A lot of fathers are going to hate this, but genetic research has found guys probably get a lot of their intelligence from their X gene, the feminine one. Of 23 sets of matched chromosomes we all have, twenty-two line up pretty similarly, but we differ on the sex chromosome—men get an X from their mother and a Y from their father, and women get X’s from both mother and father.
The Y chromosome in XY men has about a hundred genes, none of which seem to be involved with cognition—thinking, figuring, planning…you know, most of what we associate with intelligence. The X chromosome has a thousand genes, and a bunch of them influence cognition.
We do have twenty-two other matched sets of genes which almost certainly influence intelligence–after all, a third of our genes directly (and a sixth indirectly) have to do with programming our brain and nervous system. There’s data that suggest that there are genes on the second chromosome which also effect intelligence.
But, still, if you’re a guy and you’re born really smart or really stupid, a lot of that’s from your mother and grandmothers’ genome.
And, just to add insult to injury, how you do in the world—relate, attach, cause problems, be a joy to hang out with—is more a function of how your mother related with you the first two
years than how your father did. So, even in the nature/nurture conversation (do genes have more to do with who we are, or does our life experience and learning?) mothers have more influence. Research strongly suggests that, despite the fact that American fathers are way more involved with their kids today than in the fifties and sixties when I was growing up, those crucial mostly-mother-around early years have disproportionate influences on who we turn out to be. Like most mammals, human moms are the main caregivers and teachers during crucial baby/toddlerhood when brains grow like weeds and we’re getting set up neurologically and socially for life.
The guys-get-intelligence-from-X-chromosome finding is particularly ironic with the Nobel Laureate sperm donor program at the Repository for Germinal Choice, which operated in
California in the 80’s and 90’s. At the Repository—allegedly, we don’t really know—Nobel Prize winners donated sperm that women could buy for artificial insemination. Sorry, ladies, but if you had a boy there weren’t any cognition genes in the Y chromosome of that sperm. You’d probably have had a better chance of capturing freak genius for your sons from donor eggs from Nobel Laureates’ mothers.
Weirdly, the one caveat to this is that boys are at least six times more likely to have autism spectrum disorders—compromised abilities to empathize and relate with others—that
disproportionately involve Rain-man-like freak math and technical skills. Rain Man is a film with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise where Dustin Hoffman plays an autistic man who can do incredible math calculations in his head, but, like most autistic individuals, is a social disaster. We like our kids to have freak talents, but not at the cost of compromised social adjustment.
When I told all this to my friend, Patricia Albere, a single mother most of her son’s life and a keen observer of ego in all its forms—and, let’s face it, male ego, can be uniquely infuriating
around gender and pride—she found it delicious that the genetic legacy of mothers and grandmothers could so strongly affect boys’ intelligence.
“You’ve got to write a blog about this,” she said.
So, Patricia, here you go.
I’ve since thought about why Patricia and I found all this so funny. I believe there’s a lot of distress in many of us—men and women both—over men oppressing women throughout the ages, and that this distress tends to amplify teasing or sarcastic humor about men. Historically, if there are problems with birth, genetic heritage, or children, women have been blamed by men. I believe this hurt over past injustices accounts for the sometimes self-righteous excitement many feel when discovering facts like older fathers are more likely to have autistic or schizophrenic babies, or that intelligence is more heavily influenced by the female X chromosome than the male Y chromosome.
My favorite anthem to this sentiment is Woman in chains by Tears For Fears, a plea for love and liberation for women everywhere. Check it out, and, if you were born with any particular
skills in thinking and technical problem solving, be sure to thank your mother and grandmothers, because it’s probably their genes that give you that edge.