Intelligence, Heredity and Genes: A Historical Perspective


The idea of an intelligence specific to humans has not always existed but grew from pre‐modern ideas of cultural and religious status, becoming fully established at the end of the seventeenth century as part of the application of logic to natural history categories. John Locke, seeing empirical learning as the route towards human reason, also helped establish modern notions of intellectual disability and deficiency. The late nineteenth century began to see these as hereditary traits, capable of moulding by eugenics. Its attachment of ‘intelligence’ to an existing statistical abstraction (the Gaussian curve) enabled this metaphysical concept to be correlated with the physical phenomenon of genetic material, as both were now apparently measurable. The ‘nature/nurture’ and ‘normal/abnormal’ frameworks dominating today's cognitive genetics are not trans‐historical but outcomes of this eugenic mind‐set.

Key Concepts

  • The idea that there is a peculiarly human intelligence defining and circumscribing the species dates only from the early modern period.
  • Intelligence denotes primarily a status group, which has evolved from earlier categories of status that were social and religious in character.
  • Definitions of intelligence, including current ones, are historically contingent.
  • Definitions of intelligence in the last resort have no common denominator.
  • Theories of heredity and genetic explanations of cause are the product of social anxieties around status.
  • Theories aligning intelligence with heredity can only be understood in relation to theories of intellectual disability that are equally historically contingent.

Keywords: intelligence; intellectual disability; heredity; eugenics; history


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Further Reading

Clarke A and Parsons E (1997) Culture, Kinship and Genes: Towards Cross‐Cultural Genetics. London, UK: Macmillan.

Goodey C (2011) A History of Intelligence and “Intellectual Disability”: The Shaping of Psychology in Early Modern Europe. Farnham, UK: Ashgate.

Jackson M (2000) The Borderland of Imbecility: Medicine, Society and the Fabrication of the Feeble Mind in Late Victorian and Edwardian Englan. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

Joseph J (2003) The Gene Illusion: Genetic Research in Psychiatry and Psychology under the Microscope. Monmouth, Wales: PCCS Books.

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Wright D and Digby A (1996) From Idiocy to Mental Deficiency: Historical Perspectives on People with Learning Disabilities. London, UK: Routledge.

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Goodey, CF(Feb 2015) Intelligence, Heredity and Genes: A Historical Perspective. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0006182.pub2]