Like most aspects of human behavior and cognition, intelligence is a complex trait that is influenced by both genetic and environmental factors.
Intelligence is challenging to study, in part because it can be defined and measured in different ways. Most definitions of intelligence include the ability to learn from experiences and adapt to changing environments. Elements of intelligence include the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, and understand complex ideas. Many studies rely on a measure of intelligence called the intelligence quotient (IQ).
Researchers have conducted many studies to look for genes that influence intelligence. Many of these studies have focused on similarities and differences in IQ within families, particularly looking at adopted children and twins. These studies suggest that genetic factors underlie about 50 percent of the difference in intelligence among individuals. Other studies have examined variations across the entire genomes of many people (an approach called genome-wide association studies or GWAS) to determine whether any specific areas of the genome are associated with IQ. These studies have not conclusively identified any genes that have major roles in differences in intelligence. It is likely that a large number of genes are involved, each of which makes only a small contribution to a person’s intelligence.
Intelligence is also strongly influenced by the environment. Factors related to a child’s home environment and parenting, education and availability of learning resources, and nutrition, among others, all contribute to intelligence. A person’s environment and genes influence each other, and it can be challenging to tease apart the effects of the environment from those of genetics. For example, if a child’s IQ is similar to that of his or her parents, is that similarity due to genetic factors passed down from parent to child, to shared environmental factors, or (most likely) to a combination of both? It is clear that both environmental and genetic factors play a part in determining intelligence.
Scientific journal articles for further reading
Deary IJ. Intelligence. Curr Biol. 2013 Aug 19;23(16):R673-6. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.07.021. PubMed: 23968918. Free full-text available from the publisher: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982213008440
Deary IJ, Johnson W, Houlihan LM. Genetic foundations of human intelligence. Hum Genet. 2009 Jul;126(1):215-32. doi: 10.1007/s00439-009-0655-4. Epub 2009 Mar 18. Review. PubMed: 19294424.
Plomin R, Deary IJ. Genetics and intelligence differences: five special findings. Mol Psychiatry. 2015 Feb;20(1):98-108. doi: 10.1038/mp.2014.105. Epub 2014 Sep 16. Review. PubMed: 25224258. Free full-text available from PubMed Central: PMC4270739.