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Monday, May 13, 2013

The New Eugenics – same as the Old Eugenics?

Did I miss a memo? Has eugenics somehow become respectable again?

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There has been a lot of talk lately, in the blogosphere at least (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), about the idea of using molecular genetics to predict and select for higher intelligence in humans (through pre-implantation screening of embryos, for example). The prevailing view among many discussing this idea seems to be that if we can do it, we obviously should do it. The casualness with which this conclusion is reached is astonishing to me, given the history of humanity’s efforts in this area. To many commentators, it seems to be a given that having more intelligent people, across the population, is not only obviously a good thing, but one that supersedes any other considerations.

Selecting for increased intelligence doesn’t sound so bad, when you phrase it like that, until you realise that it actually involves the converse – selecting against individuals with lower predicted intelligence. I am not ascribing the following chain of thought to any particular persons, but here is the fundamental logic of eugenics, applied to intelligence:

For any individual, being more intelligent is better than being less intelligent. (All else being equal, that’s fair enough, I suppose). People who are more intelligent are therefore better than people who are less intelligent. (See how easy it is to get there?) At least, it would be good if we had more of the former and less of the latter. We should, as a society, seek ways to ensure that is the case. In the past, this would have involved policies on who is allowed to live or breed or migrate into a society, or inducements to get the more clever people to breed like they vote in Chicago – early and often. Nowadays, if we can employ pre-implantation genetic screening to predict intelligence, then we should use that method, or at least make it available, to select and implant those embryos that are predicted to be more intelligent. This will inevitably be at the expense of ones predicted to be less intelligent. The former should be granted life and the latter should not.

Is all that just self-evident? Is that how we should define progress in our society?

The amazing thing, in the pieces I have been reading recently, is that something approaching this position seems to have been reached not after lengthy and sober consideration of the moral and ethical issues surrounding the idea, but in total disregard for them. The following questions don’t seem to have come up: Is it right to claim some people are superior to others or of “higher quality”? Is it right to actively select between embryos (or to selectively abort foetuses) on any criterion? (Many people would say no, though it already happens routinely for serious medical conditions, and even for sex in many parts of the world). If there are some criteria that can be considered legitimate, what are they? How do we decide? Who makes those decisions? Should society as a whole ever have the right to dictate such decisions? Or should society allow complete freedom to individuals to make such decisions on any criteria they wish? If selection is permissible, is intelligence really the primary trait on which such selection should be based? What about kindness or decency or bravery or empathy or not being a douche? Do any of those get a look in? Would we lose anything from human society by selecting purely for those who perform better on IQ tests?

The impression one gets is that the people proposing such ideas think the world would be a better place if there were more people like them in it. The spectacle of cosseted academics bemoaning the degraded intellect of the masses and suggested something should be done about it is not an appealing one. And it is not without consequences.

There seems to be little recognition of the potential harm to the reputation of genetics as a science when it is associated with public claims of this sort. This discipline still bears the taint of previous misuses, most notably as justification for the murderous eugenic policies of Nazi Germany or enforced sterilisations of the “feeble-minded” in many US states which ran from the early 1900’s to as late as 1977 in North Carolina. Many other countries enacted similar policies.

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The themes of genetic classism and discrimination and of elitist scientists “playing God” resonate widely in our culture (from Shelley’s Frankenstein to GATTACA to the X-Men). Indeed, the extensive coverage of a study on the genetics of IQ that is currently underway at the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) suggests that the media knows a good story when it sees it. It seems to me that this has attracted attention not because of any scientific advance or discovery (the study has not yet been completed) but because of the way those involved and commenting on it have acted as cheerleaders for the idea of prenatal prediction and selection.

Here’s Prof. Geoffrey Miller (of NYU), in an interview for an article egregiously entitled “China is engineering genius babies” on vice.com (whatever that is):

How does Western research in genetics compare to China’s?
We’re pretty far behind. We have the same technical capabilities, the same statistical capabilities to analyze the data, but they’re collecting the data on a much larger scale and seem to be capable of transforming the scientific findings into government policy and consumer genetic testing much more easily than we are. Technically and scientifically we could be doing this, but we’re not.”

Some would argue it is not the place of scientists to decide the ethical issues – it is our job just to do the science. If society abuses it, well, that is not our fault. This is a case where I strongly disagree – we cannot disentangle the moral issues from the scientific ones. It is too easy to use scientific findings to justify policies that would otherwise be deemed abhorrent; too easy, as Hume noted, to mistakenly derive a prescription of how things ought to be from a description of how they are.

In this case the science is too complex and our understanding still far too fragmentary to even describe how things are. But reading some of the commentaries one would think that our ability to predict intelligence based on molecular genetics is really just around the corner; that we will have this knowledge in hand within a few years and Pandora’s box will have been opened, whether we like it or not. I find this scenario highly implausible, for several reasons.

First, we have not yet identified any genes “for intelligence”. We know many that, when mutated, can cause intellectual disability (many hundreds, in fact), but none that clearly contribute to variation in the normal range (normal in the statistical sense of that word). Zero, zip, bupkis. We are starting from effectively complete ignorance as of this moment. In fact, we don’t even understand the genetic architecture of intelligence. It is clearly very highly heritable, but we don’t know how many genes are involved, either across the population or in any individual, we don’t know whether the genetic variants are common or rare, we don’t know whether they specifically affect intelligence or have more general effects on robustness of the genetic program and its execution to build an efficient brain and we don’t know how multiple such variants would interact with each other. That’s a lot of don’t knows.

The answers to those questions will determine the best strategies for finding variants that affect intelligence and also, crucially, our ability to predict an individual’s IQ based on signatures that we can only detect by averaging across the population. If we want to be fanciful, we can imagine a future scenario where we have in fact identified many genetic variants across the population that clearly contribute to differences in intelligence. Some may be common, but my expectation is that most would be quite rare. Now we want to look at some new individual’s DNA and predict their IQ based on that knowledge (or maybe look at two individuals and predict which one’s IQ will be higher, even if we can’t put a number on it).

Here are the problems: first, IQ is indeed highly heritable, but a lot of the variation across the population is non-genetic (at least 20-30%); that imposes a significant limit on accuracy of even a perfect genetic predictor. Second, if IQ is largely affected by rare mutations, then each new person will have some IQ-affecting variants that we have never seen before in our population sample and that we will be unable to recognise as such. Third, any individual will also have a unique, never-before-seen combination of variants, which may interact in highly unexpected ways. Finally, any such predictor would have to be extremely precise to distinguish between the IQ of not just any two random individuals, but two siblings, where the range will obviously be much narrower.

To paraphrase Yogi Berra, making predictions is hard, especially about the future. But I am willing to go out on a very sturdy limb and predict that we will not be able to build useful predictors for IQ any time soon. We’re not there, we’re not nearly there and there may even be fundamental limits that mean we will never get there.

 
A post from 2012 by Greg Cochran goes even further, suggesting that a variety of approaches to improve intelligence are imminent, from selection to molecular interventions designed to correct mutations lowering intelligence. This not only fails to consider any of the ethical and moral issues described above, it similarly ignores the additional ones that arise when considering modifying the human germline! It also greatly exaggerates our technical abilities to do that. Yes, we can modify the germline in model organisms like mice, but what this simple statement glosses over is the fact that generating any such genetically modified individual involves a lot of trial and error. This science is messy. Most of the embryos (or cells) one tries to modify do not get modified in the expected way and one has to screen through many hundreds typically to get ones with the desired change. (Even those can sometimes have other, random changes one didn’t plan for). This is clearly not a strategy we could countenance in humans.

In the meantime, before we go proposing scientifically impractical and morally questionable extreme measures, we have a proven and powerful tool to make people smarter: education.


59 comments:

  1. "In the meantime, before we go proposing scientifically impractical and morally questionable extreme measures, we have a proven and powerful tool to make people smarter: education.

    It works, bitches"


    No it doesn't. Come on. I take it you're familiar with the recent studies detailing the failure of "working memory" training. These are only one example that show that more knowledgeable ≠ smarter.

    There is a very good reason to select for intelligence. Intelligent people makes modern civilization go around (see Greg Cochran here: Sustainability | West Hunter). Civilizations are dependent on their "smart fractions" (see my compilation of evidence for that here: HBD Fundamentals | JayMan's Blog). As Greg Cochran points out in the above link, our modern society is failing on several fronts in that regard, and is suffering measurable decreases in average intelligence. Only by offsetting that trend can our advanced civilization be sustained.

    "For any individual, being more intelligent is better than being less intelligent. (All else being equal, that’s fair enough, I suppose). People who are more intelligent are therefore better than people who are less intelligent. (See how easy it is to get there?) At least, it would be good if we had more of the former and less of the latter."

    The last sentence here gets at the gist. What's relevant here is that society is generally better off when it has a higher share of intelligent people.

    "If selection is permissible, is intelligence really the primary trait on which such selection should be based? What about kindness or decency or bravery or empathy or not being a douche? Do any of those get a look in?"

    Perhaps one day those things will come into play, once the genetic architecture of those have been deciphered (my suspicion is that this will take a lot longer than it will for IQ). But, it's not like it's an either/or with selecting for IQ. Selecting for IQ will not diminish those things, and indeed, may actually increase the share of those things, since they correlate to some degree with IQ (Indeed, this is basis of my attempts to boost the struggling fertility of American liberals - see: Another reminder…, Dystopian Conservative Future?, Expectations and reality: a window into the liberal-conservative baby gap). In short, it's not really anything of concern.

    "Finally, any such predictor would have to be extremely precise to distinguish between the IQ of not just any two random individuals, but two siblings, where the range will obviously be much narrower."

    As for your whole statement on the feasibility of selecting for IQ in embryos, this seems like a largely moot point. Why? Because the alternative, the current one, is no selection at all. Even if the selection methods developed have low accuracy in determining IQ, as long as it's not zero, it will, on average, serve to boost the IQ of the embryos that get selected by it. Right now, smart couples are stuck with doing it the old-fashioned way – simply having children and hoping for the best. This is a process that assures a loss in IQ overall (thanks to regression to the mean). I'd know I'd relish the opportunity to improve the odds of having the brightest (and healthiest, and most attractive) children I could.

    (cont'd next post)...

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    1. Well, I think you've illustrated a few of my points nicely, particularly the mindset I aim to challenge. You state: "society is generally better off when it has a higher share of intelligent people" as a truism. My point is that that statement is not obviously a truism to most people.

      As for the technical possibility of a predictor - I would say a crappy predictor is worse than no predictor at all.

      Regarding education, I am not saying it necessarily boosts IQ test performance per se (I don't care if it does or not). I am saying it teaches people how to think better - at least a good education does. (I know mine did anyway - perhaps you were as good at thinking when you were five years old as you are now). If you are concerned with the general intellectual abilities of the populace (I presume in the U.S.) you might better spend your efforts on improving equality of the educational system.

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    2. "You state: 'society is generally better off when it has a higher share of intelligent people' as a truism. My point is that that statement is not obviously a truism to most people."

      Indeed. Perhaps that's part of the problem (that most people don't realize that)? Whether or not most people believe it, it is objectively true that societies that have a greater share of intelligent people are generally much better off than those that have a smaller share – given the presumption that you regard a society with greater wealth per capita, lower crime, better health, better functioning institutions, and more advanced technology to be a better society to live in than a society that ranks less well on these things.

      "If you are concerned with the general intellectual abilities of the populace (I presume in the U.S.) you might better spend your efforts on improving equality of the educational system."

      The nature and distribution of cognitive ability indicates this will be a fruitless effort. Indeed, if we take international data on education performance (e.g., the PISA) at face value, Americans are performing better than similar populations elsewhere. There just doesn't seem to be much more juice that we can squeeze out of that fruit.

      "The problem with your logic and Razib's comment: "imagine you, but bright of mind, and beautiful of face!" is that would NOT be you - that would be your brighter, more beautiful sibling who got born instead of you. You would have been washed down the sink of the IVF clinic."

      Hmmm, but how is this much different than what happens at fertility clinics already?

      I think we all can agree (or, at least, this is certainly my position) that all people living now are deserving of dignity and respect, and are all deserving of moral regard by virtue of being human. However, the argument you're advancing here, ethical issues with selection amongst embryos, which aren't people (yet), is in the vein of a pro-life (i.e., anti-abortion) view. If that is your view, then I can see why you'd make the case you're making, but I do not share this view.

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    3. @jaymans,

      While there are comparisons between societies with higher average IQ and lower average IQ, it is not clear so far what influence the variance in IQ has.

      If a future technology rises everyone's IQ to maximum possible, then by definition everyone's IQ will be close to 100 and very very low variance (we are manipulating a random occurrence and could no longer expect the distribution to follow a bell curve). Is there any evidence if those are desirable societies?

      What meaning would IQ has if everyone has same IQ? Then it would stop correlating positively with income or happiness as people push for some other distinguishing feature (as with elite colleges admissions with a number of applicants having 'perfect' SAT scores).

      This is similar to having 'beauty' too. South Korean beauty contestants have all same features from plastic surgery. What use is 'beauty' then? What does it mean to have 'better you'?

      OTOH, leaving to market forces alone, we may push above average IQ population to increase the IQ of their offspring and end up with bi-modal distribution. Then increasing 'average IQ' has no meaning when low IQ->low economic status-> no investment for IQ increase -> low IQ. The % of 'trouble making' low IQ population will remain the same even if 'average IQ' is pushed up. (this is assuming fertility rate is same across the board. It may so happen that elite fertility rate may drop further due to cost of IQ enhancement with each offspring).

      I am not sure if these issues are addressed anywhere.

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    4. "If a future technology rises everyone's IQ to maximum possible, then by definition everyone's IQ will be close to 100 and very very low variance (we are manipulating a random occurrence and could no longer expect the distribution to follow a bell curve)."

      Yeah, first of all that's not going to happen any time soon. Second of all, 100 wouldn't be the ideal number...

      "Is there any evidence if those are desirable societies?"

      Well if by "everyone" you mean every last individual then no, because not much would get done if everyone had an IQ of 100 (a person with an IQ of 100 isn't all that smart). On the other hand, if by "everyone", you mean every society would have a mean IQ of 100, yeah, that actually wouldn't be too bad, and in America, at least, a marked improvement over the current situation.

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    5. @jaymans

      100 will be the number by definition of IQ. That is simply the mean. 100 in current society is may be 135 in the past society (Flynn effect), but 100 it will be when everyone does DNA-checking for errors (as Cochrane proposed).


      I don't know how you say "a person with an IQ of 100 isn't all that smart". If everybody below IQ of 115 dies out today, the person with IQ around 120 (the remaining will be exponentially distributed) will have new IQ of 100. Does the same person stopped being smart?! IQ is only a relative measure.

      Perhaps you have looked at caste societies and stratification by endogamy? The mean IQ may still be 100, but bi-modal distribution isn't all that desirable.

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    6. It took us three years to build the NeXT computer. If we'd given customers what they said they wanted, we'd have built a computer they'd have been happy with a year after we spoke to them - not something they'd want now.
      Abstract wallpapers

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  2. ...(cont'd from previous post)

    Indeed, this demonstrates another response to one of your points:

    "If there are some criteria that can be considered legitimate, what are they? How do we decide? Who makes those decisions? Should society as a whole ever have the right to dictate such decisions? Or should society allow complete freedom to individuals to make such decisions on any criteria they wish?"

    In any Western nation, if this process is allowed at all, almost certainly it would give choice freely to couples — as it should. Most couples with the interest in doing this at all will likely want to select for intelligence, as well as for physical health and beauty, which they may incidentally do by selecting for IQ. As Razib Khan put it, "The marketing pitch for this writes itself: imagine you, but bright of mind, and beautiful of face!" Razib indeed notes there that objections to eugenics are moot: we already practice eugenics. Not only through the obvious method, selecting a mate (which for me was a very conscious choice), but through technological interventions as the kind we're discussing here: abortions of fetuses with Down syndrome and with Mendelian ailments. The eugenics we're discussing is nothing qualitatively different from what is going on already.

    The "guilty by association" aspect by raising the specter of a slippery slope to coercive eugenics and Nazism is unfounded. First, as noted, this is a classic slippery slope fallacy. Second, as noted, most adamantly by Greg Cochran, society – on its present course – is in big trouble anyway. What, really, be the worse option?

    My personal thought sides with continuing – and bettering this advances civilization we have.

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    1. The problem with your logic and Razib's comment: "imagine you, but bright of mind, and beautiful of face!" is that would NOT be you - that would be your brighter, more beautiful sibling who got born instead of you. You would have been washed down the sink of the IVF clinic. So it goes.

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    2. jaymans:

      Whether education makes people smarter rather depends on what you consider 'smartness' to be - is it IQ scores, or something more 'fundamental'?

      We recently had a paper on this, showing that years of education were associated with improved IQ score across the lifespan, but not with faster scores on elementary cognitive tasks like Reaction Time and Inspection Time: http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=buy.optionToBuy&id=2012-34906-001

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    3. jaymans:

      It's pretty ironic that you think my associating eugenics with the vicious policies of Nazism is an example of the "slippery slope fallacy". It's not hypothetical. It already happened.

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    4. We recently had a paper on this, showing that years of education were associated with improved IQ score across the lifespan, but not with faster scores on elementary cognitive tasks like Reaction Time and Inspection Time

      Of course, they do. But the correlation is mostly spurious. Higher intelligence leads to higher IQ scores and higher educational attainment, almost never the other way around.

      Did you bother considering whether you were wrong about the direction of causation? Of course, you didn't. Almost nobody ever does, but behavior geneticists have known the answer for over two decades running.

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    5. Yup. The reaction time and apparent fluid g measures seem to give it away...

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    6. What the hell are you talking about? We mention causality throughout the paper, how on Earth could you have missed... oh, wait. You didn't read it, but thought it would be OK to be supercilious about it in a internet comment. Nice one.

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  3. Eugenic ideas are impracticalities that do not translate well through the evolving dimensionalities of experienced life conditions (why are the less socially established more likely to be immigrants/use drugs/engage in unprotected sex and exhibit hypersexuality)...richwine may only just be politically incorrect if the effect of "pacified" heavy labor in tropical climates on epigenetics and generational ontogeny...(Hearty adaptation within the thick center of the human genetic tree...those without drives for reproduction are on the frayed corners/legal permanence as compensation for hereditary status...)

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  4. But I am willing to go out on a very sturdy limb and predict that we will not be able to build useful predictors for IQ any time soon. We’re not there, we’re not nearly there and there may even be fundamental limits that mean we will never get there.

    Wow, I'm glad not all scientists are like you. Otherwise we'd still be getting around in buggies.

    Anyway, your aversion to eugenics probably arises from a life spent around high-IQ individuals. You take it for granted. It's easy to talk morality and equality when you don't come into contact with welfare moms and drug addicts on a regular basis. But when you come from po' white trash like I do, you tend to see things differently. Upping the average IQ of humanity would be a very, very good thing, and I'm eternally grateful that not everyone thinks like you about this issue.

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    1. No, my aversion to eugenics does not come from hanging around exclusively with really clever people. (What a strange supposition!) My aversion comes from finding repugnant the idea of assigning a value to human beings based on their intelligence or any other criterion and using it to decide who gets to exist.

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    2. No one is suggesting state-sponsored, round-up-the-undesirables-and-gas-em policies. Anyone alive today is, by that very fact of existence, deserving of basic rights and dignity. Eugenics is about encouraging private citizens to recognize the importance of genetics to various traits and to control for their offspring's phenotypes as much as possible, as technology becomes available. (Will there be a guinea pig stage to this? Of course.)

      There will continue to be nothing stopping parents from going ahead to have that Down's baby if they want it; thankfully, people are already more eugenics-minded than they think. Down's fetuses are frequently aborted; something like 80% (though that stat may be high). And Jodie Foster made it socially acceptable for same sex couples not to feel bad about looking for high quality sperm. I see no moral difference between these practices and eugenic practices more generally. The slope between anti-dysgenics and eugenics is wonderfully slippery.

      You're obviously correct that eugenics technology is not around the corner; and the indeterminate nature of genetics may thwart it entirely. But I get the sense that foregrounding this point is simply a way to foreclose on all research toward eugenic applications entirely. Are you letting the moral impulse control the possibilities? I work in natural language processing, and our goals are constantly thwarted by the nuance and indeterminacy of human language, but I don't know anyone who says, "Well, screw it, let's not waste our time."

      (Lastly, I'll reiterate that you would probably be much less averse to eugenics if you were forced to deal with unproductive morons on a regular basis.)

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    3. Your last comment reminds me of a guy I know who is working at a grocery store. He pushes around the carts. Just today he told me, his mom has a PhD in zoology, his dad a degree in biochemistry, his sister is a grad student in neuroscience... and he? He just doesn't give a fuck. You think this guy is stupid? I don't think so.

      Inteligent people have their very own problems. In most jobs they are just bored and underachieving, since they lack a challenge. Some are socially awkward because they are just to busy thinking about stuff. And sometimes they just don't give a fuck about what others think they should be doing with their lives. Many of them just love to be egocentric misfits who don't want to do anything twice.

      Let me put this into clearer words for you: Just because a person is smart doesn't mean s/he is automatically a great, productive genius who wants to do what you think s/he should. Or is interested in politics enough to be an informed voter in a democracy.

      Inteligent people are the hardest to deal with. When everybody is inteligent, you will have to deal with a very new class of unproductive morons on a regular basis.

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    4. Your last comment reminds me of a guy I know who is working at a grocery store. He pushes around the carts. Just today he told me, his mom has a PhD in zoology, his dad a degree in biochemistry, his sister is a grad student in neuroscience... and he? He just doesn't give a fuck. You think this guy is stupid? I don't think so.

      Every once in a while, intelligent parents produce short progeny, and tall mothers give birth to short offspring, entirely for hereditary reasons. A quantitative genetic model would account for every single one of these outcomes. There is no reason to assume that your buddy is intelligent, no matter how accomplished his near relations may be.

      Every single gametic union is a hereditary roll of the dice -- sometimes, you don't get quite what you bargained for, and even the best set of cards might ruin a good game. R.A. Fisher understood why, nearly a half a century before the advent of molecular biology. Somehow you don't.

      Even assuming that your acquaintance really were as intelligent as his relations, he most certainly would have worse outcomes if he were to suffer brain damage that reduced his IQ by a good 20-30 points. Your observation is about as truthful as the assertion that height has nothing to do with basketball playing ability, because there are plenty of tall people who are weak and spindly looking. (Therefore, it would be counterproductive to boost the basketball prowess of your descendants by selecting for taller height.) Wrong.

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    5. My aversion comes from finding repugnant the idea of assigning a value to human beings based on their intelligence or any other criterion and using it to decide who gets to exist.

      This already happens. Think of all the potential children who could have been born, if only you had bedded down with the local meth addict with a cleft palate and cystic acne!

      And people already do the other thing. Every time you, or somebody else rejects a job (or grad school) application on the basis of (assumed) qualifications and skills, you assign a numerical value to that individual, whether you like it not. Every time the local high school beauty turns down a date with a shorter, scrawny looking guy, she and others like her have tattooed him with their social presumptions. It's not fair, but that's life.

      Resources are scarce, and so is social capital. This won't ever change, eugenics or no eugenics.

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    6. There is a difference between evaluating someone as a potential mate (or as a job applicant) - and assigning an overall *moral* value or worth to a person. Deciding not to date someone is very different from saying they have less of a right to exist or that society would be better off if less people like them existed.

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    7. But Kevin, we already say that it is okay to do that. I'll bet most of your acquaintances believe that nothing should interfere with a woman's right to choose whether to bring a fetus to term. That is judging "less of a right to exist" and deciding no right to exist.

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    8. Roger, you are right in one respect: in a society (like the US) where abortion is legal and freely available as a matter of personal choice, it's hard to argue that having that choice be informed by some genetic information about the fetus is somehow a bad thing or should not be allowed. On the other hand, one could say that having abortion available for people who do not want to have a child for whatever reason of personal circumstance, is morally (or at least practically) distinct from having such decisions made on the basis of the predicted characteristics of the resultant child. Choosing not to carry a fetus to term is one thing, choosing not to do so because they are predicted to be a bit less clever or because they're female or, say, because they are predicted to be homosexual or left-handed or a psychopath or a bit shy - that just seems to me like a distinct kind of action to take. It's the difference between aborting a child because you don't want to have a child and aborting a child because you don't want to have that particular child. (I know I'm not doing a good job of articulating why I think there's a difference - one illustration of a practical difference is in the very skewed sex ratio in India and China arising from selective abortion of female fetuses).

      Of course, many other societies regulate abortion and things like pre-implantation diagnosis very differently (including Ireland, for example), so the ethics of such policies start from a very different point.

      Also, you are wrong about my acquaintances (at least the "nothing" should interfere with part). Probably shouldn't bet on things like that :)

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    9. Okay, lost that bet.

      I think I understand the distinction you are making. I just don't know whether it is morally meaningful.

      Is there a moral difference in the following situations? I walk into a school and kill the first ten students I see. IWIAS and kill the first ten boys I see. IWIAS and kill the first ten girls I see. IWIAS and kill the first ten whites I see. IWIAS and kill the first ten blacks I see. IWIAS and head for the life skills classroom where I kill the first ten people with Downs Syndrome I see. IWIAS and head for the National Honor Society induction, where I kill the first ten inductees I see.

      Certainly, some reasons for abortion have a practical effect; "too many males" result "from selective abortion of female fetuses." But if practicality is a reason to interfere with the decision to have an abortion, similar arguments can be made for practicality to be a reason to interfere by forcing an abortion. E.g. to force an abortion of a fetus with Downs Syndome because otherwise there will be "too many" of them.

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  5. If there are any female readers of this blog, I wonder just how many of them would accept a sperm donation from a 5'3", high school dropout with a family history of alcoholism? No matter where their sympathies lie on the nature-nurture debate, I would venture to guess virtually none.

    If you insist that my axiomatic assumptions are flawed, and that I place an unwarranted emphasis on phenotypes whose values are ever-changing, ephemeral, and constantly under revision by the whims of a capricious society -- fair enough. (Why, we've never seen this ever before in the history of our species, but perhaps there will come a day when men who are short, stupid, and ugly will enjoy the same life outcomes as their better endowed peers.) Even if you may not value these phenotypes myself, other people certainly do, and social institutions are the heart and soul of humanity itself. All else held equal, a man (or woman) with a "high IQ" on a remote island has no intrinsic value -- neither high nor low, relative to his peers, but once he is transported to a society where problem solving and innovation are at a premium, his social worth will skyrocket. And I ask you this -- would you rather be a tall man among midgets, or a midget in the company of giants? (Even a man of short stature should feel lofty among a crowd of African pygmies.)

    The question is whether we can predict the extent to which our notions of intelligence, beauty, and social worth will change in the foreseeable future. If the social consensus, or certain elements thereof remain largely unaltered, then you would be remiss not to exploit every opportunity in your arsenal to maximize the potential value of your progeny. (Even in our current state of ignorance, this is not as foolish of a bargain as a strict social constructionist might presume -- there are indeed markers of health and beauty that remain constant across all cultures, both past and present.) As Richard Dawkins once observed, what is the moral difference between forcing your daughter to take violin lessons, and implanting a gene into an embryo that may facilitate the same outcomes? What is the distinction between forcing your son to drink milk three times a day, and selecting for taller height in your children in vitro? None but the superficial details!

    And we know which intervention would have the greatest possible effect, if we could manipulate the full range of genotypic values present in our population.

    As the Flynn effect demonstrates, IQ scores themselves are a dimensionless quality that are of little intrinsic value -- for all we know, today's score of 100 might become tomorrow's 70, but the psychometric literature demonstrates unequivocally that one's relative ranking on the IQ pecking order has immense predictive value. After controlling for heredity, socioeconomic status, parenting, and school quality explain little of the total variance. Knowing that all cognitive skills that are valuable in our advanced industrialized society are highly correlated, it seems unlikely that this should change in the foreseeable future.

    You may avow an abiding trust in an educational system that explains very little of the total variance in IQ scores, once heredity has been accounted for. But I place my faith in the twin and longitudinal adoption studies. Only one of these actually works.

    And of course -- if I had to make a choice, for all I am concerned, the high school dropout was born that way.

    I might be wrong, but who would risk the odds?

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    1. Now I am curious. What risk? What odds? I think attempting genetic engineering on people is much more risky than teaching them to use their capacities optimally. The challenge right now is to help all of humanity to become well educated and informed so they can make smart decisions (it really doesn't matter how long individuals take for those).

      Genetical engineering of human inteligence will not be attempted before we have ANY working gene therapy. We have health regulations that prevent it. My 'prediction' will be that first there will be gene therapy that does not enter the germ line and are only used in severly ill people. While doing this we will learn a lot about genetic manipulation of humans and we might start to exchange 'sick genes' by genes that allow above-average performance (as some prosthetics already do today - or even glasses). When this is achieved, people with genetical illnesses will want to change this not only for themselves but also for their offspring and if gene therapy has proven safe by then, people will attempt to change the germ lines of people. Also, IF it proves safe the idea of reducing genetic risk factors for certain illnesses and 'civilisatory' illnesses will not be so far anymore.

      At this point we might have first effects on intelect, since some of the genes will be changed to reduce risk of mental illnesses. However, for all we know today this is extraordinairily hard to do. Thousands of genes appear to have an effect on intelect and it appears there is a delicate interplay between all of them.

      However, before we get to the point where we start designing our babies (if ever), there is a LOT of other stuff to do that has higher priority, right now. Getting to that point will take AGES. Not because I think science doesn't progress fast, but because to test the consequences of genetic engineering on people literally takes life times.

      I think this discussion is premature and at this point right now, it should be about gene therapy of severly genetical ill people, not some science fiction that probably is several decades away. We won't be tinkering with the human genome before we have the basics down.

      This is how medical research works: You can't attempt something without figuring out how, first, and you can't experiment on humans without quadrupel checking that it's safe. Life-time changes to the genome take life-times to investigate. So I think this problem is about a century away and we might rather focus on what's next on the list.

      When we actually reach the point where designer babies really come into reach, ethics will be very different from today. So we should leave these decisions to the people who really are affected by it.

      Our current goal in human gene manipulation can only be to help people with genetic disorders who would otherwise die.

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    2. BTW, my comment was meant to anticipate all sorts of future arguments from, err, "unenlightened" commenters who tend to swarm toward blog posts like this faster than flies to vinegar.

      I'm sure I've said nothing that the author doesn't know already. I did not draft my response intending to criticize any of his main points.

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    3. Education benefits everyone, regardless of IQ. Of course innate differences remain - I am not suggesting education erases those. But if you want to make people better at thinking, it's a proven way to do that, unlike the imaginary ways being proposed by people suggesting we can molecularly predict intelligence. Usain Bolt may be a better sprinter than I am due to innate differences, but he also required years of training to get to the level he is at. And years of training would make me a better sprinter too, even if I never approached his level.

      Delete
  6. Whether or not personal eugenics is moral or immoral is a debatable question.

    But people will want to do it, once a mechanism is made available. And you can't stop that. Outlaw it here, if you want -- those who have the means will only travel overseas, and China has no shortage of eager researchers with more aptitude than scruples.

    People sure seem to enjoy slaughtering one another in ever more creative and destructive ways, thanks to modern advances in physics and chemical engineering. (In fact, some cultures today seem to prioritize this "gift" of science above and beyond education, sanitation, and modern infrastructure. Tant pis.) And nobody could stop that, either.

    Woe be upon our civilization if your worst case scenario comes true. Whether or not it does, the future sure will look hilarious!

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  7. "You would have been washed down the sink of the IVF clinic. So it goes."

    Wow! Wow! Wow!
    HEAVY metaphysics assumptions here!
    So, the "you" you are now was wholly defined at conception, and may be even had received a "soul" at that point?
    I am of the very opposite view that my current "self" is the sum total of my "life events" up 'til today and nevertheless I wish some of those life experiences would have been different for the better, see?

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    1. I meant the genetic "you" - the embryo that would have become a certain person (not suggesting the embryo is the same as the adult person). This was in response to this quote: "imagine you, but bright of mind, and beautiful of face!" The point was that the selection for increased intelligence does not make an individual smarter - it chooses another, smarter (genetically different) individual over them.

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    2. And... this smarter, genetically different indivudual who, in the absence of eugenics, would NOT have been brought up to life is obviously in no position to complain as of today.
      How is THIS different from the one "washed down the sink" who is no more able to complain as of today?

      Delete
  8. The attractive thing about preimplantation embryo screening, ethically and pragmatically, is that parents would get to decide which of their own potential children, from combining their own genotypes, they would prefer to bring into existence.

    This can be done without any government policy, any coercion, any genetic engineering, or any centralized agreement about what constitutes a better person. It's simply an expanded form of reproductive freedom -- if you support freedom of mate choice, freedom of contraception, and freedom to abort based on genetic abnormalities, how can you object?

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    Replies
    1. I see your argument, but think (maybe feel is more accurate) that there are important differences. Parents choosing "which of their potential offspring they prefer to bring into existence" just feels ooky to me. Like a prenatal "Sophie's Choice". Freedom to abort based on genetic abnormalities is one thing (which I have no problem with, though even that can be extended based on how one defines an "abnormality") - but selecting based on smaller differences which would not impact health directly is something else. I guess it's the implicit assignment of differing levels of "quality" that bothers me. Part of my point in the post is to ask whether IQ should be the sole or primary criterion in such a decision (even if you accept such a decision should be made at all). Having people with high IQ say it obviously is is like having the LA Lakers say height should be the selecting factor.

      In any case, with respect to IQ, our predictive power is currently zero and likely to remain close to that for quite some time, I expect.

      Delete
    2. "Parents choosing 'which of their potential offspring they prefer to bring into existence' just feels ooky to me."

      And that's the kicker, and the real crux of the argument here... (see here)

      Delete
  9. "Education benefits everyone, regardless of IQ."
    uhh, actually the research is very clear: smarter people benefit from good teaching/education much, much more than non-smart people. Good education SPREADS OUT the distribution - the smart gain A LOT, the non-smart gain a little.

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  10. Took me a while to read through all the comments on here. I think there are a couple fallible assumptions being made by the pro-eugenics folks.

    Right away, I know their counterargument to this post is going to be ‘we won’t know until we try!’ But that’s the very last thing you say before Pandora’s Box opens.

    There have been a few analogies to basketball. In particular:
    Height is to winning at basketball as intelligence (g) is to winning at society.
    Here are two extensions of this analogy to consider.

    1.) There might be inherent limitations to selecting for IQ. In particular: draining other qualities at the expense of selecting for IQ. There are many 7’ people that are horrible athletes. Physical (or biophysical, if you like) limitations make it increasingly difficult for someone of that height to achieve basketball success. And if you make a 9’ tall human, he might be somewhat useful at basketball, but there would be a bunch of 6’ and 7’ guys running circles around him. A team full of 9’ players without any corresponding 6’ players could be pretty bad. The point of this analogy being that height, like IQ, isn’t the only factor in success, and when you select everyone for only one factor it is not obvious a net benefit will ensue (even when you know the parameters of the game).

    2.) So, you say, what if there aren’t inherent costs to the benefits and we can actually enhance ALL ‘desirable’ qualities simultaneously. What if somehow we can overcome biophysical limitations and make everyone 12’ tall and as fast as Usain Bolt? Or better yet: 20’ tall and as fast as a cheetah! Well, basketball has rules. And baskets 10’ tall. And 94’ x 50’ courts. Such players will quickly be constrained by the limitations of the game and start fouling out really quickly. Or become increasingly less effective as their size/speed combinations become unwieldy within the dimensions of the game.

    Just change the rules then! And now we've reached where things can get really bad. The analogy to changing the rules of ‘winning at society’ include such things as genocide, social injustice, dystopias and so many more things I can hardly imagine (http://gawker.com/5569338/errol-morris-on-unknown-unknowns).

    You might think this is a dumb analogy: but I implore you that it is not. We are constrained by the physical world we live in. We SHOULD BE constrained by making humanity better in an ethical way. Maybe you want to roll the dice and possibly incur the Wrath of Khan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugenics_Wars#Eugenics_Wars_and_World_War_III)—but it’s not so easy to close Pandora’s Box once it’s open.

    PS—I’ll admit I am poorly read on the relationship between psychophysical measurements and intelligence. But I believe equating reaction times and inspection times with “intelligence” is flawed on many accounts. One, the limitations of measuring and utilizing intelligence itself (as I go on about here http://jjsakon.wordpress.com/2013/05/17/some-thoughts-on-the-newfangled-eugenics-stuff) has holes. Two, processing speed is just one of MANY components of making beneficial decisions for a person (or a society). And at that point it collapses into points 1 and 2 above.

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  11. "This not only fails to consider any of the ethical and moral issues ..."
    Kevin are you sure what you mean by ethics and morality?
    Maybe you want to watch this video.
    watch?v=ddq8FwIfw7w

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  12. "That’s a lot of don’t knows"

    There will always be unkowns in everything. Any action involves risk and accepting unknowns. If you wait for every unkown to be understood, you will wait forever. I'm not advocating blatant recklessness, but accepting calculated risk is a necessity.

    "greatly exaggerates our technical abilities"

    Sure, but this is a reason to improve our abilities, not abandon the premise.

    "we have a proven and powerful tool to make people smarter: education."

    How can you make this claim, that education is "proven" to make people, all people, smarter, and deny the mountains of evidence, debate, and objection to the contrary while criticizing opt-in eugenics proponents of lacking some infinite level of evidence.

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    1. Thanks Clay, for your comments. My point about there being a lot of unknowns is not that we should not do the research, it's that we should not claim that an ability to make accurate predictions is right around the corner - it isn't.

      As for education, I thought the point was so obvious it would not need a lot of discussion, but apparently not. Perhaps I was not being clear - I do not think education can equalise intelligence, nor do I think everyone benefits from education to the same extent. But I do think everyone benefits to some extent and don't know of any evidence that would contradict that. Those benefits extend even to people with frank, clinical intellectual disability.

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  13. "First, we have not yet identified any genes 'for intelligence'. We know many that, when mutated, can cause intellectual disability (many hundreds, in fact), but none that clearly contribute to variation in the normal range (normal in the statistical sense of that word). Zero, zip, bupkis."

    If you are going to comment on this, you should be factually accurate. FNBP1L is a corroborated IQ gene.

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    1. I don't think even the authors of those studies would claim that as a solid finding. It certainly isn't by normal GWAS standards of evidence.

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    2. I disagree. FNBP1L is the "most significantly associated gene for adult intelligence" and "has a significant effect on childhood intelligence." (Benyamin et al) Davies et al found that it achieved a genome-wide significant association that a much smaller validation cohort could not replicate. Other GWAS research has suggested "a possible relaxation in the current [genome-wide significance] threshold." (Panagiotou & Ioannidis)

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    3. From the same papers: "Analyses of individual SNPs and genes did not result in any replicable genome-wide significant association" and "In our meta-analysis, we did not find any SNPs that reached a genome-wide significant P-value".
      I understand it popped out from gene-based tests, but the results from these are hardly compelling. My guess is if you asked the authors to wager on it being real, you'd have to offer them pretty good odds.

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  14. That would be quite a coincidence for two independent genome-wide studies to find that the gene was the "most strongly associated gene" purely by chance. It is "strongly expressed in neurons." These are not candidate gene p-value significance standards, but even those produce results that show "enrichment" in follow-up GWAS research. (Vimaleswaran et al)

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    Replies
    1. It would be a coincidence but for the fact that the samples overlapped substantially. When the previous samples were excluded, FNBP1l was ranked 80th in the new dataset.

      Also, at least 80% of genes are "highly expressed in neurons". As it happens, though, FNBP1L is nearly ubiquitous: http://www.genecards.org/cgi-bin/carddisp.pl?gene=FNBP1L)

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  15. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  16. Skipping over the deluge of other comments, I'd like to add my view. I think you might have radically misunderstood the issue.

    "For any individual, being more intelligent is better than being less intelligent. (All else being equal, that’s fair enough, I suppose). People who are more intelligent are therefore better than people who are less intelligent. (See how easy it is to get there?)"

    The second idea might be a reason to embrace eugenics of intelligence for some people, but it is probably not relevant to the question of pre-implantation screening. This screening is not done for society, it is done for families. Big difference there. Parents want the best for their children - this is pretty-much a universal thing, and parents want to choose the best brain and the best life and the best future for their own children. This is not the same as intentionally engineering a utopian society.

    Did you make a clear distinction between selecting for genes for better intelligence and screening out genes known to cause intellectual disability? Once again, this is a very important distinction to make. No family should feel obliged to happily tolerate a family history of intellectual disability. We are morally obliged to offer effective help to such families, just as we are morally obliged to fund preventative mastectomies for women with the breast cancer gene on a free national health scheme.

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    1. Thanks Lili, for your comment. You are right that there are two (or several) issues that can be considered separately. On the one hand, you have parental choice - especially to select against implanting embryos that are genetically predicted (very strongly) to be intellectually disabled. This goes on now and I do not in any way oppose it for serious conditions.

      The second is whether this kind of screening can and should be extended to IQ in the normal range, which is very different, to my mind. First of all, it can't, so there's that. Secondly, what I was reacting to was the implicit assumption that it is obvious that we should do that if we can. You say parents "want the best for their children", which is obviously true (it's a great line from GATTACA, in fact). But really, when talking about selection, you are talking about parents "wanting the best children" - not choosing that your child be more intelligent, but choosing the more intelligent child over the less intelligent one. To me, that is a very different thing, though I know others disagree.

      As for the wider eugenics issue, that was in reaction to several pieces that come pretty close to casually advocating these kinds of things on a societal level. Not surprisingly, more people seem in favour of parental choice eugenics than socially mandated selective policies. I was trying to argue that even the parental choice version has a number of attendant moral issues that merit serious discussion.

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  17. Suppose it was found that for the last 20 years some natural compound had been leaching into the water supply, subtly altering fetal genes such that babies are born with an IQ 5 pts less than those not exposed to the waste. In that case most people would advocate actions to clean up the waste in order to prevent the reduction in IQ. Yet that situation involves a very similar trade off between counterfactual people. What would your response be to that particular situation?

    Nick Bostrom's reversal test (http://www.nickbostrom.com/ethics/statusquo.pdf) is useful in these situations as well. If you're not convinced that a society with more people with higher IQs would be a change for the better, what about a society where more people have lower IQs? If you think that also wouldn't be a change for the better then you'd need to have a good explanation for why the IQs we happen to have also happen to be the optimal IQ rather than the, to my mind, more likely situation that we're existing somewhere on a slope of either continuously increasing benefits of IQ or continuously increasing harms.


    You advocate education as a method of making people smarter. Are educated people "therefore better" than the non-educated? The fact that you think there are steps we should take to shape the types of people there are in society (education) suggests that you make assignments of moral worth about people in society already. You have a person A, you can take steps to educate them giving person A*, or you can choose not to educate them giving person A**. I would argue that, while genetically identical, A* and A** are different people, in exactly the same way that identical twins are. Your selection of A* over A** makes exactly the same moral assignment you accuse eugenicists of.

    Perhaps intelligence as measured by IQ isn't something we want to select for, but if you believe that the set of skills/abilities imparted on people through education are positive then how would you argue against a genetic selection shown to increase people's "educatability" (pretending such a test were possible)? And if using genotyping is questionable due to the various difficulties involved in devising a genetic test, why not use a phenotypic approach? It would only affect a small corner of society but by allowing women seeking sperm donors to select by IQ of the donor you would sidestep the scientific problems involved in genotyping (although not the moral concerns).

    Have you read either "What sort of people should there be?" (scan of the book available for free here http://jonathanglover.co.uk/books/what-sort-of-people-should-there-be) or "Choosing children" by Jonathan Glover? Both have very nice philosophical considerations of exactly these types of questions. I don't actually advocate eugenics but I always find it interesting to look at these things from the other side. Thanks for the interesting read!

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  18. The morality of selecting for or against any trait should not be the first item for discussion. To begin with, I see this less as an issue of scientific appropriateness and more an issue of reproductive common sense. Having VERY closely experienced life with autistics, bipolars, schizophrenics, etc. I can confidently say not everyone should be allowed to have children period -- even if that would have meant I would not have been born.

    I find it ironic that it is well-educated reasonably well-functioning people who have not had parents or multiple family members with mental health or cognitive disorders who are the ones discussing this topic. I also find it ironic that these same people talk about whether or not it is right to intervene in genetics while the masses in the lower echelons of human functionality reproduce randomly and without consideration of the consequences to their children, themselves, or society.

    If we are going to select for traits, why not select against power mongering individuals who would abuse the use of eugenics for personal gain of some sort and select for individuals who would recognize the importance of considering the total perspective of the child and the wisdom of bringing it into existence before niggling over whether genes should be altered or not.

    From a strictly scientific point of view, this is not merely some simple single gene human recipe change. X-inactivation, unknown interactions between genes, epigenetic influences, etc. can all combine to skew the outcome of the genetically designed individual. We need full genome information from many many more individuals and a plan for what to do with mistakes before jumping onto the genetically designed human band wagon.

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  19. "But really, when talking about selection, you are talking about parents "wanting the best children" - not choosing that your child be more intelligent, but choosing the more intelligent child over the less intelligent one. To me, that is a very different thing, though I know others disagree."

    No, when I discuss parental selection for higher IQ I consider that I'm writing about parents wanting the best for their children by selecting the best embryos. It is all about selecting embryos, not people. These days most people decide to a degree how many kids they will have and when they will have them and with who. There are planned roles or vacancies that embryos can fill. The best embryos for the roles can be chosen. This is not an ethical problem if you do not consider an embryo to be a person. I think these days most people think in this way, if they think at all.

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