China, Lysenkoism, and the Future of Behavior Genetics

From Plomin, Haworth, and Davis, 2007. Genetics of Learning Abilities and Disabilities: Recent Developments from the UK and Possible Directions for Research in China

The birth of behavioral genetics in China at this time is especially poignant in the context of the Cultural Revolution. Although the Cultural Revolution was politically motivated, to the extent there was any rationale at all, it was the assumption that all people are the same except for environmental differences. Genetic differences among people were ignored. This environmentalism – we are what we learn – began with the official adoption of Lysenkoism, which explicitly denied the fundamental laws of genetic inheritance discovered by Mendel. Although it is a minor thing compared to the perhaps millions of deaths during the Cultural Revolution, Chinese research in genetics came to a halt.

But happily China is back as a major contributor in applied genetics in agriculture and animal breeding, in medical genetics, and in basic genetics…Because China is coming late to behavioral genetics, Chinese researchers can sidestep the false starts of previous quantitative and molecular genetic research on behavior and become leaders rather than followers in behavioral genetics research. At the most basic level, we hope that Chinese psychologists can skip the fruitless arguments about nature versus nurture and accept that both nature and nurture are important for the development of individual differences in most areas of psychology. A related issue is that quantitative genetic research in psychology should aim to go beyond merely demonstrating genetic influence. As we now know that nearly all behavioral traits show genetic influence, quantitative genetic studies can move beyond the rudimentary questions about nature and nurture to ask more interesting questions about developmental change and continuity, about genetic homogeneity and heterogeneity, and about the interplay between nature and nurture.

That fruitless Nature-Nurture argument, of course, is largely pushed by the neoLysenkoisians in the media. China, of course, has since started down the path of non-PC genomics:

Economist: …
But the organisation is involved in even more controversial projects. It is about to embark on a search for the genetic underpinning of intelligence. Two thousand Chinese schoolchildren will have 2,000 of their protein-coding genes sampled, and the results correlated with their test scores at school. Though it will cover less than a tenth of the total number of protein-coding genes, it will be the largest-scale examination to date of the idea that differences between individuals’ intelligence scores are partly due to differences in their DNA.

Washington post:…In 2007, Chinese geneticists discovered vast differences in the genetic makeup of Africans, Asians and Caucasians. They will soon report a breakthrough showing why some people — such as Tibetans — can live effortlessly at high altitudes while others can’t….Inside the 11-story facility, the vibe is pure Silicon Valley start-up: shorts, flip-flops, ankle bracelets, designer eyewear and a random tattoo. Zhao came to BGI on a summer internship last year to work on cucumbers. Now a full-time employee while continuing his studies, Zhao is turning his attention to a topic Western researchers have shied away from because of ethical worries: Zhao plans to study the genes of 1,000 of his best-performing classmates at a top high school in Beijing and compare them, he said, “with 1,000 normal kids.”

BGI’s secret — and the secret to a lot of China’s best scientific institutes — seems to be insulating itself from China’s government bureaucracy. BGI started as the Beijing Genomics Institute in the early 2000s but left Beijing in 2007 after the Ministry of Science and Technology tried to dictate what it could and could not study. The Shenzhen city government offered it millions of dollars in grants and operating expenses to move south. Last year, BGI received a $1.5 billion line of credit from the China Development Bank.

“We came here because it was the best place for us to pursue science,” said Yang Huanming, the institute’s founder. “We’re not interested in politics.”

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