If you call yourself a geek, you may have dear old dad to thank. According to a new study, older fathers have sons that are more intelligent, less worried about fitting in, and are more focused on their interests—all the positive aspects of geekdom. Intriguingly, those positive characteristics may be genetically related to autism.
To suss out the link between geekiness and paternal age, researchers examined cognitive and behavioral data gathered from 15,000 pairs of UK-based twins in the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS). When they were 12 years old, the twins took online tests to measure traits like non-verbal IQ, levels of social aloofness, and tendency to focus strongly on their interests. Their parents were asked how they're perceived by their peers and whether they have absorbing interests. Using all that information, researchers created an actual "geek index," or GI, and calculated it for every child.
Sons with older fathers had higher geek index scores overall, even after controlling for factors like their parents' socio-economic class and employment. And the effect only appeared in sons, not daughters. Those sons, not surprisingly, went on to do better in school, especially in the stereotypically geeky STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
The researchers, working at King's College London and The Seaver Autism Center at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, didn't examine why older dads had geekier sons, but they think that environmental factors could play a role. Fathers who've been around for a while are likely to be more established in their careers and able to provide better schooling and a more enriching environment than younger fathers.
The authors point out that these geek traits are particularly beneficial in a knowledge economy. But it's also not hard to see them as milder descriptions of autism characteristics: lack of verbal communication, social awkwardness, and obsessive interests.
That may not be a coincidence; it could be genetic. Previous research has shown that children of older fathers have a higher risk of autism and schizophrenia. The researchers hypothesize that genes for geekiness and autism may overlap, and that those genes are more likely to appear in older fathers, who then pass them on.
"When the child is born only with some of those genes, they may be more likely to succeed in school. However, with a higher 'dose' of these genes, and when there are other contributing risk factors, they may end up with a higher predisposition for autism," Magdalena Janecka, the study's lead author, said in a statement. "This is supported by recent research showing that genes for autism are also linked with higher IQ."
Right now, that's a hypothesis—more research will need to be done. But it does suggest fascinating links. "Our study suggests that there may be some benefits associated with having an older father," Janecka said. "We have known for a while about the negative consequences of advanced paternal age, but now we have shown that these children may also go on to have better educational and career prospects."
It might just give you one more reason to thank your dad. Which makes you wonder, why didn't this study come out in time for Father's Day?
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