No, China is not conducting a giant eugenics projectS

One of the stories about China you see cropping up a lot in U.S. media is that the nation is conducting a eugenics project to engineer a generation of hyper-smart kids who can conquer the world with their genius. The truth is a lot more interesting than that.

In reality, researchers in China are trying to determine whether there is a genetic basis for intelligence. Specifically they are looking at the kind of intelligence that leads to people who are gifted at math. And even more specifically, their dataset doesn't come from a Chinese project — instead it comes from an American study of mathematically gifted kids (pictured above).

Last month, Ed Yong wrote a great story for Nature about what the study from Beijing Genomics Institute is really about:

The US adolescents who signed up for the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY) in the 1970s were the smartest of the smart, with mathematical and verbal-reasoning skills within the top 1% of the population. Now, researchers at BGI (formerly the Beijing Genomics Institute) in Shenzhen, China, the largest gene-sequencing facility in the world, are searching for the quirks of DNA that may contribute to such gifts. Plunging into an area that is littered with failures and riven with controversy, the researchers are scouring the genomes of 1,600 of these high-fliers in an ambitious project to find the first common genetic variants associated with human intelligence.

The project, which was launched in August 2012 and is slated to begin data analysis in the next few months, has spawned wild accusations of eugenics plots, as well as more measured objections by social scientists who view such research as a distraction from pressing societal issues. Some geneticists, however, take issue with the study for a different reason. They say that it is highly unlikely to find anything of interest — because the sample size is too small and intelligence is too complex.

Earlier large studies with the same goal have failed. But scientists from BGI’s Cognitive Genomics group hope that their super-smart sample will give them an edge, because it should be enriched with bits of DNA that confer effects on intelligence. “An exceptional person gets you an order of magnitude more statistical power than if you took random people from the population — I’d say we have a fighting chance,” says Stephen Hsu, a theoretical physicist from Michigan State University in East Lansing, who acts as a scientific adviser to BGI and is one of the project’s leaders.

A lot of the hysteria over the Chinese "eugenics project" is ironic, given that the United States has conducted similar intelligence studies. Indeed, during the 1920s and 30s, many scientists in the U.S. believed that eugenics projects could improve humanity through selective breeding (and yes, by "selective," they often meant "middle-class white people"). Even as late as the 1990s, U.S. social scientist Charles Murray argued in his book The Bell Curve that the country was suffering from a "dysgenic trend" because so few educated white people were reproducing and so many black people were having families at a young age.

Once we set aside the question of eugenics, however, the real question is whether there actually is a set of genetic markers for mathematical aptitude. So far, the answer is "probably not."

To find out more, read the whole story on Nature.