CHICAGO—Last September, Bruce Lahn, a professor of human genetics at the University of Chicago, stood before a packed lecture hall and reported the results of a new DNA analysis: He had found signs of recent evolution in the brains of some people, but not of others.
It was a triumphant moment for the young scientist. He was up for tenure and his research was being featured in back-to-back articles in the country’s most prestigious science journal. Yet today, Dr. Lahn says he is moving away from the research. “It’s getting too controversial,” he says.
Dr. Lahn had touched a raw nerve in science: race and intelligence.
What Dr. Lahn told his audience was that genetic changes over the past several thousand years might be linked to brain size and intelligence. He flashed maps that showed the changes had taken hold and spread widely in Europe, Asia and the Americas, but weren’t common in sub-Saharan Africa.
Web sites and magazines promoting white “racialism” quickly seized on Dr. Lahn’s suggestive scientific snapshot. One magazine that blames black and Hispanic people for social ills hailed his discovery as “the moment the antiracists and egalitarians have dreaded.”
More recently, Dr. Lahn says he was moved when a student asked him whether some knowledge might not be worth having. It is a notion to which he has been warming. Dr. Lahn says he once tried testing himself for which version of the brain genes he has. The experiment’s outcome was blurry “but it wasn’t looking good,” he says. He hasn’t tried testing himself again.