China is engineering genius babies
March 18, 2013 3:09 PM   Subscribe

I just attended a debate in New York a few weeks ago about whether or not we should outlaw genetic engineering in babies and the audience was pretty split. In China, 95 percent of an audience would say, “Obviously you should make babies genetically healthier, happier, and brighter!
posted by Tom-B (147 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
At BGI Shenzhen, scientists have collected DNA samples from 2,000 of the world’s smartest people and are sequencing their entire genomes in an attempt to identify the alleles which determine human intelligence. Apparently they’re not far from finding them ...

How come I doubt this?
posted by Afroblanco at 3:13 PM on March 18, 2013 [20 favorites]


The only issue is that its not 100%, or that this is considered a controversial idea in the West. When I was a kid I assumed we'd eventually be ruled by genetically-engineered philosopher-kings, wiser than the rest.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 3:15 PM on March 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


God I hope so. Soon please.
posted by fshgrl at 3:16 PM on March 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


"They're not totally like Nazi Germany - just the eugenics, not the invading countries part!"

This seems like a poorly considered argument for what a great idea this is.
posted by GuyZero at 3:18 PM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


There is no genetic engineering discussed in this article.

China is proposing to allow couples to select the best option from a range of embryos generated from their own gametes (ideally selecting the 'smartest' one). The embryos will not be modified.

The framing here is highly misleading.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 3:18 PM on March 18, 2013 [16 favorites]


How can there possibly be an argument against making babies healthier? I can see the intelligence and physically superior conflict but healthier? No brainer.
posted by Justinian at 3:19 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Don't worry, USA! Their eugenics program might make their kids smarter, but lead and other pollutants the Chinese are pumping into the air will stunt their kids' intelligences and bring them back down to earth.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:20 PM on March 18, 2013 [10 favorites]


If this means we can look forward to wiser governance that actually pays attention to human rights, environmental destruction and raising the standard of living for everyone, then sign me up.
posted by arcticseal at 3:22 PM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


The only issue is that its not 100%, or that this is considered a controversial idea in the West. When I was a kid I assumed we'd eventually be ruled by genetically-engineered philosopher-kings, wiser than the rest.

The problem with "optimizing" an incredibly complex instance like a human being is determining what variables to optimize for. There's no IQ test for the "wisdom" you wish you could identify.
posted by Rory Marinich at 3:22 PM on March 18, 2013 [9 favorites]


怎么还生那么多傻屄,呢?
posted by Abiezer at 3:23 PM on March 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


Everything old is new again.

Starring Kathleen Turner and Christopher Lloyd.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 3:23 PM on March 18, 2013


I have a feeling a race of genetically-engineered rulers would probably hold a less-than-benevolent view of the normals.
posted by The Card Cheat at 3:24 PM on March 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


I dunno, man . . . I get a creepy "yellow peril" vibe from this article. Nonetheless, I'm not in a position to fact-check it.

Selecting for intelligence is going to backfire on any parent that doesn't also select for discipline and docility -- which, of course, you cannot do. Who can you complain to when your child is brilliant but ungovernable because they see through everything that's demanded of them?
posted by Countess Elena at 3:24 PM on March 18, 2013 [12 favorites]


So for how many generations will this be available only to people who can afford complex medical procedures?

All of them? I see.
posted by griphus at 3:25 PM on March 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


You can get about a 10% IQ boost just by eliminating iodine deficiency in pregnant women.

There are lots of easier ways to achieve a smarter society.
posted by srboisvert at 3:25 PM on March 18, 2013 [16 favorites]


How can there possibly be an argument against making babies healthier?

Because "healthier" is probably contextual to some degree (e.g. sickle cell disease and malaria). Traits that may seem unhealthy now could be healthy in the future.

The only issue is that its not 100%, or that this is considered a controversial idea in the West. When I was a kid I assumed we'd eventually be ruled by genetically-engineered philosopher-kings, wiser than the rest.

They'll just think their idiot ideas are better because they were engineered to be "smart."
posted by cosmic.osmo at 3:25 PM on March 18, 2013 [10 favorites]


Do you think global domination is in the cards, then?

Is there a good name for this kind of Western Countries vs. China kind of narrative? I feel the same weird vibe reading this as I do when reading the "Chinese cyber army" articles.
posted by GenericUser at 3:26 PM on March 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Yellow Peril.
posted by Justinian at 3:27 PM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Yellow Peril" as Countess Elena noted above.
posted by griphus at 3:28 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sinophobia.
posted by pompomtom at 3:29 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Generic engineering, OMG!
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 3:31 PM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Once again, Star Trek was right. "KhAAAAAAANNNN!"
posted by Roentgen at 3:33 PM on March 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


(Working in Kenya right now, which is fuuuuuullll of this weird proto-cold-war vibe where apparently the West (mostly the US) is vying with China for the soul and minerals of Africa. Yellow peril for breakfast, lunch, dinner....)
posted by kaibutsu at 3:33 PM on March 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


Once again Heinlein was right. Beyond This Horizon.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 3:36 PM on March 18, 2013


A much better article on BGI Shenzhen from MIT Tech Review.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 3:37 PM on March 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


(Working in Kenya right now, which is fuuuuuullll of this weird proto-cold-war vibe where apparently the West (mostly the US) is vying with China for the soul and minerals of Africa. Yellow peril for breakfast, lunch, dinner....)


Now this is something I'm interested in hearing about, especially given the relative speed and wealth that Chinese corporations are investing into pan-African architecture.
posted by kurosawa's pal at 3:38 PM on March 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


"How can there possibly be an argument against making babies healthier?"

The Entire Plot of the movie GATTACA
posted by NiteMayr at 3:42 PM on March 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


Who can you complain to when your child is brilliant but ungovernable because they see through everything that's demanded of them?

All children eventually become that already, don't they?

Part of healthy parenting - and correct me if I'm wrong here, I've never been a parent this is just what I've heard - is slowly phasing from a "do as I say" disciplinary approach to one based on explaining the reasons behind your demands in lockstep with the child's needs and intellectual ability to parse said reasons.

Parenting more intelligent children means moving up the rate of progression a little, but if that means getting some logic-of-the-social-contract into the little bastards before the hormonally-induced misanthropy of their teens, well... isn't that a good thing?
posted by Ryvar at 3:45 PM on March 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Funny how no one ever talks about engineering people for happiness or altruism.
posted by Wemmick at 3:47 PM on March 18, 2013 [24 favorites]


We can also select for eye color, height, sex, and skin tone, right? Who wants a genius baby that doesn't look right?

Note, I never said what was "right."

One of the things I love about science in general, and scientific ethics specifically, are the assumptions that get made on a country basis. In the US when cloning first started to be a possibility, people kept saying, "Well, we'd never clone people. That would be wrong." I kept thinking, "Why's that wrong? I'd make a better parent of me than my parents did, since I'd know the kind of shit I was capable of and what my weaknesses are." Someone's going to do it. Maybe it's a really bad idea, but until someone does it how are we to know?

I'm totally cool with being the control group to China's grand experiment. Bring on the genius babies.
posted by cjorgensen at 3:47 PM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Once again, Vonnegut was right. Slapstick.
posted by DarkForest at 3:48 PM on March 18, 2013


怎么还生那么多傻屄,呢?

Well, learned a new word today...

(Could read all of this except for "傻屄". Google Translate helped.)
posted by kmz at 3:51 PM on March 18, 2013


Funny how no one ever talks about engineering people for happiness or altruism.

Not quite no-one.
posted by pompomtom at 4:07 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


What I don't get is why don't they do more to try to alter their male/female ratio? Having an excess of guys around is a disaster - for the guys.
At BGI Shenzhen, scientists have collected DNA samples from 2,000 of the world’s smartest people and are sequencing their entire genomes in an attempt to identify the alleles which determine human intelligence. Apparently they’re not far from finding them ...
How much you want to bet all the factors they discover will be more common in Chinese people?
If this means we can look forward to wiser governance that actually pays attention to human rights, environmental destruction and raising the standard of living for everyone, then sign me up.
I doubt it. Is this service going to be made available to every couple? If it's only something that can be afforded by the rich what it's going to do is create a permanent underclass that's not only held back by lack of resources, but would be more likely to get sick and potentially having less of genetic intelligence aptitude.

If it's made equally available to everyone who wants a kid, then it might not be so bad. However, I personally worry that reducing human genetic diversity could lead to problems. Maybe some of those genes they are the ones that will make people resistant to future plagues?
Selecting for intelligence is going to backfire on any parent that doesn't also select for discipline and docility -- which, of course, you cannot do. Who can you complain to when your child is brilliant but ungovernable because they see through everything that's demanded of them?
I don't really think that's true of all smart kids. I mean, some smart kids you put them down in front of a computer and they basically sit there all day and not cause any problems. There are also huge cultural forces in play in China as well: filial piety is a big deal, for one and for another there is huge pressure in the culture at large for kids to study like crazy and do as good as possible on the national exams.

If a kids friends are all killing themselves over a test, wouldn't you expect the kid to do the same thing, even if their didn't care what their parents thought?

Kids rebel against their parents, they don't rebel against their friends.

I also think, less positively that 1) You probably could select for docility and 2) parents could just give their kids pills to calm them down.
posted by delmoi at 4:08 PM on March 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


I guess they don't have enough geniuses to know what to do with all the sequencers they bought, so they've resorted to this hare-brained scheme.
posted by benzenedream at 4:08 PM on March 18, 2013


Funny how no one ever talks about engineering people for happiness or altruism.

My guess is it's because we disagree on what is "happy" or "altruistic", whereas we think "smart" is more likely to be rendered objectively? If I tell someone I've become happier and more altruistic because I'm a Scientologist, and that we should therefore genetically select people predisposed to religious faith, I bet a lot of people would disagree.
posted by resurrexit at 4:09 PM on March 18, 2013


How can there possibly be an argument against making babies healthier?

The sticky thing is: what is health? I doubt many people would speak up for preserving, say, cystic fibrosis or Huntington's or Parkinson's. I suspect a lot of hearing people would say the same for genetic deafness, and I know a lot of deaf people would be violently offended by talk of a cure that would largely eliminate what they view as their distinct culture.

Assuming specific genetic predictors of bipolar disorder and autism are found, what about them? How about ADHD? (That'd take me out.)

How homogeneous would we end up in the name of getting healthier? (I'm not against parents opting for this genetic screening, though I am worried about potential consequences.)
posted by Zed at 4:22 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Funny how no one ever talks about engineering people for happiness or altruism.

Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu do.
posted by Human Flesh at 4:24 PM on March 18, 2013


You know, imagining futures of GATTACA implies that they succeed at the task of intelligence.

This might be true. A graph of the Flynn effect on IQ looks like a frigging EM optimization step, and that's just from schooling, environment and nutrition. But if they explicitly try artificial selection for intelligence, I highly suspect that they'll be selecting for the concomitant diseases of intelligence: depression, bipolar disorder, etc. Mental illness also follows the Flynn effect.

Often, when we judge intelligence we are Platonists when we should not be. I can justify saying that an action is intelligent, but it is harder to say that a person is intelligent a priori: you say that a person is intelligent as a way to say that you've seen them do intelligent things. Intelligence is a model of a person, and an imperfect one at that. For Einstein, that model may have had more predictive power than it did for Feynman: that is, Einstein did some more stereotypically intelligent things than Feynman. But it is not an indication of a Platonic truth in any way, shape or form.

You often hear about wisdom as something orthogonal to intelligence. I recall there is a formalism for this, if you accept the rational agent theory of intelligence (which says that intelligence is the ability to make correct decisions, with "correctness" being an arbitrary measure). There are very many statistical models which make artificially intelligent decisions which suffer if they are too smart, or too able to shape themselves after their data: if you think of them as tuning the coefficients of a curve, they fit the curve too well and reduce their predictive power. There's a nice story about it here. It is a great difficulty in statistical artificial intelligence: Andrew Ng's seminal 2011 paper on cat face recognition, for example, has about two pages devoted to the techniques they used to avoid overfitting in a biologically realistic way. So you must always doubt when you think that intelligence is an unmitigated good, because there is a rational reason to sometimes reduce your ability to make abstractions out of the world, or to make too many or too specific abstractions out of the world.

If you really want to be scared, there's a footnote at the end of the link I just gave you which says that people try to use neural networks (nowadays, a bewildering variety of models) to predict the stock market. That went out of fashion, but is now coming back to fashion and I saw quite a few stock market predictors, quite a few finance kids in my machine learning class. The quant finance degrees at MIT and Stanford and other places allow you to take machine learning and other statistical modelling classes to do it, too.

Also, a note re: sequencers, they're getting better/cheaper at a rate twice as fast as Moore's law. Quite surprising: you will see personal and then tiny little usb-sized sequencers before the decade's end, I think. People should be spending upon them as they spend on computers.
posted by curuinor at 4:24 PM on March 18, 2013 [12 favorites]


David Pearce also writes about raising our hedonic set points.
posted by Human Flesh at 4:26 PM on March 18, 2013


When I was a kid I assumed we'd eventually be ruled by genetically-engineered philosopher-kings, wiser than the rest.

When I was a kid I assumed every parent would bioengineer their offspring into Pro Bowl quarterbacks.

That's because I was a stupid kid who could not imagine that those parents' parents would have bioengineered their children to be generous and humble instead of greedy and vain.
posted by notyou at 4:26 PM on March 18, 2013


Intelligence has a huge learned component :  "So I suddenly figured how come all the rich people are having these extraordinarily gifted children? What did the poor do wrong?" (Stick around for the part about teaching kids about DNA)
posted by jeffburdges at 4:32 PM on March 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


"2,000 of the world’s smartest people"

how do I get on this list?

but seriously, from the little info that the article, it seems like they're asking established academics - whoever has a decent record and is willing to contribute/sell their material rather than strictly only going for prizewinners etc. Even if this was for prizewinners/"the best of the best" academics only, this wouldn't be a very diverse pool of material or a very encompassing definition of intelligence for that matter.
posted by Bwithh at 4:37 PM on March 18, 2013


I am full of hope that China can select for children immune to the pediatric ailment known as Mickey Rooney's Sugar Babies.
posted by zippy at 4:37 PM on March 18, 2013


In a way, my kids were genetically engineered in a rudimentary version of this. In Vitro, there were three blastocysts with 8 symmetrical cells and no cloudiness, and so those were the ones chosen to be implanted. Two made it (and presumably ganged up on the third, so there's still an element of Survival Of The Fittest to make things interesting.)
posted by davejay at 4:40 PM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


ps I think the photo of kids that Vice uses may be actually of a Chinese ethnic minority, or possibly mainstream Chinese kids dressed up as an ethnic minority. The Chinese govt is big on ethnic minority costume displays, and this might be a school trip to an ethnic minority exhibit rather than an assembly of ethnic minority kids.
posted by Bwithh at 4:40 PM on March 18, 2013


Funny how no one ever talks about engineering people for happiness or altruism.

Aldous Huxely - Brave New World.
posted by srboisvert at 4:42 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Vice.com? Really?
posted by zscore at 4:52 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Aldous Huxely - Brave New World.

People are happy in BNW not because of their engineering, but because they're all drugged up to the gills and socialized to accept that that's normal.

Having said that, I'm sure all current Chinese citizens are glad they're betas.
posted by GuyZero at 5:05 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


But there's no guarantee that they'll end up with Beethoven or Mozart or Monet or any other artists with various health problems. Higher IQs, more educational opportunities and all the rest can mean there's a whole bunch of really smart, boring people all sitting around.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:07 PM on March 18, 2013


If I understand this right (and I probably don't) the Chinese are taking the same approach to genetics that Google is taking with voice recognition: collect a lot of data and use statistics to find what you're looking for. I really doubt that kind of approach can zero in on the genes responsible for intelligence. They might find lots of genes that thousands of "smart" people have in common, but those genes could do lots of different things. Genetic code isn't like computer code - it's multi-purpose and labyrinthine, more like a gnarled old tree than anything humans would make.
posted by Kevin Street at 5:07 PM on March 18, 2013


Gattaca, Brave New World–those aren't very good arguments. They're Caveman Science Fiction.

You could use the precautionary principle to argue against all experiments. Do I dare disturb the universe? Yes, you do if you want to improve your situation. You risk unintended consequences whenever you try something new. Are we really going to let hokey science fiction stories stop us from curing congenital illnesses? Will navel gazing discussions about what traits qualify as illnesses convince anyone that we should go on using the same slapdash method of genetic engineering (sexual reproduction) that every other animal uses? I hope that in the future we won't have to only rely on sexual and natural selection.

Try not to be blinded by the just world fallacy. This isn't a sitcom or the best of all possible worlds. The history of medical science shows us that it's possible to intervene without it biting you in the ass later. As James Watson said, 'if we don't play god, who will?'
posted by Human Flesh at 5:16 PM on March 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


> Generic engineering, OMG!

Genetic Engineering, OMD.
posted by Nomyte at 5:17 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


There is a context of the family planning policy long advocating "少生优生", which is often glossed as "fewer but healthier children" but we can find texts on official sites such as this, which smack heavily of an early 20th century eugenics mindset:
优生,是指生育身心健康的婴儿,促进人类在体力和脑力上优秀个体的繁衍。简单地说,也就是生一个健康、聪明、活泼的孩子。这是家庭的希望,也是提高国家和民族人口素质的重要措施。人口素质的高低,是由先天遗传和后天的培养教育所决定,解决先天遗传因素和幼儿身心健康的影响,就必须提倡优生。
"By 'better birth' we mean giving birth to physically and mentally healthy children, and so advancing the proliferation of humans who are individually of exceptional physical and mental quality. In simple terms this means having a child who is healthy, bright and lively. This is the hope of any family and also an important policy for improving the quality of the population of our nation and people. The higher or lower quality of a population is determined by both inborn inheritance and later fostering and education; if we are to correctly resolve the influence of inherited qualities on the physical and mental health of infants we are obliged to advocate a policy of 'better birth'.
Among the sorts of people who should think twice before marrying (which is merely an instrument for the production of a family under the state here) are:
双方严重的智力低下患者,不宜结婚。
Where both parties suffer from severely low intelligence, it is not appropriate that they marry.
[My translations]
posted by Abiezer at 5:34 PM on March 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


As James Watson said, 'if we don't play god, who will?'

James Watson has said a number of extraordinarily stupid things about women and race despite being intelligent, which shows you something about what we classify as intelligence, and also demonstrates why this stuff isn't necessarily a good idea, because these interventions serve our values. There reasons why we have traditionally not extended the right to perform these interventions to the state is that virtually every such attempt has produced crimes against humanity linked to these biases.

Now the hilarious thing is that pro-neo-eugenics types will anticipate Nazis and immediately groan, even though the Nazis were not fictional Medal of Honor villains but an actual historical group that many smart people happily joined. But even when we ignore that very relevant examples *which we are enjoined by history to never fucking forget,* we can see that similar programs in other countries (including the US) have always been devoted not to any objective basis for intelligence (in no small part because g research is itself tainted by a disgusting history and current, vile researchers) but to eradicate and abuse marginalized members of society. The social experiment happened; the eugenicists lost. Promoting it as a social good is proven crankery.

Anyway, poo-poohing the precautionary principle when it applies to experimenting on humans in circumstances where animal models will probably not be useful is so silly, one doesn't know where to begin.
posted by mobunited at 5:50 PM on March 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


I think there's a little of the fundamental attribution error to this, too. That is, scientific discovery and great artistic creation are not sprung full-formed from people's heads like Athena out of Zeus. The best track record of creating epic innovation is to create places and organizations: Silicon Valley, the Skunk Works, Bell Labs, Xerox PARC, the Manhattan Project. DARPA, the IAS unless you think that it stifles innovation like Feynman.

Now, I just listed a bunch of American things. I'm not sure where the Chinese equivalents are. Is MIT currently better at the make-a-nice-place-with-smart-people thing than Tsinghua is right now? Yes. Quite a bit better. For now. If I were dictator, I would do that, instead, since this sort of ontology and eugenics is a distraction.
posted by curuinor at 6:12 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Nazis were really bad at eugenics. They persecuted some of their best and brightest Germans.

The eugenicists didn't lose. Any time you choose a mate in an non-random manner, you are practicing eugenics.
posted by Human Flesh at 6:14 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Have you heard of Dor Yeshorim?
posted by Human Flesh at 6:19 PM on March 18, 2013


Beggars in Spain for real.
posted by fuse theorem at 6:20 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


And it's intellectually dishonest to conflate liberal (positive) eugenics with coercive eugenics.
posted by Human Flesh at 6:31 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Gattaca, Brave New World–those aren't very good arguments. They're Caveman Science Fiction.

Exactly! I keep seeing movies trotted out as reasons not to do things when movies construct their narratives so that advancing technology is a bad idea. If these ideas (Yellow Peril narrative aside) have even a chance of success they should be tried.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 6:33 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, because our current millennia long genetic engineering programs are working great.
posted by MikeKD at 6:55 PM on March 18, 2013


If we wanted to, we could all wear the same colours and listen to the same music–but we don't. Why would we choose to all have the same babies? Monocultures are easy to avoid. Genetic diversity can be engineered more easily than genetic uniformity.
posted by Human Flesh at 6:55 PM on March 18, 2013


MikeKD, are you arguing that wild species are always better than selectively bred species? You should tell farmers that they're wasting their time.
posted by Human Flesh at 7:03 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, because our current millennia long genetic engineering programs are working great.

You mean like wheat and rice? That feed billions? That sort of thing?
posted by pompomtom at 7:07 PM on March 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


The eugenicists didn't lose. Any time you choose a mate in an non-random manner, you are practicing eugenics.

No, you are practicing assortative (or disassortative) mating. Eugenics involves controlling or influencing other people's reproductive decisions.
posted by en forme de poire at 7:09 PM on March 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


If you're going to define eugenics that way, then the eugenics arguments don't apply to reproductive technologies that parents choose to use voluntarily.
posted by Human Flesh at 7:13 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Anyway, poo-poohing the precautionary principle when it applies to experimenting on humans in circumstances where animal models will probably not be useful is so silly, one doesn't know where to begin.

Mixing sperm and ova the way Mom and Dad did is a kind of human breeding experiment. Genetic technologies just allow us to take off the blindfold so we won't have to always rely on the shot-in-the-dark method of reproduction.
posted by Human Flesh at 7:22 PM on March 18, 2013


Depends on what specific technologies become available and how freely they're really chosen, for one. Screening for a lethal Mendelian disease like Tay-Sachs - where there's no disagreement that the child's life will be painful and short - is a very different scenario than what's described in the article, which is selecting for embryos that bear alleles found to be associated with IQ in some kind of GWAS study.
posted by en forme de poire at 7:28 PM on March 18, 2013


End result : Dr. Edward Bunnigus
posted by mfu at 7:34 PM on March 18, 2013


This might be true. A graph of the Flynn effect on IQ looks like a frigging EM optimization step, and that's just from schooling, environment and nutrition. But if they explicitly try artificial selection for intelligence, I highly suspect that they'll be selecting for the concomitant diseases of intelligence: depression, bipolar disorder, etc. Mental illness also follows the Flynn effect.


I think extensive genetic engineering in the human population will essentially make us completely unable to survive in a natural environment -- we'll depend on lifetime medical care and prescription medicines to survive. Which would kind of be ironic, since it's probably the opposite of what they were intending.
posted by empath at 7:35 PM on March 18, 2013


Actually some interesting back and forth about this story on Twitter right now...
posted by en forme de poire at 7:46 PM on March 18, 2013


Maybe reproductive technologies wind people up because people are afraid of competition, and they're afraid of being morally culpable for their children's genotypes.

I don't blame them. Can you imagine playing genetic roulette in the designer baby era? What are you going to tell your son when he says: 'Mommy, why did you give me leukaemia?'

Having children the old-fashioned way will probably be considered negligent eventually. That's a hard pill for parents to swallow, but I think future generations will thank us for putting some thought into their constitution.
posted by Human Flesh at 7:47 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Mostly I'm worried about this news since it comes from China, and I say this as a ethnic Chinese person (abet a second generation one). I really feel that Chinese values have distorted from their roots of hard work, persistence, honesty and integrity; instead, the new norm seems to be to game the system at every angle to get ahead in the rat race. I view the increasing availability of genetic technology to be an even further extension of that. It's problematic because it's yet another layer on top of all of the ridiculous lengths parents are expected to go to give their children an advantage in life, a race that even now, only the richest and most well connected parents can afford to keep up with. And that translates into even more stressful expectations on the kids to do unreasonably well, and to repay the parents for their "investment". Very unhealthy dynamics and cycles at work here.

Talking about the concept in a more general level... It's nice, but realistically, what's the purpose of selecting for just brute intelligence when there's very few avenues in which intelligence really makes a difference compared to other more fuzzy values (creativity, perseverance, etc.), and when there's very few sound strategies in our global education system for fostering intelligence? I mean - if we were to speak of humans as computers, it'd be as if we were upgrading the hardware when the software itself is very poorly written and doesn't demand much of the hardware anyway. I think people just glorify the idea because of the cult of worship around genetic technology, and the demand for easy answers on intelligence.
posted by Conspire at 7:58 PM on March 18, 2013 [9 favorites]


In 2045, a child will be born with the most exactly correct suite of genetic variants necessary for intelligence. It was sequenced and selected out of hundred of potential embryos for these precise qualities. It took two generations of selective implantation and breeding to finally bring together the ultimate supergroup in the human genetic repertoire.
It will grow up a dullard, because its parent believed that all their work was already done.
Or because of complex polygenic epistasis.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 8:04 PM on March 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


P.S., Here's your daily dose of irony, from the major progenitor of BGI's IQ-genomics project.
posted by en forme de poire at 8:19 PM on March 18, 2013


empath: How many of us today, right now, are able to survive in a natural environment, hunt and gather for our food, search for our water?
posted by curuinor at 8:24 PM on March 18, 2013


empath: How many of us today, right now, are able to survive in a natural environment, hunt and gather for our food, search for our water?

That's more of a knowledge thing than a physiological thing, though, i think. If you got adopted by a tribe in the amazon, I'm sure that you could adapt fairly quickly.
posted by empath at 8:37 PM on March 18, 2013


AutoTuned humans. Perfectly shallow. Supremely bland. All the right notes, and no soul.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:52 PM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


The soul doesn't exist, though, and if we're ever going to progress as a species toward longer lifespans and spreading throughout the galaxy we'll need to think on a species level, not an individual level.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 9:00 PM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


The framing here is highly misleading.

Par for the course when Western media outlets report on Asia.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:03 PM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


From the article:

I don’t think they have any imperial ambitions to spread China’s borders—they’re not going to act like Nazi Germany or America in the 20th century

Ummm, I don't know how to put this delicately, but US is currently the third largest country in the world by area only if you don't add all the land claimed by China (but not ruled by them) If you add it all, China becomes #3; that's about 400,000 sq km of land, about the size of Paraguay, and about 100,000 sq km of water claimed by China but not actually ruled by them. If it were up to them, they'd be our neighbours here in South East Asia, because some (hydrocarbon-rich, but you knew that already) shoals in the middle of nowhere have been mentioned in 3rd century Han dynasty maps. At least the Americans tend to obfuscate matters by talking up human rights and liberal democracies; the Chinese seem to be driven primarily by history.

The ascent of the China could be interesting for a variety of reasons - multi-polar world, cheap labour and all that - but let's not pretend it will be benign.
posted by the cydonian at 9:07 PM on March 18, 2013


The ascent of the China could be interesting for a variety of reasons - multi-polar world, cheap labour and all that - but let's not pretend it will be benign.

It's the re-ascent of China. They've been an empire for a very long time - this is like if Rome was still a major player.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 9:09 PM on March 18, 2013


Considering that IVF (the procedure one would have to use to select the genetically "best" embryo of many) has been linked to an increased risk of birth defects, autism, and irregular epigenetic markers that could signal a higher risk for certain types of disease in adulthood, encouraging all parents, regardless of whether they actually require IVF to conceive, to use it in an attempt to create some sort of superior human race may backfire.

IVF can also cause health problems in the mother (some women have reactions to the drugs they need to take during the process), and of course in the way it is usually practiced, IVF creates a higher risk of multiple pregnancies, which are far riskier than singleton pregnancies.

(Note: I am not opposed to IVF or to fertility treatments in general; people I care about have used these treatments, I think on the whole they are a good thing. But it would not be a good thing, statistically speaking, for an entire population to start using IVF as the standard method of conception.)
posted by BlueJae at 10:00 PM on March 18, 2013


Gattaca, Brave New World–those aren't very good arguments. They're Caveman Science Fiction.

Exactly! I keep seeing movies trotted out as reasons not to do things when movies construct their narratives so that advancing technology is a bad idea.
Exactly! Why worry about consequences in the future when we can have cool stuff now!? In the long run, we'll be dead and it will be someone else's problem!
empath: How many of us today, right now, are able to survive in a natural environment, hunt and gather for our food, search for our water?
It depends on location. Some places have lots of food and water, some have little. I'm sure if you put people in the artic, they'd die. On the other hand if you put them somewhere with a warm climate and abundant edible plants they'd probably be OK. People can take wilderness survival classes and it's not a skill that takes a long time to learn, compared to, say, calculus.
posted by delmoi at 11:09 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


extensive genetic engineering in the human population will essentially make us completely unable to survive in a natural environment

Agriculture made us unable to survive in our natural environment; that's already a fait accompli. Oh sure, a few of us could go off and live in the Amazon, hunting and gathering, with the few remaining people who actually still do that and have done it continuously. But not very many people could; the ecosystem of the Amazon wouldn't support it, for starters. And neither would the other places where you can live similarly.

For the majority of the human population, either civilization keeps ticking along or we die. Probably horribly.

Needing to take some sort of pill every day to keep your crazy engineered metabolism from flipping out really isn't that big a deal once you've accepted that the same underlying civilization-level infrastructure also allows you to not starve to death. Once you've gotten over that hurdle it's just a matter of degrees: I'd hate to be dependent on a pill manufactured by one company, in one factory, that had to be kept refrigerated ... that would be bad. But if it was as common as, say, coffee? Or ibuprofen? Get a Costco-size jar and put it with the emergency supplies, move on with life. If society ever broke down to the point where that's not enough, I'd just be one more nameless casualty in the apocalypse.

Considering that IVF (the procedure one would have to use to select the genetically "best" embryo of many)

Well, they're not talking about doing it right now, but you could in theory do the same thing with selective termination, no? IVF+PGD+selective implantation is the delicate, basically inoffensive way to do things. But instead of doing IVF and PGD across several embryos, assuming you knew exactly the genetic markers to look for (which is a huge, question-begging assumption), you could start a pregnancy the traditional way, wait 9 weeks and do NIPD, and then terminate it if it didn't make the grade. Rinse, repeat as desired. There's a certain disadvantage since you are not doing multiple embryos simultaneously and picking the best of x, but rather doing a deal-or-no-deal approach serially, but that disadvantage might be outweighed by not having to do IVF.

Of course, some people might have a slight ethical issue with encouraging that ... I'm not saying that anyone should do that, just that (hypothetically, if you really knew what genetic markers for "intelligence", or some other desirable trait, were), you could.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:22 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


We can also inspect prospective mates' DNA directly instead of using the clumsy proxies that our ancestors used (character, beauty, etc.). Imagine Dor Yeshorim x 1000!
posted by Human Flesh at 12:29 AM on March 19, 2013


if you really knew what genetic markers for "intelligence", or some other desirable trait, were, you could.

Of course you could.

Who suffers a moral dilemma over having a mole removed? Isn't terminating a pregnancy the moral equivalent of that? It's not like we talking about a human being here. It's an embyo, a lifeless clump of cells, not a person. Right?

Why wouldn't you rinse out a lifeless clump of cells for any reason whatsoever, including cystic fibrosis, Down's syndrome, low IQ, deafness, blindness, wrong eye-color, homosexuality, left-handedness, a fondness for country music? Society doesn't have the right to dicate to a woman what she does with her body.

I always find these discussions fascinating and odd. I don't get how one can say it is a woman's choice and then pass moral judgement on that choice.

Give pregnant women all the information available, let her choose, and STFU about it.
posted by three blind mice at 2:05 AM on March 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


The Chinese are twice as clever as us already. Just look at their wheelbarrows.
posted by Segundus at 2:07 AM on March 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


The only valid reason for terminating a pregnancy would be if said pregnancy is a personal inconvenience. Any other reason means you're a Nazi. See, having a preference for trait x over trait y might make people with trait y feel bad, so it's impolite to talk about having preferences. Also, people who prefer trait x are probably just itching to send people with trait y off to death camps. This is why me must insure that our children's genetic health is only determined by dumb luck.
posted by Human Flesh at 2:37 AM on March 19, 2013


...ensure even.
posted by Human Flesh at 2:46 AM on March 19, 2013


Of course, casually conflating preventing conditions which would cause obvious hardship and intelligence "enhancement" is a dumb category mistake, I specifically mentioned not just Nazis but every country that ever tried it -- every SIINGLE ONE -- and characterizing all mate decisions as eugenics is creepy and superstitious scientism.

Hey, but go on defending something that has been a stupid evil mistake 100% of the times its been applied as social policy because SCIENCE TOTEM.
posted by mobunited at 3:24 AM on March 19, 2013


You mean like wheat and rice? That feed billions? That sort of thing?

No, I mean our tendency to be short-sighted. Purebred dogs and their health problems, or using cloned bananas which then get decimated due to monoculture.
posted by MikeKD at 3:25 AM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I specifically mentioned not just Nazis but every country that ever tried it -- every SIINGLE ONE

Tried what? Are you conflating positive selection with coercion?
posted by Human Flesh at 3:49 AM on March 19, 2013


MikeKD, are you claiming that inbreeding depression and monoculture are unavoidable consequences of all attempts at intelligent breeding?
posted by Human Flesh at 4:20 AM on March 19, 2013


I love events that make me reflect on Idiocracy for a while...

I know how to defeat this, just make sure that these kids are GMO labelled, a condition I also want with my food - that'll hang it up forever.

We are re-engineering our bodies all the time, and usually the best of these processes are mainly open only to the 'haves' in society. So I'm fully on the 'this sucks' side of things. But it is also inevitable.

Stop this ride, I wanna get off, etc....
posted by drowsy at 6:13 AM on March 19, 2013


I also think, less positively that ... 2) parents could just give their kids pills to calm them down.

Monsantovartis would just love to have a captive customer base of Ritalin-up Ready (TM) GMO Kidz.
posted by xigxag at 6:23 AM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Give pregnant women all the information available, let her choose, and STFU about it.

You do realize this is already happening. Selective abortion is causing noticeable gender disparity in India and China.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:52 AM on March 19, 2013


Cousin marriage laws are eugenic policies that are supported in a good chunk of the world. Yeah, eugenics is a bad word, but that doesn't mean that Harrison Bergeron policies have won.
posted by Human Flesh at 7:59 AM on March 19, 2013


Tried what? Are you conflating positive selection with coercion?
Except, the ability to perform well on one test, given once in your life has an enormous impact on people's futures in China. If the technology exists to max out your kids IQ potential before birth, then there are going to be negative societal pressures for parents to do that.

I don't have a problem with eliminating specific known harmful mutations - that's probably a good idea. But there are probably thousands of genes each with a minute effect - and a lot of them probably have other effects on the brain that are more subtle. What if, by doing this, you remove genes that really just more resources from one type of locus to another? You could end up reducing artistic ability, coordination, physical abilities, empathy, drive, all kinds of things - maybe you find a gene that's correlated with intelligence not because it makes your brain work better because it makes you more interested in school and study instead of having fun?

Twisting all these knobs in order to boost a kid's test scores seems like it could have a lot of effects on other aspects of the brain - you could end up creating a personality monoculture.
posted by delmoi at 8:01 AM on March 19, 2013


What if, by doing this, you remove genes that really just more resources from one type of locus to another?

Engineering involves the art of compromise. Fine tuning cognition is probably a long way off. I wouldn't be surprised, however, if reducing the mutation load made people healthier and more clever than they would otherwise be.
posted by Human Flesh at 8:26 AM on March 19, 2013


you could end up creating a personality monoculture.

This sounds like someone who lived before the industrial revolution predicting that machine-made clothing would mean that we would all wear the same clothes, eat the same food, and listen to the same music. Is creating a monoculture the only alternative to playing the genetic lottery (traditional breeding)? Isn't there another way? It's not hard to engineer diversity. Why is blind chance better than controlled noise?
posted by Human Flesh at 8:40 AM on March 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


[Folks, thread needs to not become one person taking on all comers. Feel free to MeMail people you'd like to have a personal conversation with.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:09 AM on March 19, 2013


Wisdom describes a character’s willpower, common sense, perception, and intuition. While Intelligence represents one’s ability to analyze information, Wisdom represents being in tune with and aware of one’s surroundings.
posted by ersatz at 9:18 AM on March 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


The "selecting for intelligence" discussion reminds me of Eugenics Doesn't Work, Ask Why, Asshole
posted by GenericUser at 9:22 AM on March 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


For the majority of the human population, either civilization keeps ticking along or we die. Probably horribly.

Needing to take some sort of pill every day to keep your crazy engineered metabolism from flipping out really isn't that big a deal once you've accepted that the same underlying civilization-level infrastructure also allows you to not starve to death.


It is a big deal, if your advanced technological situation encounters a speed bump, and stops being so advanced and so technological for a few centuries. Sure, a lot of people would die, but some would survive. Unless you're all dependent on that advanced technology for basic metabolism or reproduction, in which case you're extinct.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 9:31 AM on March 19, 2013


This sounds like someone who lived before the industrial revolution predicting that machine-made clothing would mean that we would all wear the same clothes, eat the same food, and listen to the same music.
They'd have been broadly right - the spread of e.g. "Western"-style jeans-and-t-shirt, fast food and other aspects of "modern" bodily practise have indeed replaced diverse local traditions in costume and diet etc. in many places - though it was the social dynamic that the technology was embedded in and emerged out of more than the machines per se.
posted by Abiezer at 9:39 AM on March 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


I wouldn't be surprised, however, if reducing the mutation load made people healthier and more clever than they would otherwise be.

This is completely circular since mutational load is defined with respect to fitness, which is of course only defined under a particular environment. You are basically saying that "if we engineered people to be more successful in our society, they would be more successful."

Also, throughout this conversation you have completely elided the distinction between, e.g., screening for Tay-Sachs and screening in favor of some hypothetical intelligence-linked alleles. I want to be clear that these cases are scientifically and (I think) morally different. Tay-Sachs is a disease with known, simple Mendelian inheritance while intelligence is a complex and likely extremely polygenic trait, and complex trait genetics in a natural population is exponentially harder than Mendelian genetics. (Most single mutations previously thought to be associated with higher intelligence have failed to replicate.) The downstream effects of selection are also totally different between these two situations: selecting against Tay-Sachs as currently practiced is very unlikely to change allele frequencies because individuals with these mutations basically never live long enough to have children of their own anyway. In contrast, what this article is talking about is basically bringing certain alleles to fixation, at least under the specific subpopulation that can afford this type of manipulation.

Moreover, Tay-Sachs is a painful neurodegenerative disease that is nearly uniformly lethal by the age of 4: by screening for Tay-Sachs, you are essentially saving small children and their parents from unavoidable suffering, not to mention the cost of supportive care. Even if you stretch and say that intelligence improves the quality of one's life, itself debatable, there is still an enormous quantitative difference between selecting against obvious and painful genetic diseases, and selecting in favor of a trait that only modestly correlates with life outcomes within a specific societal context (and may not correlate with e.g., happiness of the individual in question).

(And by the way, the increase in risk of birth defects from cousin marriage appears to be similar to the risk borne by a 41-year-old mother vs. a 30-year-old. So maybe that's not such a great example of our society being rational and consistent about genetics.)

I am not intrinsically opposed to genetic engineering in people, certainly not out of some kind of naturalistic fallacy - I wear glasses and take Advil and will gladly eat GM food, for example. However I think whether a given type of change is ethical or desirable depends very strongly on the details of what exactly we're talking about and how it's implemented. Being in favor of modern medicine doesn't mean that you are then necessarily in favor of Vioxx. Similarly, treating all possible genetic changes as necessarily equivalent just obscures the issue.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:16 AM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


This sounds like someone who lived before the industrial revolution predicting that machine-made clothing would mean that we would all wear the same clothes, eat the same food, and listen to the same music. Is creating a monoculture the only alternative to playing the genetic lottery (traditional breeding)? Isn't there another way? It's not hard to engineer diversity. Why is blind chance better than controlled noise?
Well, at first we're only going to have data on one or two factors and blindly going in and changing gene frequency without knowing exactly how each one affects cognition is likely going to be what happens.

You're making the assumption that people are going to do this in a responsible, thoughtful matter in order to minimize the possibility of fucking it up and doing something stupid. I don't see much evidence that people actually approach new technology in that way. The company doing this work has already found hundreds of genes correlated with height, and it seems pretty reasonable to assume they'll eventually start finding genes correlated with intelligence (as of now no one has ever found a single one with a high degree of certainty)

The problem is, once we find those genes, are they going to thoroughly figure out specifically what the effect on cognition of each of the hundreds or thousands of genes they're likely to discover do, or are they just going to blindly try to boost them?

Seems much more likely they'll just blindly try to boost them. Watch Hsu's lecture. They're blindly scanning genomes looking for any correlations they can find, and they've found 700 or so linked to height (and zero so far linked to intelligence, which obviously more difficult to measure).

And there will be zero incentive for parents not to try to maximize their kids brains. Even if everyone agreed

And of course, their selections will be heritable, so changes they make are going to persist indefinitely.

If you want an example of people using technology recklessly, amplified by individual actions instead of overall benefit, even to the point of causing serious economic damage, just look at global warming.
It is a big deal, if your advanced technological situation encounters a speed bump, and stops being so advanced and so technological for a few centuries. Sure, a lot of people would die, but some would survive. Unless you're all dependent on that advanced technology for basic metabolism or reproduction, in which case you're extinct.
Right. If agriculture stops tomorrow, and 99% of us die, the 70 million people left over will still be able to survive and rebuild.
posted by delmoi at 12:06 PM on March 19, 2013


"You are basically saying that "if we engineered people to be more successful in our society, they would be more successful."

That's one way of interpreting what I wrote. Did you read the comment to which I was responding? Don't you think there's a difference between filtering deleterious mutations and optimizing for a particular trait?
posted by Human Flesh at 1:12 PM on March 19, 2013


If the Chinese could reduce the number of de novo mutations in each generation, they would improve the health of their children, and make us look like the reckless genetic experimenters with our prolific mutation production.
posted by Human Flesh at 1:37 PM on March 19, 2013


Yeah, I find people expressing horror at what women might choose to do with their bodies while still claiming that they support a woman's right to choose pretty freaking twee.

How is preventing this any different than allowing doctors to, say, lie to mothers about their fetus having Downs syndrome because they might abort it?

Individual people with disabilities' "right" to have other people around them with disabilities does not trump parents' desire not to have kids with said disabilities.
posted by corb at 5:42 PM on March 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


I read the comment you were responding to, HF (although I think the specific sentence you quoted was autocorrected beyond my ability to interpret it). I think the point delmoi was making is that genes that are statistically associated with general intelligence may also influence other types of behavior. You responded that lowering the mutational load would probably make people healthier and more clever. My point is that assuming that being healthy and clever is at all under selection, this is really not saying very much: lowering mutational load has to increase the mean fitness of the population because that is just how that term is defined (unless you are talking about lowering the maximum fitness level, which I'm guessing you aren't).
posted by en forme de poire at 6:46 PM on March 19, 2013


There is plenty of evidence that pollution, environmental stressors and early childhood interactions have a big impact on adult IQ. If China wants to raise its populations IQ, it will need more than just DNA. I could probably gain 5-15 points of average IQ, just by increasing air quality.
posted by humanfont at 7:36 PM on March 19, 2013


make us look like the reckless genetic experimenters with our prolific mutation production.
Beginning to think you're just delusional.
Yeah, I find people expressing horror at what women might choose to do with their bodies while still claiming that they support a woman's right to choose pretty freaking twee.

Individual people with disabilities' "right" to have other people around them with disabilities does not trump parents' desire not to have kids with said disabilities.
There are two separate issues: filtering out embryos that carry known genetic diseases, and fucking around with genes that might be slightly correlated with intelligence in some unknown way. Can you point to anyone in this thread who doesn't think it's OK to screen for known diseases?

If we really cared about allowing women to do whatever they want with their bodies drugs, euthanasia and incest would be legal.
posted by delmoi at 8:41 PM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Beginning to think you're just delusional.

Why? Because you don't believe de novo mutations happen in each generation?
posted by Human Flesh at 4:02 AM on March 20, 2013


So maybe that's not such a great example of our society being rational and consistent about genetics.

I never said that your society is rational. I was just giving Mobunited an example of a eugenic policy that's still accepted.
posted by Human Flesh at 4:25 AM on March 20, 2013


Also, throughout this conversation you have completely elided the distinction between, e.g., screening for Tay-Sachs and screening in favor of some hypothetical intelligence-linked alleles. I want to be clear that these cases are scientifically and (I think) morally different.


There doesn't seem to be a clear moral or practical line between selecting for a positive trait and selecting against a disease.

Imagine someone has to choose between three options:

Option 1 would give her child the mutation that causes Tay-Sachs.
Option 2 would give her child genes associated with trait X and no Tay-Sachs genes.
Option 3 would give her child genes associated with trait Y and no Tay-Sachs genes.

Would you force parents to randomly choose between option 2 and option 3 even if they prefer option 2? Would you force them to only select for traits close to median values (e.g. median height, median life span) lest they create super-babies?
posted by Human Flesh at 9:24 AM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Well, as I've mentioned before there are certainly different genetic consequences to selecting against a disease that is lethal before reproductive age and selecting for a trait that we've somewhat arbitrarily decided is positive.

You'll also notice that I said that whether an outcome is ethical or desirable depends on the specific situation. In the example you've constructed, the good from preventing Tay-Sachs clearly overwhelms other considerations. This doesn't mean that your example generalizes to the case where there is no risk of serious genetic disease, nor does it prove that if you allow selection against Tay-Sachs that you must then be in favor of selection for or against anything. (There's also a distinction between potentially unethical actions and actions that should be illegal, which you're not making here.)
posted by en forme de poire at 11:23 AM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think choosing option 2 should be ethical and legal. What do you think?
posted by Human Flesh at 12:55 PM on March 20, 2013


Why? Because you don't believe de novo mutations happen in each generation?
Nope, that isn't the reason I think that statement is indicative of delusion. You seem to have a weak grasp on 'normal' common-sense morality
I think choosing option 2 should be ethical and legal. What do you think?
I don't think it's a good idea on a wide scale, and if things are bad ideas on a wide scale the maybe should be limited by law. Burning fossil fuels is not intrinsically immoral, but on a wide scale it's causing a lot of damage.

The other ethical consideration is that parents would essentially be running experiments on their children. They are not taking about one or two genes, but hundreds or even thousands. We don't know if those genes might interact negatively, we don't know if they could drastically increase autism risk when combined (as autism is linked to parental intelligence) - we don't know shit.

And, if there are thousands of genes it might not even be possible to get a statistically valid sample of all the potential combinations and interactions even with a sample size of six billion. The only way we will find out is by trying it, and potentially fucking up a generation of test subjects.
posted by delmoi at 3:00 PM on March 20, 2013


In the example you've constructed, the good from preventing Tay-Sachs clearly overwhelms other considerations. This doesn't mean that your example generalizes to the case where there is no risk of serious genetic disease, nor does it prove that if you allow selection against Tay-Sachs that you must then be in favor of selection for or against anything.

All children are at risk of expressing genes that increase the risk of suffering from illnesses. Once you take the blindfold off to look for illness causing genes, how are you going to abstain from looking at desirable genes?
posted by Human Flesh at 3:21 PM on March 20, 2013


The other ethical consideration is that parents would essentially be running experiments on their children. They are not taking about one or two genes, but hundreds or even thousands. We don't know if those genes might interact negatively, we don't know if they could drastically increase autism risk when combined (as autism is linked to parental intelligence) - we don't know shit.

Those risks are present when parents mix their DNA the conventional way through sexual reproduction. This often results in fatal birth defects and mutations that are passed down to multiple generations.

Why is it acceptable to select mates based on their phenotype (and genotype) but not acceptable to select zygotes and gametes?
posted by Human Flesh at 3:31 PM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


All children are at risk of expressing genes that increase the risk of suffering from illnesses.

I think this draws an unhelpful equivalence between an allele that yields a ~100% risk of an extremely well-characterized illness that will almost certainly take a child's life before their fifth birthday, and an allele that might be, say, statistically associated with a 1% increased risk of diabetes in a couple of genome-wide association studies. There are major differences in effect size, penetrance, reproducibility, and most importantly, the type of genetic disease (Mendelian vs. highly polygenic) - to say we understand polygenic traits much less than Mendelian ones would be the understatement of the year.

With respect to how you refrain from taking off the blindfold, my understanding is that genetic tests are administered by a physician and must be individually validated and approved. Medicine is a highly regulated industry. It's not like individuals are going to be taking embryonic sequences and selecting the one they like best based on their own private criteria, at least not without major changes to the way we do medicine.
posted by en forme de poire at 8:16 PM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


So you don't think parents should be allowed to filter genes associated with diabetes? Who benefits from that?
posted by Human Flesh at 9:39 PM on March 20, 2013


So you don't think parents should be allowed to filter genes associated with diabetes? Who benefits from that?

Did you ever wonder why some supposedly deleterious genes are so common? It's because fitness is only determined by the genotype in combination with the environment.

Many pro-diabetes genes have been selected for by millenia of feast and famine conditions. It's only in the current context of idleness and infinite food sources that these genes are deleterious.
posted by benzenedream at 9:45 PM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Many pro-diabetes genes have been selected for by millenia of feast and famine conditions. It's only in the current context of idleness and infinite food sources that these genes are deleterious.

So you're saying that we shouldn't try to cure diabetes because there's a slight chance that it could be helpful in times of scarcity?
posted by Human Flesh at 9:53 PM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Why is it acceptable to select mates based on their phenotype (and genotype) but not acceptable to select zygotes and gametes?

Heck, why it socially and morally acceptable to create a mortal being that will die, conscious of its mortality? If reproduction is ever morally acceptable it is in the cause of engineering humans that stretch the bonds of mortality.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 9:55 PM on March 20, 2013


Did you ever wonder why some supposedly deleterious genes are so common?

There are many de novo mutations created each generation.
posted by Human Flesh at 10:02 PM on March 20, 2013


So you're saying that we shouldn't try to cure diabetes because there's a slight chance that it could be helpful in times of scarcity?

No.

You asked: Who benefits from that [genes associated with diabetes]?

Our ancestors benefited, otherwise the mutations would be at ~1/40,000 frequency, like other de novo mutations. As Jared Diamond put it in his essay, The Double Puzzle of Diabetes (pdf) "The actual incidence of type 2 diabetes is up to 50,000 times higher [than de novo]."

The point is, many of these traits we could engineer (muscle growth, supposed metrics of intelligence, various subjective emotional dispositions) may have been tried in evolution and discarded for reasons that are non-obvious, or take a really long time to manifest their long-term disadvantages (1000s of years, interacting population effects).

This is why most geneticists would welcome genetic fixes for most unambiguously bad diseases created by founder effects, such as Tay-Sachs, but start balking at less binary diseases or traits.

It's not an easy line to draw. Should we cure everyone in Africa of sickle cell anemia, or only when we have an equally effective anti-malarial trait to replace it with?
posted by benzenedream at 10:19 PM on March 20, 2013


And I guess the only people who ought to be allowed to choose option 2 over option 3 will be people who carry Tay-Sachs genes, their sex partners, geneticists, people who can win the sympathy of geneticists, and people who live in China. How do you justify that?
posted by Human Flesh at 10:21 PM on March 20, 2013


most geneticists?

Please cite your source.
posted by Human Flesh at 10:23 PM on March 20, 2013


I was asking who benefits from the policy.
posted by Human Flesh at 10:25 PM on March 20, 2013


The point is, many of these traits we could engineer (muscle growth, supposed metrics of intelligence, various subjective emotional dispositions) may have been tried in evolution and discarded for reasons that are non-obvious, or take a really long time to manifest their long-term disadvantages (1000s of years, interacting population effects).

Are you claiming that we've been optimized by nature and any attempt to change things will result in a sub-optimal gene pool (perhaps thousands of years in the future)? Couldn't you use that argument against any kind of medical intervention?
posted by Human Flesh at 10:33 PM on March 20, 2013


[Human Flesh, you are comment flooding the thread here and acting like an interrogator instead of a participant in a conversation. You need to dial it back now.]
posted by taz (staff) at 10:53 PM on March 20, 2013


So you don't think parents should be allowed to filter genes associated with diabetes?

I'm not sure how you got this from what I said, which is that there are both qualitative and quantitative differences between genetic testing for an unambiguously fatal genetic disorder with simple inheritance (like TS) and screening to maximize/minimize a complex polygenic trait. This is around the third time I've said this in this thread, so I think I'm done here.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:04 PM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think everyone accepts that the science just isn't there yet to do this, in part because multiple factors combine. But let's assume that we could work the kinks out, and it was trivially easy to use it to actually make more intelligent babies. Would people use it, or would it still be considered unethical?
posted by corb at 5:12 AM on March 21, 2013


Isn't it unethical to not increase children's intelligence, provided you can do so and all other things being equal? I'd consider it unethical to bring a victim of down syndrome to term too.

There is a serious issue here in that more cost effective epidemiological measures, such as the 10% IQ boost from eliminating iodine deficiency in pregnant women, might get sidelined for two rather nasty related reasons : Pharmaceutical companies want a product they can market to parents. Parents want to give their own kids a competitive advantage, not just makes everyone's kids smarter.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:29 AM on March 21, 2013


I think everyone accepts that the science just isn't there yet to do this, in part because multiple factors combine. But let's assume that we could work the kinks out, and it was trivially easy to use it to actually make more intelligent babies.
They found 700 genes associated with height, which is obviously far easier to measure. Let's suppose they find 700 associated with intelligence (which seems like a super-low bound)

Now, How exactly would you work out the kinks without performing multiple experiments? How would know what would happen if you switched all of them without actually testing it experimentally (meaning, produce babies, see how smart they are)?

There's no way to know if increasing the concentration would result in things like autism, maybe cause the brain to grow more quickly then the skull, maybe cause a large skull that makes childbirth more risky, and so on.
posted by delmoi at 5:19 PM on March 21, 2013


But let's assume that we could work the kinks out, and it was trivially easy to use it to actually make more intelligent babies.

I'd like to amend this to "trivially easy, accessible to everyone" because the socioeconomic side of this really shouldn't be ignored (especially employment and insurance)
posted by GenericUser at 2:27 AM on March 22, 2013


With respect to how you refrain from taking off the blindfold, my understanding is that genetic tests are administered by a physician and must be individually validated and approved.


Doctors who care about their patients will want to give them the best genes available.
posted by Human Flesh at 2:35 AM on March 22, 2013


Now, How exactly would you work out the kinks without performing multiple experiments? How would know what would happen if you switched all of them without actually testing it experimentally (meaning, produce babies, see how smart they are)?

There is a difference between choosing the car with the fewest dents and designing a whole new car. My point is that filtering harmful mutations will pay dividends well before anyone has to worry about building a precision engineered nervous system.

The human brain isn't some advanced technology that only exists in science fiction. If you remove enough environmental and genetic insults (e.g. PHF21A, MECP2, SETBP1, MLL2, ASXL1, and ACTB/ACTG1 mutations), you'll increase the chance that your children will attain their potential to score highly on tests. We each carry many deleterious mutations. Remove enough deleterious mutations, and you will enhance the next generation.

Our collective genetic constitution doesn't have the exact same composition as it had 500 years ago. To test yourself for status quo bias, ask yourself this question: Imagine it's 2060. Would you advocate taking measures to make the 2060 population more closely genetically resemble the population circa the glory days of 2013?
posted by Human Flesh at 6:36 AM on March 22, 2013


Imagine it's 2060. Would you advocate taking measures to make the 2060 population more closely genetically resemble the population circa the glory days of 2013?
I don't think there's much value in trying to answer your questions given you seem to be unable to understand the responses that have already been given. You seem to think that if two things are similar in some way, people must agree to both or neither - which is not the case, and you also don't seem to understand how the risks inherent in altering hundreds of related genes is different from the risks of altering one or two unrelated genes. Without understanding those things, you can't understand what the problem is.
posted by delmoi at 12:09 PM on March 22, 2013


I'm not sure how you got this from what I said, which is that there are both qualitative and quantitative differences between genetic testing for an unambiguously fatal genetic disorder with simple inheritance (like TS) and screening to maximize/minimize a complex polygenic trait. This is around the third time I've said this in this thread, so I think I'm done here.


Yes, they are different. How is that relevant to the conversation? Do you think it should be illegal or unethical to screen for polygenic traits?
posted by Human Flesh at 3:35 PM on March 22, 2013


I don't think there's much value in trying to answer your questions given you seem to be unable to understand the responses that have already been given.

That's not a very nice thing to say. Why did you even bother to write that? That doesn't help anyone.

You seem to think that if two things are similar in some way, people must agree to both or neither

If selecting for trait X leads to catastrophe, why doesn't selecting against Tay-Sachs lead to catastrophe?

you also don't seem to understand how the risks inherent in altering hundreds of related genes is different from the risks of altering one or two unrelated genes.


What do you mean by 'altering a gene?' Geoffrey Miller was talking about embryo selection.

You seem to have a weak grasp on 'normal' common-sense morality.


In The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Truth About Morality And What To Do About It, Joshua Greene wrote:
Moral language persuades best when opinions are not yet formed, which is why writers of children’s literature can get away with saying things like, “Mr. Billings was an awful, horrible man with a heart of stone.” This sounds like a line from a children’s book because it employs persuasive methods that, though appropriate for children, would insult the intelligence of most adult readers.

Most moral discourse is the conversational equivalent of children’s literature. Disputants speak to one another—or, rather, at one another—as if their interlocutors failed to pay adequate attention on the day elementary morality was explained. Unaware of the projective nature of value, they marvel at their opponents’ blindness, their utter failure to see what is so perfectly obvious. Not knowing what else to do, they scold their opponents as if they were children, and scold them as if they were belligerent children when they fail to respond the first time.

What to do about this? Take a cue from good writers. Stick to the facts. Keep evaluative language to a minimum, and get rid of the most overtly judgmental, moralistic language.
posted by Human Flesh at 2:44 AM on March 23, 2013


actually screw it I'll bite

how do you propose to avoid the permanent underclass of kids who can't get the therapy?

dismantle the entire insurance industry?
posted by GenericUser at 3:20 AM on March 23, 2013


Some countries offer government funded medical care for the masses. Even if only one person is treated, it would still be better than treating zero people with a particular medical procedure.

Giving people the ability to filter mutations will allow their progeny to be better equipped to compete with people who won the genetic lottery.
posted by Human Flesh at 11:13 AM on March 23, 2013


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