Designer Babies To Be Super Intelligent?

Scientists will try to create smarter human beings, but there's something they forgot

By William M Briggs Published on January 18, 2016

Word is that “scientists in the UK could begin genetically engineering human embryos as early as March.” But don’t worry. As another report says, “It will be illegal to allow the embryos to live beyond 14 days.”

Besides “curing” diseases (by killing embryos that have them) and studying other aspects of human development, one thing scientists hope to discover is how to engineer babies which are of higher intelligence. What are their chances of success?

That aspects of intelligence are correlated (I use this word in its plain English sense) with the brain, and that brain development is correlated most strongly with genes and to some extent to the environment, is nowhere in dispute, except among egalitarian ideologists who feel (not think) that intelligence is a matter of environment alone. What makes it strange is that these same ideologists are “for” killing enwombed humans who test positive for things like Down Syndrome. Never mind that now.

The scientific questions of interest are how well we can identify those genes which are correlated to those areas of the brain which are correlated with intelligence. Notice the different correlations. And once we identify those genes, and understand how those genes interact with neighboring genes in the development of persons, can we manipulate these genes and increase the intelligence of babies while simultaneously suppressing dysgenic side effects of our manipulations?

The answer is probably yes, but with many qualifications. Finding a set of genes that are solely responsible for intelligence is no easy task, and perhaps impossible. The best efforts to date are fraught with statistical over-certainty; only the weakest and most error-prone experiments have so far been done. My reading of this literature suggests we’re are miles away from the goal. (Discussing why this is so would take us too far afield, but for those readers who want to know, most evidence for “intelligence genes” is by wee p-value and hypothesis tests; in other words, most evidence is wrong.)

The possibility of side effects is never mentioned and little thought about. The lessons of Icarus and Herr Doktor Frankenstein are always thought to apply to the other guy, which is why the hubris in this field is none too small. Since we have little idea which exact genes control intelligence, and how intelligence “interacts” with the rest of a person, there is no way we can accurately predict the effects of our meddlings. This should, but does not, dampen enthusiasm.

Currently, “laws” are being discussed or written barring lab-constructed humans from being born, which means, of course, that our experiments are killed after they have served their purposes. This itself is a deleterious side effect.

What of laws? Rape, theft, and murder have been illegal for a very long time, yet the mere presence of laws has not stopped these activities. Neither will laws stop experimentation on human beings. Children the result of planned genetics will, therefore, be born, law or no. Can you imagine the celebrity of these kids once their “status” becomes known, as of course it will?

What about limitations: how smart can a human be? Nobody knows. How far can we push the purely material aspects of intelligence? I mean, what precise combination of genes, assuming also no side effects, will produce a man who is smarter than any before? Nobody knows this, either. It could be that our natural “experiments,” i.e. having babies the old fashioned way, is the optimal way to go about this, and that, perhaps, our best days as a race are behind us. We may now lack the intelligence to understand how to increase our intelligence in any designed manner!

One thing is clear. There are intelligences vastly superior to humans, but these beings are non-material, i.e. angels (good and bad). On top of this, aspects of our own intelligence are also non-material. And that means juicing the material aspects of intelligence can only help so much. After brain size, to speak loosely, is up to some limit, the rest is not up to us. We, quite literally, cannot play God.

What’s that? You don’t believe in angels (and demons) and our partly non-material nature? Well, that only proves my point that we have climbed down from the sunny uplands of intelligence and now dwell on the darkened plains, where we live as scidolators. Yet we choose to call ourselves “Enlightened.” Skip it.

The thing that’s striking about the designer-baby push is what I call the Gonna-Get-Me-Some Fallacy, which is when the promoters of intelligence by genetic manipulation think, in a puzzling sort of way, that they too will be recipients of the smarts largess. This is never stated outright, but it lingers in the air. I don’t mean only that supporters think society will be bettered, but that supporters believe they themselves will gain intelligence, which is impossible. In fact, if this all works, supporters will make themselves obsolete.

Wanting to better mankind by orienting ourselves toward the Perfect is not wrong, but thinking that we can attain (or quantify!) perfection is insane. Historically, one way to eugenically improve society was to emasculate or slaughter undesirables after they escaped the womb; but with “advanced” technology, we can now do this before they exit. It’s certainly a cleaner method.

Although there are arguments that greater intelligence on average is a net good for mankind, intelligence by itself in the absence of morality is not. Consider that Mao Tse Tung was no fool: he had an immense library with volumes filled with erudite notes. Yet his great intelligence is partly why in the universal Body Count Contest he comes out on top, or very near it (fans of Genghis Khan are always bickering over numbers). It is far from clear that a society with distinct classes divided by intelligence will be morally superior. That there will be distinct classes guaranteed, because the poor will be unable to afford designer services, which means only the rich will partake. That great prophet Aldous Huxley was on to something.

Some of these points are already moot, because we are already at the point of designer babies. Sex selection is not uncommon (despite many laws to prevent it). Genetic testing lets parents kill off undesirables (none recall these tests are imperfect, meaning the “wrong” babies are sometimes killed). In vitro implantations are routine, so what’s the difference if the “raw” egg and sperm are first processed a little? Well, no difference at all, most will feel (not think).

Plus, we now have calls for post-birth genetic screening. The co-author of one (poor but standard) genes-intelligence study wants parents to see if their kids have the combination of genes he identified as producing intelligence. This is silly. It would be like selecting Major League pitchers by testing for “curve-ball genes”, instead of putting folks on the mound and seeing if they can strike out batters. The danger is that we become slaves of our tests: it said he was intelligent, therefore he must be.

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  • Gail Finke

    Wait, what? They are going to conceive human beings and then kill them after 14 days? This is a plan? Who could POSSIBLY see anything wrong with that????

  • Robert J. Cihak, MD

    This reminds me of the single panel cartoon with the father of the family seated in his easy chair scowling at his 10-year-old son’s report card. The son asks, “OK, dad. How much of that is due to heredity and how much to environment?” Anyone who laughs at that KNOWS that the human will exists and is powerful.

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