They get it from their mama

A son and his mom in a car
Nathan Khosla and Thespine Kavoulakis headed to the airport as he travels back to Zurich, Switzerland, to pursue his Ph.D.

My son Nathan was always a smart baby, and because I had given him life, I took all the credit.

Conveniently, the Wall Street Journal agreed with me.

I was reading the newspaper one day in June, 1996, and there it was, on the front page, lower left corner: “Heredity Theory Says in Males, Intelligence Comes From Mom.”

I called my husband, who was a professor, and said, “Did you see the newspaper today? It says Nathan inherited his brains from me, not you.”

“I’m sure that’s not exactly what it says,” he responded.

“It certainly is,” I said.  “That’s exactly what the headline says.”

There it was, in black and white on the front page of the newspaper and then forever after on our refrigerator door: Nathan inherited his intelligence from his mother.

So when Nathan learned to read and write early, I was there to take credit. Nathan loved to beat everybody at Memory, including his grandparents, aunts and uncles who rather quickly learned that they did not have to let him win. Again, I was there to take the credit. And in elementary school when Nathan learned enough math to calculate odds and consistently beat adults at poker, I was there to take the credit.

Knowing my biological role in my son’s intelligence made all those years of sitting in a car for an hour waiting for the trumpet lesson to finish or conjugating verbs in Spanish ad nauseam worth it because my influence was literally born into my son and I had to help it flourish.

Mostly, though, I was an unsung hero. There is no “mom” column on kids’ report cards, you know.

Fatherhood, it seems, is the opposite.  Genetically speaking, I mean.

A man in a science mask
Nathan Khosla in his lab gear at ETH Zurich. He is working on a Ph.D. in synthetic biology, an amalgamation of chemistry, physics, nanotechnology and biology.

The journal Discover announced that children actually use more of the genes that they inherit from their father than those from their mother. In other words, the father’s genes are more up front than the mother’s. So factors like disease, personality, hair color or appearance are more likely to come from the father than the mother.

But just to be clear, intelligence in boys comes from their mothers.

My husband and I look at our three children and we can very clearly see whose hair, eye color, personality, demeanor, fingers, noses, etc. they each inherited. Most of these are clearly attributable to my husband, who is quick to point out which of his many attributes is responsible for each success the kids have.

So in the weeks between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, I texted the Wall Street Journal article  to everyone in the family, just to refresh their memories.

Nobody responded. I figured that they probably wanted lots more information, so I also dug up a 2019 article published in The Independent in the United Kingdom, citing research which confirmed that intelligence is indeed a genetic trait that comes from…mothers.

In that study, researchers examined mouse brains and identified cells that contained either only maternal or only paternal genes. These genes controlled different cognitive functions. Cells with paternal genes accumulated in the limbic system, which influences functions such as aggression. However, in the cerebral cortex, which is where advanced cognitive functions like reasoning, thought and language take place, researchers did not find any paternal cells at all; it was only the mices’ mothers’ genes.

At home we go back and forth about who got what trait from whom. I claim credit for all the intelligence in the two boys, but it’s obvious that they got their beautiful hair and skin and major parts of their personalities from their father.

Our daughter is another story.  She looks exactly like her father, but she thinks and acts like I do.

“I think genetics would be a great topic to discuss over a family dinner,” I text my husband.

“No, it’s not,” he replies.

“I’m going to call your mother,” I say.  “I think she’ll agree with me.”

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