I decided that there was an unelaborated side to this recent eugenics debate that’s been cropping up on the twittersphere. As a brief summary, a few people (@matingmind [Geoffrey Miller] and @razibkhan) have been defending recent work on “China engineering genius babies”. Vice might have overstepped a bit with the phrasing—no surprise there—but reading that interview with @matingmind leaves a pretty bad taste in one’s mouth. I don’t want this to be a personal attack, so I’ll leave the immodesty stuff out of this, but I have some nits to pick.
To start off, Kevin Mitchell already has a great post on the underlying genetics of trying to select for ‘intelligence’. If you haven’t read it, you should probably go read that first (here’s another good post from Ed Yong). He describes how traits—particularly advanced cognitive ones—are likely influenced by thousands of mutations. Some of these could be quite rare, making the basic task of selecting for any of them Herculean. In response, Razib Khan did admit this by saying “It makes sense to be skeptical of the scientific possibilities in the near to medium term.”
For my first point, I wanted to add something from the scientific perspective: I’ve recently had my eyes opened on the nature vs. nurture stuff. Sure, we’ve all had it beaten into our heads that it’s not nature vs. nurture, it’s nature AND nurture and different proportions of each. But here’s the thing: there’s a (sometimes HUGE) third component. As explained by Eric Turkheimer in this fascinating paper, the ‘nonshared environment’ of an organism will have a large impact on how it turns out. Here’s a key snippet:
“Why don’t identical twins raised in the same family have identical outcomes? There are two important reasons. The first is measurement error. The second is the self-determinative ability of humans to chart a course for their own lives, constrained but not determined by the genes, family, and culture, and in response to the vagaries of environmental experience with which they are presented. The nonshared environment, in a phrase, is free will.”
And the more complicated a trait is, the more this nonshared environment variable is going to come into play. Your nonshared environment isn’t going to influence your height much. But it has the potential to have a large impact on your personality. You can certainly imagine a person that has a bunch of fluky things go wrong turning into an embittered individual. This isn’t just conjecture anymore either, as there’s a brand new study by Gerd Kempermann’s group that quantifies this in genetically identical mice that grow up in the same place (hat tip to Virginia Hughes for the explanation). In short, stochasticity plays a role in who you are. From the quantum mechanical level on up there is a lot of randomness there to screw up the best laid genes of mice and men. You might still call this ‘nurture’, but it’s nurture at a different level. Or you might just call it ‘shit happens’.
So, bringing this back to the eugenics debate, it’s not just hard to measure an advanced trait like intelligence—even if you believed in one test of it—but there are so many things that can go wrong even if you COULD select for some kind of ‘smart’ gene.
This gets at my second point: how I interpret ‘intelligence’ as a neuroscientist, and why trying to ‘improve’ humans is totally misguided.
I’m probably being simplistic, but eugenics made sense when I was 12. Back then I thought intelligence was a quantifiable thing. Some people were really smart and hey there are tests to prove it! But, as anyone who reads about these kind of things knows, it is not so simple. There are so many environmental factors and, personally, I now know how lucky I had it to grow up a white male in America. This of course leads to how intelligence testing itself is flawed. And if you don’t agree with the comic, here’s a great post from Frans de Waal about how even our studies of animal intelligence have been misguided, and their capabilities are a lot more nuanced than we realized.
Again, I don’t want to get into the Howard Gardner stuff and make a bunch of hippie arguments about ‘no one can even know anything’ but here’s a simple example I like to tell people: LeBron James is a genius. Have you seen the way he drives to the hole? No one else his size has ever moved like that on a basketball court (or maybe anywhere). Just because he probably couldn’t pass a test for MENSA, does he not still possess a staggering intelligence in his selected field? He’s also a pretty good public speaker (maybe not always content-wise), so he hardly has a one-track mind.
Now, let’s bring this back to eugenics. And we’ll use my favorite movie as an example: Gattaca. In case you haven’t seen it, the basic premise of Gattaca is that even in a world where people are selected for and typecasted based on ‘superior’ genetics, the human spirit can overcome such boundaries. This is epitomized by a few tremendous scenes where Ethan Hawke’s character, who is the natural-born runt of the litter, defeats his genetically-selected-for brother in harrowing games of chicken based on who can swim the farthest into the ocean. So, let’s say my imaginary eugenicist friend (not really my friend), points out: ‘well we can just select for the traits that gave Ethan Hawke his enhanced human spirit!’ On its face that doesn’t sound that bad. Successful people are motivated and have some gumption, heck I’d argue that that’s most of what comprises intelligence (does one read a lot because he/she is smart, or is he/she smart because that person is motivated to read?).
BUT is this really what we want? I can just imagine selecting for a bunch of Ethan Hawkes. Sure, THAT one in Gattaca was a good guy, but you know what you get when you take an average guy with a lot of gumption? A hedge fund douche. Suddenly we’d be selecting for a bunch of competitive people, and with all the different ways our environments can shape us (both by chance and by the families/places we’re raised in), you’re going to get some good ones and some bad ones. And then you’re going to get the housing crisis.
So the answer is NO. No matter what trait you come up with, there are problems. Further, that evolution stuff works prettttty well. Creating a spectrum of humans with a spectrum of strengths and weaknesses is what makes the world go ‘round. Limiting people by selecting for some kind of trait that maximizes ‘g’ is truly that: limiting.
I should point out: I’m not against trying to weed out mutations for debilitating diseases. No one should have to live through Huntington’s if it can be avoided. But when @razibkhan says “So sorry to turn this upside down, but personal eugenics may in fact be a boon for the ugly, stupid, and psychologically unstable, because it gives them a opportunity to close much of the gap with those who were lucky in the genetic lottery”, we’re dealing with some very QUALITATIVE traits that make humans what they are. Having to overcome adversity is part of what makes Ethan Hawke swim farther, and part of that adversity came because he did NOT win the genetic lottery. That was kinda the point of the movie. As for psychological instability, it is not easy to quantify, and many of the great works and creations of all time came from people on the edge. You want to select AGAINST this? If we did this already, we probably wouldn’t be the same advanced human race we are today.
So, to sum up, when @matingmind says “Obviously you should make babies genetically healthier, happier, and brighter,” I’m willing to agree with the first of those (physically, at least). Hopefully as I’ve explained here, you’ll understand why I think the latter two are fool’s errands, and ones that will probably harm humankind.