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Hunting geniuses’ DNA for math genes?

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It’s been a while since we’ve run links to mathematician Peter Woit’s fun skeptical blog Not Even Wrong (for no better reason than that the desktop icon wasn’t visible). Apparently, entrepreneur Jonathan Rothberg and physicist Max Tegmark

have enrolled about 400 mathematicians and theoretical physicists from top-ranked US universities in a study dubbed ‘Project Einstein’. They plan to sequence the participants’ genomes using the Ion Torrent machine that Rothberg developed.

The team will be wading into a field fraught with controversy. Critics have assailed similar projects, such as one at the BGI (formerly the Beijing Genomics Institute) in Shenzhen, China, that is sequencing the genomes of 1,600 people identified as mathematically precocious children in the 1970s (see Nature 497, 297–299; 2013). The critics say that the sizes of these studies are too small to yield meaningful results for such complex traits.

Woit would take issue with the critics on at least one point; a meaningful result may be possible. He notes,

It’s unclear who these “geniuses” are, but we do know that one person who was asked and declined was Curt McMullen. His reaction to this project was what I suspect was a common one:

“I thought it was strange that it was called ‘Project Einstein’, which seemed designed to appeal to the participants’ egos,” he says. He asked the project’s staff and the New England Institutional Review Board, which approved the study, to explain how results would be used. “The uniform answer to my questions was that ‘we are not responsible for how the information is used after the study is completed’,” he says.

If Project Einstein identifies a common gene among its participants, and uses the knowledge to breed a race of übermenschen, they may find they have selected not for unusual mathematical genius, but for unusual ego.

Maybe they should be testing celebrities instead of scientists. The results would be more meaningfully related to achievement. 😉

Note: Yes, Max “Multiverse” Tegmark.

9 Replies to “Hunting geniuses’ DNA for math genes?

  1. 1
    Robert Byers says:

    Indeed if they are saying evolution/genes is behind intelligence then why not extrapolate to racial/sex intelligence?? another thread about hitler bumps into this subject.
    These people are teaching the educated classes here that intelligence is from genes and not free will and demographics one grows up in.
    Another prejudice is that mATH is a a subject of intelligence.
    i say this is false. Math is a subject using the memory more then most other subjects requiring higher intelligence as man scores it.
    Computers, kids, idiout savants do math at high levels because it requires not much thinking. Just remembering things. a skill to learn but really mostly memory i say.
    Its a strange concept to me to see the esteem math is held in relative to intellectual accomplishment.
    Its like Latin in the middle ages.
    anyways its a common myth about math whizes representing unique smarts.
    smart people just might tend to target math but math itself is not that difficult at any level.
    In fact thats why it was a first thing to be advanced after the dark ages. nO big deal.
    There is lots here for creationists to attack.
    Its funny.
    The bible says intelligence is gained by the free will on things outside man using wisdom, understanding, and knowledge.
    math is a minor case of knowledge at best.
    We are not smart because of genes.
    Its just about motivation within particular stages of a society’s education.
    by the way one should smell the girls will come out looking bad on math genes.
    its crazy but crazy .
    What math person ever contributed good ideas outside of math???
    its a limiting practive to study math. Its a waste of time if purpose is to increase ones intelligence.

  2. 2
    selvaRajan says:

    Wow! so all I have to do to become physicist or mathematician is replace my gene sequence. No need to go and study.Same goes for new language Want to learn Chinese? Just replace gene sequence and all done. Of course now replacing gene sequence is very precise so no need to wait. Hurry up!

  3. 3
    nightlight says:

    @2 The right “genes” (or rather entire DNA & epigenetic info) provide talent or genius for some type of mental activity, which then motivates the obsession and single minded focus on the given subject from childhood.

    Of course, the same mechanism works in the other direction, too i.e. lack of talent for math turns kids off to say, math or music, and they end up dumb and ignorant in the subject.

  4. 4
    Mung says:

    And of course we all know that boys are better at math than girls, right? Science sez so.

    12. The Persistent Influence of Failed Scientific Ideas

  5. 5
    nightlight says:

    @4 — girls are better at schoolwork, which includes math classes, due to greater tolerance or acceptance of authority and rote memorization. Boys are better at more challenging, research problems. I competed couple times in math & physics Olympiad in high school (that was in the old country, ex-Yugoslavia), and out of well over hundred competitors, both times the girls could be counted on the fingers of one hand, and all were very modestly looking (to put it gently; not that boys were much better on male scale).

    You can find similar ratios in the research repository arXiv which adds thousands of research papers daily in in physics, computer science and math (e.g. to see it, just skim through the names in the “new” papers in math for this morning).

  6. 6
    bornagain77 says:

    OT: The Letter that Science Refused to Publish – November 8, 2013
    Excerpt: Stephen Meyer sought the opportunity to reply, in the pages of Science, to UC Berkeley paleontologist Charles Marshall, who reviewed Darwin’s Doubt in the same publication. Without explanation, the editors refused to publish the letter. We offer it for your interest. –
    See more at:

  7. 7
    wd400 says:


    “Project einstein” is pretty stupid, and doomed to fail, but your comment doesn’t relate to goal of the project at all. There is little doubt that variance in genetics explains variance in intelligence in some way. Or that the people with the very highest achievement in physics and maths will be more likely to have many of the genetic variants that contribute to intelligence. I don’t know why you’d presume these simple facts mean you could replace study with genetics (or learn a language through genes), but it’s not the case.

    Nightlight, given then systematic biases in academia, which act to keep women out of tenure track positions (and indeed math in particular), I’m not sure I’d take authorship on arXiv as evidence for innate difference in mathematical ability between sexes.

  8. 8
    Robert Byers says:

    There is not any evidence for your dogmatic claim of genetics behind smarts.
    I’m not just saying you are wrong but there is no such conclusion.
    How could such a conclusion be reached without human results to back up any genetic claim! Then the human results would have human motivations/society as instantly nullifying any claim genetic results.
    They can’t measure genes but only human test scores.

    The women do fail to compete because of lack of motivation in more complicated things. In fact its just part of a general spectrum.
    They don’t become car mechanics either or drummers.
    Its all motivation.
    There is no opposition/discrimination against women.
    however one can, I do, accuse discrimination on behalf of women in those things because of a agenda to raise women up.
    That is the actual modern interference on sex bias.

    Its hogwash and gibberish and evolutionary gobbilygook to easily or even suspect genetic influence in human smarts.
    The most intelligent people on earth ever were English people and they came, before the reformation, from the dumbest people ever on earth on a dreay little island.
    men achieve over women because we were created by God to be accomplished like God and are so profoundly motivated.
    Women were created to help their husbands only.
    In these days its just very easy to study and get degrees and jobs ay young ages.
    However where actual achievementis measured between men and women say in their 30’s to 60’s the women don;’t and can’t compete. All motivation however and unrelated to intellectual ability.
    this should be obvious however the present establishment is obedient to feminism. Yet time will destroy it as there will never be even close parity where its fair and square.

  9. 9
    selvaRajan says:

    wd400 @7,
    My comments were supposed to be sarcastic!(notice jocular ‘Hurry up’). AFAIK the study has no control group, possible casual variables have not been identified and factor analyzed. How can the significance of the study be deduced if there are no variables to control for? Is it any wonder that no one is sponsoring the study? Not that he needs sponsorship.
    Having said that, I wish him success to the extent possible because he is a desperate dad searching for cure for his lovely daughter’s genetic complications.

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