A Chinese Prodigy's Quest For The Genetic Roots Of Genius

Looking for the "source code"
Looking for the "source code"
Ursula Gauthier

BEIJING — When he was 17, Zhao Bowen was a bored student who made an audacious decision. In a country where the cult of diplomas knows no boundaries, he quit school and decided not to take the exam that would have allowed him university entry.

“All that fuss just to learn things that you can find in books or on the Internet anyway? I had better things to do,” he explains, with a laugh.

Starting at 15, Bowen spent his free time hanging out with a team of scientists who were sequencing the genome of the cucumber. “Genetics. Now that's a fascinating thing,” Bowen says.

The previous summer, he had completed an internship with geneticists from the Beijing Genomics Institute, the largest biotechnology institute in the world. They didn’t have any use for diplomas either. As soon as they spotted an exceptionally gifted young person, they offered him what no university could: a job in an extremely well-equipped lab working on an advanced research topic.

Now 21, a bespectacled Bowen looks no different than other young Chinese men of his age. But his business card reads “Director of the Cognitive Genomics Center,” a laboratory with a budget of several million dollars. Bowen’s mission is to sequence the genome of little prodigies like him to find the genetic roots of genius.

He’s been working on it for four years, leading a team of several hundred young researchers. “Studies on twins and adopted children indicate that at least 50% of IQ variation is due to genetics,” he claims. “But which genes are involved, and which part of the genome? We don’t know. We’re going to find all the genes related to intelligence.”

He knows the enormity of the task. A recent Dutch study on the level of academic success had to review no fewer than 125,000 genomes to find just three associated variants. Those interested in IQ genetics have to study the mutations that may affect some 10,000 genome segments. To locate just one of those, an analysis has to include an incredibly high number of individuals, perhaps as many as a million.

Thanks to the collaboration of two researchers (one British and one American), Bowen’s team obtained the DNA of 2,500 pure geniuses whose IQs are over 160. As a comparison, the average human IQ is 100 and that of Nobel prize winners is around 145.

The sequencing is said to be in its advanced stages. “Nobody has such a large sample, and nobody has ever done such work,” says Steve Hsu, the American physician who is collaborating on the project.

Bowen, though, keeps his feet firmly on the ground. “We still have to compare these extraordinary genomes to a control group of randomly selected people,” he says. “We’re certain that with enough material we’ll find at least part of the genes that influence IQ.”

Wang Jian, president of the Beijing Genomics Institute, is confident that this research will soon lead to a genetic test, enabling, among other things, families who resort to in vitro fertilization to select the most “intelligent” embryos. With this method, the average IQ of the population would rise over the long term.

Ethics debates are rare and touchy in China, so while it awaits the results to be published, the Beijing Genomics Institute tries not to communicate on the topic. Bowen, however, has continued speaking freely to the press. “We are in possession today of a formidable tool that could take human knowledge one big step further. And we shouldn’t use it?” he asks.

He says the genome is much more than a sediment of inherited features. It’s an operative system that controls how our cells, our brains and our bodies function. “Understanding genius is just the beginning,” he says. “The goal is to understand our ‘normal’ functioning, to find our ‘source code’. We will then be in a position where we better understand disabilities like autism and schizophrenia.”

The prestigious MIT Technology Review believes in this promise. In the past, it has honored among its “individuals whose superb technical work promises to change the world” the future giants would go on to create Google and Facebook.

Last year, Bowen was one of them.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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