Breeding for Intelligence? A Google Employee Asks the Question to Researcher Stephen Hsu of the Beijing Genomics Institute

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.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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10 Responses to Breeding for Intelligence? A Google Employee Asks the Question to Researcher Stephen Hsu of the Beijing Genomics Institute

  1. Staffan says:

    I like Hsu’s candor but “we are just doing science” is a bit disconcerting, essentially shifting blame to anyone applying these findings. But regardless of what we think of it, there is a market for it and it will happen. And the implications are potentially huge and on a global scale. The changes could be the seed of ethnic conflicts as some increase their competitiveness as poorer groups become more marginalized. Politicians will no doubt look at this as a quick fix; at the lower end of the scale it seems countries start crumbling at a national average of 96-97. And maybe that fix will work, at least for countries just on this level or below, like Russia, Greece, Argentina etc.

    But it could also fail in a big way given that IQ isn’t the only thing to take into account. We know East Asians are smart but their recent surge is heavily dependent on Western – less intelligent – scientific and technological progress. Before that they were just highly intelligent and doing a bit above average. The interactions of intelligence and personality traits (of which there are plenty) is still mostly unchartered territority. The customers of these services will probably not consider this caveat. More likely, they will look at the bad outcomes linked to a low IQ and conclude that the best thing for their future children is to have an as high IQ as possible. And then will see what happens…

  2. C.A. Ruel says:

    This will not end well at all.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I tend to disagree with you, though I agree that it could turn out very, very bad, indeed. Like with the development of nuclear technology, it can be used for good or apocalyptic purposes.

      As to the artificial selection that’s coming, our species has long engaged in forms of natural selection (calm people tend to pair with calm people; beautiful people tend to pair with beautiful people; smart people tend to pair with other smart people).

      The difference is that artificial selection will turbo-charge and fine grain this process, accelerating the frequency of certain genes in the population as a whole. Gene frequency will shift, from generation to generation, much more rapidly and precisely than via natural selection. For example, it’s not beyond reason to think that, a century from now, the average IQ of a newborn, when it becomes an adult, will be in the 130 range. That’s not a bad thing.

      • C.A. Ruel says:

        You are banking on those who control the technology to use it benevolently. History shows the opposite. Here’s how this plays out in my head. Those in power will use it to their advantage and only those with money might be able to gain access. Those deemed to have less desirable genes will by subjugated for the “good” of society. Breeding among the powerless will be eradicated in hopes of creating a super society of intelligent humans who will only be interested in maintaining their power over those who do not meet a determined intelligence. Unfortunately, I start from the premise that humans are essentially selfish and eager to gain advantage over the weak. I am completely in favor of a more intelligent society, but not through selective breeding.

  3. Santi Tafarella says:

    Staffan,

    You slice and dice the IQ scores for different countries, then draw conclusions that are dubious. Even if intelligence is largely heritable, when you take two groups and fail to take into account socio-economic status, nutrition, etc. you’re not really comparing apples to apples. From what I’ve read, you get about a standard deviation difference in IQ scores depending on circumstances (East Germans, for example, tested at 90 IQ when Germany was divided during the Cold War, and now test at 100 today). You’re not going to turn someone who tests 90 in unfavorable conditions into Einstein when testing in ideal conditions, but you’re also not going to be able to draw national comparisons with confidence if you’re not controlling for poverty and other contextual measures. Having said that, I’m not denying that genes play a predominant role in intelligence, I’m just saying that there’s too much static and there are too many confounding variables between, say, a 95 IQ and a 102 IQ to draw sweeping conclusions.

    As to the artificial selection that’s coming, our species has long engaged in forms of natural selection (calm people tend to pair with calm people; beautiful people tend to pair with beautiful people; smart people tend to pair with other smart people; they mate; their calm, beautiful, and smart genes are passed to subsequent generations). The difference is that artificial selection will turbo-charge and fine grain this process, accelerating the frequency of certain genes in the population as a whole. Gene frequency will shift, from generation to generation, much more rapidly and precisely than via natural selection. For example, it’s not beyond reason to think that, a century from now, the average IQ of a newborn, when it becomes an adult, will be in the 130 range. That’s not a bad thing.

    • Staffan says:

      East Germans increased IQs are evidenced by conscript studies. In the eastern part of the country the military has always been a big employer and with reunification and the eastern unemployment that followed the military career is became increasingly attractive. As there a many ways to dodge conscription these makes for increasingly higher IQ scores. On top of that you also have a large-scale immigration of low-IQ people to the western part of the country may account for some of the increased difference.

      As for too much noise, yes there is some noise but not as much as you might expect. You’ll find regions in China were malnutrition still is a common who have high average intelligence. As for socio-economic status it doesn’t predict IQ; it’s the other way around.

      “I’m just saying that there’s too much static and there are too many confounding variables between, say, a 95 IQ and a 102 IQ to draw sweeping conclusions.”

      I’ve looked at this at the national level and it turns out that somewhere around 96-97 there is a breaking point. You won’t find a country on the face of the Earth (possible exceptions would be tax havens or small oil nations) with an average below this level that is doing better than Ireland or Portugal and almost all are doing much worse. And you will only find one country at 102 or higher that isn’t doing well – North Korea. This holds on state level in America as well:

      http://staffanspersonalityblog.wordpress.com/2013/09/24/the-iq-breaking-point-how-civilized-society-is-maintained-or-lost/

      “For example, it’s not beyond reason to think that, a century from now, the average IQ of a newborn, when it becomes an adult, will be in the 130 range. That’s not a bad thing.”

      Not bad per se. I just wonder if it will happen at the expense of other traits. We know for instance that impulsivity is negatively correlated to IQ and yet it seems clear that entrepreneurs, peforming artist etc have this trait. Their contributions may be essential for progress.

  4. Santi Tafarella says:

    Another quick thought. It’s hard for politicians, priests, governments, and corporations to control and manipulate high IQ people. Thus a world with a lot more high functioning adults in it is not a bad thing. And if genes for pro-social, non-depressive, and temperamentally calm people spread rapidly through the population as well, that could undermine the dystopian aspects of eugenics as well. What you don’t want is a Stalin with this technology breeding violent psychopathic men for his military. But a century from now, warfare will be robotic anyway. The world will be very, very different a century from now. It will be as different as 2014 is from 1850.

    • Staffan says:

      Yes but that’s also a world in which a whole lot of the poets you study and cherish could never exist. Possibly a world without any poetry at all. Just straight rows of neat and tidy little people who never make any fuss…

  5. andrewclunn says:

    Ah yes🙂 This is the future I look forward to. Genetics will restore racism, but in an informed and technocratic way. The future belongs to the strong, the the beautiful, the brilliant, the talented, and the wealthy. With this technology, they will finally all be the same group. It is to me to ensure that my grandchildren are among this early true master race, and in doing so win the Darwinian game.

  6. Alan says:

    I don’t see how this technology will affect more than tens of thousands of babies vs. hundreds of millions of births. Any affect will be washed out.

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