In the below Google Tech Talk, Stephen Hsu talks to Google employees about the search for the genes behind intelligence (and seeks to recruit them into an ongoing study being conducted at the Beijing Genomics Institute).
I shit you not.
The whole talk is vitally important to listen to, both for the cultural Zeitgeist it reveals–when did such a topic become capable, among the meritocracy, of so open and casual a discussion?–and for getting up to speed on the genetic basis for intelligence (about 80% heritable, apparently).
The talk is informative–but in its low-key and matter-of-fact style of presentation, it also struck me as oddly chilling. Are we hearing, in this talk, the 21st century beginnings of a divergence, in future generations of humans, of naturals from the genetically enhanced?
If you don’t have time for the whole talk, I’ve cued the below video to a specific question in the Q&A in which an audience member asks (politely, if indirectly), not the elephant-in-the-room question (race and intelligence), but that other elephant-in-the-room question: breeding for intelligence. How, in other words, might such research into the genetic basis of intelligence be used in the future? Hsu doesn’t dodge the question. He says broad genetic fetal testing, apparently with the option of abortion, is already available in China for other genetic traits, and I take from Hsu’s response that intelligence could soon be among them–why not? (And, of course, fetal selection happens on a more limited basis in the United States as well whenever an older pregnant woman undergoes amniocentesis, learns of a severe genetic abnormality, and opts for abortion.)
Hsu doesn’t think the artificial selection train for intelligence, once the associated genes are reliably identified, will be called back to the station. The rich will go first, of course, using the technology to enhance their offspring, and presumably not just in their intelligence. We’ll see health, attractiveness, and temperamental traits selected for as well. Again, why not?
And Hsu likens the ethical issues for geneticists working on finding trait genes to the ethical issues faced by physicists at Los Alamos in the 1940s (those racing to make the first atomic bomb). 21st century researchers, in other words, are in the process of making a genetic bomb–acquiring the knowledge, not for splitting the atom, but for systematically identifying and splitting test tube fertilized eggs and already existing fetuses from one another by identifying their genetic markers (markers that empirically and reliably yield a statistical range of definite traits on reaching adulthood). The test tube fertilized eggs and fetal sheep will go to the right, to life; the test tube fertilized eggs and fetal goats to the left, to death. The determination will be made, presumably, by parents in some countries, by governments in others. Think restaurant menu. Think Huxley’s Brave New World.
How can researchers know today how this new power of division that they’re in the process of uncovering will be put to use fifty years from now? They don’t, exactly. But, like the Los Alamos physicists before them, they press on.
Listen to Hsu’s response to the (indirectly asked) eugenics question. I’d be curious as to your thoughts about this.