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That does not mean one population is smarter than another, Lahn and other scientists stressed, noting that numerous other genes are key to brain development.
"There's just no correlation," said Duke's Wray, calling education and other environmental factors more important for intelligence than DNA anyway. The information contained in the AP News report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press.
Russell Gray and Quentin Atkinson, of the University of Auckland in New Zealand use the rate at which words change to gauge the age of the tree's roots - just as biologists estimate a species' age from the rate of gene mutations.
Rather than compare entire dictionaries, they used a list of 200 words that are found in all cultures, such as 'I', 'hunt' and 'sky'.
For the microcephalin gene, the variation arose about 37,000 years ago, about the time period when art, music and tool-making were emerging, Lahn said.
For ASPM, the variation arose about 5,800 years ago, roughly correlating with the development of written language, spread of agriculture and development of cities, he said.
Aside from not knowing what the gene variants actually do, no one knows how precise the model Lahn used to date them is, Collins added.
Lahn's own calculations acknowledge that the microcephalin variant could have arisen anywhere from 14,000 to 60,000 years ago, and that the uncertainty about the ASPM variant ranged from 500 to 14,000 years ago.
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"We, including scientists, have considered ourselves as sort of the pinnacle of evolution," noted lead researcher Bruce Lahn, a University of Chicago geneticist whose studies appear in Friday's edition of the journal Science.