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Building the Better Baby

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

In the 1997 film GATTACA, a couple anxious to have a child sit down with their doctor. He shows them the very best embryos that were produced from combining their gametes. The physician explains that he will help them to have a child who is the very best of themselves by choosing the best embryos and tweaking the DNA.  In 2014, BGI, a Chinese company, is hoping that it will soon be able to offer parents a similar option—choosing the “smartest” embryo.

As the world’s largest genetic research center, BGI has collected over 2,000 DNA samples from subjects with high IQs. These strands will be compared against the general population to see what, if any, DNA differs between the two groups. The goal is to find the genes for high intelligence (as defined by an IQ test). The second phase will be to use this knowledge to allow parents to have embryos created through artificial reproductive technologies tested for these high IQ genes. Then only the smartest embryos would be implanted.

In its information, the company assumes that 50-80% of intelligence is inherited. This “fact” is controvertible. Some researchers claim inheritance is 40% of intelligence while others hold the number may be 50%.  BGI’s assumption is just that, as nurture and environment have a great deal to do actual intelligence. There are a lot of challenges to these studies and this assumption. For the studies, there are questions about the narrowness (and nonrandomness) of the sample populations tested. There is also some concern that the statistics used are not appropriate. As for the assumption, we must consider that there is wide disagreement over what counts as intelligence—is it book learning, common sense, or something else? Also consider that even if there is a large genetic component to intelligence, that is a predisposition which must be nurtured to become actual intelligence in life.

Such a technology is likely to be very expensive. The DailyMail reports that according to Bowen Zhao, the head of BGI, in his blog, “Imagine what a couple might pay to ensure that they get the best out of 10 or 50 possible offspring, optimizing over their choice of heritable attributes.” At first such a technology is likely only to be available to the very wealthy, making the wealth gap into an intelligence gap and leading to further social injustice.

Eventually, though, the price might come down and be available to many. At that point, we could face the world presented in GATTACA where those who are engineered or are a “chosen” embryo would have all of the advantages whereas natural births would be more limited. And this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. A family that spends a great deal of money choosing a smarter embryo will have expectations of that child in terms of performance. That child may receive extra tutoring, the best schools, and increased intellectual stimulation and opportunity. The natural-born child, may not have those chances because he or she will not be expected to be among the very smart. Thus, the biological advantage quickly becomes a social advantage. Eventually, everyone will feel pressured to have chosen children rather than leaving intelligence up to nature.

Many of the arguments in favor talk about perfecting humanity or creating a generation of Einsteins. The latter argument assumes that higher IQ equals greater productivity that is beneficial to society. As one Canadian editorial` on the matter describes, Thomas Jefferson (138) had a lower IQ than Hitler (141), and Einstein shares an IQ with Bill Gates of 160, which is below the 167 of Ted Kaczynski, otherwise known as the “Unabomber.” Now whether these numbers are accurate (and how Jefferson took a modern IQ test) is debatable. The point, however, is that more intelligence doesn’t mean someone who changes the world positively. The smart embryo could have a strong negative impact as well. Unless BGI is also creating a test for “evil” vs. “good” DNA. High IQ does not mean high emotional or social intelligence. Studies on high performers in business organizations suggest that good leaders need the whole package, rather than a single factor.

What would be wrong with choosing humans to be on the higher end of the intelligence spectrum? Not enhanced with super smarts, but given the opportunity to be the smartest child that could be produced from the parent’s DNA. Why not help nature out by weeding out those embryos that are not the most intelligent? There is the issue of the widening divide between the haves and have-nots. There are also arguments that we should not be tinkering with nature this way—that there is a spiritual reason to how life comes through procreation, as well as a biological advantage to having a diverse gene pool.

Of course this practice smells a lot like eugenics, selectively breeding human populations to increase (or decrease) certain traits. Given our history with eugenics, there is a good reason that the word has a negative connotation. The United States and Germany both experimented with eugenics by sterilizing or killing individuals believed to have “undesirable traits” and encouraging those with desired traits to have more children. History should not be ignored and provides lessons about what can go wrong when we view people as nothing more than their DNA. Reading a person’s DNA does not tell you who that person is. In GATTACA, a job interview consists of testing a person’s DNA to see if they have superior stock, the presumption being that the blueprint is all you need to know. The human being is more than just base pairs, we are the sum of our experiences, our hopes and desires, our relationships and beliefs. I can read the blueprints on how to put together a building, but I need to know a lot more (about design, quality of materials, building methods) to make a building that will stand.

Objectifying people as being no more than their blueprint is the same thinking that has dehumanized people into being laboratory subjects, slave labor, and property. Such thinking can cause real damage to individuals and populations and even gives access to thinking that genocide is acceptable or a solution to a problem.  The danger of eugenics is we could be repeating the past as we dehumanize human beings. Those with average or below average intelligence would become an underclass, victim of intellectual bullying, and family shame.

Assuming the smart gene is discovered and made into a viable commercial product, it wouldn’t be long before this option became an imperative—technology often works that way. The idea of being the very best that we as a species or an individual can be is enticing. After all, this technology is nothing more than speeding up natural selection. The danger, however, is to lose our humanity. It is our foibles, weaknesses, and mistakes that often lead to our greatness. No can truly succeed, create great art, or empathize with others until he or she has experienced great failure and loss. If permitted at all, such technology should be highly regulated on a universal level.

The concern over this announcement isn’t that BGI will be able to do what they aim to—it’s a simplistic view of DNA and intelligence—but more what it says about ourselves. Maybe this will not work with intelligence, but it might for height (also linked to success) or some other characteristic. Before we go down this rabbit hole, we should spend some time thinking about whether we want to go there at all and how we will deal with it when we do.

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