither, but never both together.

Ah ha, we conclude, we have discovered the genes for Dysportia!

But then we investigate Farflungland where everyone has the AB gene pair but nobody has Dysportia. So what is going on? Well it turns out that everyone in Littleengland, and nobody in Farflungland, also has gene C – which, it transpires, is necessary to make the AB gene pair do its thing.

But then we investigate Evenfurtherawyland where everybody has gene C but nobody has the AB gene pair; and yet (we find) Dysportia is quite common in Evenfurtherawyland. Of course, it then turns out that the people in Evenfurtherawyland with Dysportia have the gene triple DEF that (in combination with gene C) has the same effects as AB (in combination with gene C).

This is already mind-boggling complicated and we are talking about a 100% genetic condition controlled by a handful of genes with all or nothing effects – genes that are incredibly neatly and conveniently distributed amongst our chosen groups.

In any real situation, every finding would be statistical rather all-or-nothing; environmental factors would play a major role; there would be all sorts of “noise” in the data; the various genes involved would be very untidily distributed across the different groups; and there might be hundred of genes and countless gene interactions involved.

This does not imply that we shall not expand our understanding of the genetics of Dysportia enormously over the coming decades but, in the meantime, if you want to employ some people who are good at (say) cricket, you are probably better off putting them on a pitch and throwing balls at them than asking to see their genomes or considering which groups they are from.


NB if you wish to become a lot better informed about human genetics, the limits of our understanding thereof, "groups", and the dangers of "a little learning" in these areas, you could do a lot worse than to read Adam Rutherford's splendid books:

How to Argue With a Racist: History, Science, Race and Reality 



Matthew Cobb's splendid book:

The Genetic Age: Our Perilous Quest To Edit Life

[i] Director of the Legatum Institutes Centre for UK Prosperity https://www.openforumevents.co.uk/speakers/professor-matthew-goodwin/

[ii] “We are on the cusp of developments with genetic coding … and science that are going to be complete game changers in how we understand health, medicine, life-expectancy … all of that stuff. So the idea that there are not inherent differences between groups is just going to be completely unsustainable …I mean it already is, if you look at the evidence, but over the next 5 to 10 years it’s going to look utterly ridiculous as a lot of this research and evidence comes through.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gbQ9UNPy23g&ab_channel=Triggernometry 

[iii] Mackey, D.A. What colour are your eyes? Teaching the genetics of eye colour & colour vision. Edridge Green Lecture RCOphth Annual Congress Glasgow May 2019. Eye 36, 704–715 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41433-021-01749-x

[iv] I have this condition.

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