“Designer Babies” and the Path to Transhumanism

That great poet among philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote,

I teach you the overman.  Man is something that shall be overcome.  What have you done to overcome him?  All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man?  What is the ape to man?  A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment.  And man shall be just that for the overman:  a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment… Behold, I teach you the overman.  The overman is the meaning of the earth.  Let your will say:  the overman shall be the meaning of the earth!

Nietzsche was no believer in “scientific morality.”  He knew that if, as his Zarathustra claimed, God was really dead, there was no basis for his preferred version of the future of mankind or his preferred versions of Good and Evil beyond a personal whim.  However, as whims go, the above passage at least has the advantage of being consistent.  In other words, unlike some modern versions of morality, it isn’t a negation of the reasons that morality evolved in the first place.  It would have been interesting to hear the great man’s impressions of a world in which modern genetics is increasingly endowing the individual with the power to decide for himself whether he wants to be the “rope between man and overman” or not.

Hardly a month goes by without news of some new startup offering the latest version of the power.  For example, a week ago an article turned up in The Guardian describing the “Matchright” technology to be offered by a venture by the name of Genepeeks.  Its title, Startup offering DNA screening of ‘hypothetical babies’ raises fears over designer children, reflects the usual “Gattaca” nightmares that so many seem to associate with such technologies.  It describes “Matchright” as a computational tool that can screen the DNA of potential sperm donors, identifying those who carry a risk of genetically transmitted diseases when matched with the DNA of a recipients egg.  According to the article,

…for the technology to work it needs to pull off a couple of amazing tricks. For a start, it is not as simple as creating a single digital sperm and an egg based on the parents and putting them together. When an egg and a sperm fuse in real life, they swap a bunch of DNA – a process called recombination – which is part of the reason why each child (bar identical twins) is different. To recreate this process, the software needs to be run 10,000 times for each individual potential donor. They can then see the percentage of these offspring that are affected by the disease.

It goes on to quote bioethicist Ronald Green of Dartmouth:

The system will provide the most comprehensive genetic analysis to date of the potential risk of disease in a newborn, without even needing to fertilise a single egg. It gives people more confidence about disease risk, says Green, who is not involved in the work: “If someone I care for was in the market for donor sperm I might encourage them to use this technology,” he says.

In keeping with the usual custom for such articles, this one ends up with a nod to the moralists:

As for the ethical issues, (company co-founder Anne) Morriss does not deny they are there, but believes in opening up the discussion “beyond the self-appointed ethicists”. “I think everybody should be involved – the public and the scientists and the regulators.”

Indeed, “self-appointed ethicists” aren’t hard to find.  There is an interesting discussion of the two sides of this debate in an article recently posted at Huffington Post entitled The Ethics of ‘Designer Babies.‘ Such concerns beg a question that also came up in the debate back in the late 40’s and early 50’s about whether we should develop hydrogen bombs – do we really have a choice?  After all, we’re not the only ones in the game.  Consider, for example, the title of an article that recently appeared on the CBS News website:  Designer babies” on the way? In China, scientists attempt to unravel human intelligence. According to the article,

Inside a converted shoe factory in Shenzhen, China, scientists have launched an ambitious search for the genes linked to human intelligence.

The man in charge of the project is 21-year-old science savant, Zhao Bowen. He estimates more than 60 percent of your IQ is decided by your parents, and now they want to prove it.

Asked how he would describe his ultimate goal, Zhao said it’s to “help people understand themselves and to create a better world.”

The “self-appointed ethicists” can react to Zhao’s comment as furiously as they please.  The only problem is that they don’t have a monopoly on the right to make the decision.  They may not be personally inclined to become “the rope between man and overman.”  However, I suspect they may reevaluate their ethical concerns when they find themselves left in the dust with the apes.

Pygmy Chimpanzee Laughs

Of Race and Intelligence

An interesting article on intelligence recently turned up in Scott Barry Kaufman’s Beautiful Minds, one of the Scientific American blogs.  Entitled The Heritability of Intelligence:  Not What You Think, it described a recent study of the correlation of different types of cognitive ability with IQ, and the implications regarding the importance of culture to the development of those abilities.  In other words, it’s a nature versus nurture paper.  Indeed, it went so far as to allude to the significance of the study concerning the issue of racial IQ differences.  Can you guess, dear reader, the conclusion of the article, or at least its basic gist?  Of course!  The chances that the relentlessly politically correct Scientific American or any of its blogs would ever contain such a statement as, “There are significant racial differences in IQ, and genetic heritability accounts for a large component of those differences,” are about as likely as the chance that the Pope’s staff will suddenly sprout leaves.  Indeed, I sometimes suspect that Scientific American subscribes to the quantum entanglement theory of intelligence, according to which, if a really smart member of one race dies, an equally smart member of every other race dies at precisely the same moment, regardless of their spatial separation, to maintain exact parity between the IQ of the races.

And, true to form, the entirely predictable burden of the article was that culture accounts for the apparent IQ differences between blacks and whites.  That made the following bit from the article all the more surprising:

To be clear: these findings do not mean that differences in intelligence are entirely determined by culture. Numerous researchers have found that the structure of cognitive abilities is strongly influenced by genes (although we haven’t the foggiest idea which genes are reliably important). What these findings do suggest is that there is a much greater role of culture, education, and experience in the development of intelligence than mainstream theories of intelligence have assumed. Behavioral genetics researchers– who parse out genetic and environmental sources of variation– have often operated on the assumption that genotype and environment are independent and do not covary. These findings suggests they very much do.

There’s one more really important implication of these findings, which I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention.

Black-White Differences in IQ Test Scores

In his analysis of the US Army data, the British psychometrician Charles Spearman noticed that the more a test correlated with IQ, the larger the black-white difference on that test. Years later, Arthur Jensen came up with a full-fledged theory he referred to as “Spearman’s hypothesis: the magnitude of the black-white differences on tests of cognitive ability are directly proportional to the test’s correlation with IQ. In a controversial paper in 2005, Jensen teamed up with J. Philippe Rushton to make the case that this proves that black-white differences must be genetic in origin.

But these recent findings by Kees-Jan Kan and colleagues suggest just the opposite: The bigger the difference in cognitive ability between blacks and whites, the more the difference is determined by cultural influences.

Of course, as anyone who has actually read Jensen’s work is aware, he explicitly supported a correlation between culture and IQ.  And, of course, the author is evoking stark, nature-nurture divides where none exist in a fashion that would certainly bring a scowl to the face of orthodox evolutionary psychologists.  But beyond all that, what’s really stunning here is the author’s suggestion that the heritably of black/white intelligence differences is somehow the “orthodox” or mainstream point of view.  Doesn’t he actually read Scientific American himself?

After all, when Murray and Herrnstein published The Bell Curve, with its claim that IQ is 40% to 80% heritable, the SA review of their book called them racists.

After all,  In October 1973 a half-page advertisement entitled “Resolution Against Racism” appeared in the New York Times. With over 1000 academic signatories, it condemned “racist research”, denouncing in particular Jensen, Shockley and Herrnstein.

After all, The American Anthropological Association convened a panel discussion in 1969 at its annual general meeting, shortly after the appearance of Jensen’s first paper on the heritability of intelligence, where several participants labelled his research as “racist”.

After all, in a review of The Bell Curve, Steven Rosenthal referred to their work as “Academic Nazism.”

I could go on and on.  In a word, other than the absurd implication that “behavioral genetics researchers” claim that intelligence and culture do not co-vary (by all means, if anyone knows one, please name her/him), and other than the equally absurd implication that Jensen and Rushton believed that, because intelligence was, in part heritable, it was therefore uninfluenced by culture, quite apart from all that, the notion that the theoretical heritability of black/white intelligence differences is “mainstream” is ludicrous.  In fact, the “mainstream,” orthodox position, constantly reinforced in the popular as well as scientific literature, not to mention the pages of Scientific American, is that Jensen, Shockley, and Herrnstein, and those who agree with them, are deliberately evil racist miscreants.

Heaven forefend that I should ever stray from that orthodoxy by a jot or a tittle.  I do, however, think it would be quite interesting, though, of course, grossly immoral, if the dictator of some sub-Saharan country in Africa were to implement a draconian program of eugenics, exclusively for his country’s black population, promoting high IQ.  Suppose it were actually possible to keep it going for 200 or 300 years, and it actually succeeded (in spite of the fact that we don’t have “the foggiest idea” of where the relevant genes are, and because a = b, and b = c, it would quite clearly be mathematically impossible)?   At that point it would become necessary for the editors of Scientific American, at least in that country, to begin publishing articles proving that the lower IQ of whites compared to blacks was entirely an artifact of culture.  It might actually be quite amusing.

And, at the risk or provoking completely unwarranted accusations of political incorrectness, I might add that I wish it really would become as orthodox as Mr. Kaufman suggests to study inherited IQ differences between human groups, and even to come up with a useful metric for measuring the same.  True, it might offend some people, but, among other things, it might be quite useful as a tool for assessing the relative merits of the new moral systems that are cropping up these days.  We have certainly felt the lack of such a tool in the past.

In fact, the “covariance” between morality and intelligence has become quite pronounced in recent times.  This is particularly true of one of the “new-fashioned” moralities, of the type we are constantly assured we need to replace the old ones in the name of promoting “human flourishing.”  The one I have in mind is Marxism, and never did such a new secular religion, complete with a revolutionary new morality, introduce itself to the world with more extravagant promises of the “human flourishing” to come.  That’s where the usefulness of the proposed metric comes in.  I would maintain, quite apart from what was promised, that one of the most remarkable aspects of the reality of Marxist “human flourishing” that we have now been fortunate enough to witness has been the decapitation of at least two countries; the former Soviet Union and Cambodia.

In round numbers, 25 million of a population of something under 200 million in the Soviet Union, and two million of a population of around seven million in Cambodia, were shot, starved, or tortured to death in these two countries in the interest of promoting “human flourishing.”  These millions were not randomly chosen.  They were, in fact, an instance of reverse eugenics in action.  The historical source material is there in abundance for anyone who cares to look.  Read, for example, Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, or Survival in the Killing Fields by Haing Ngor and Roger Warner.  In both cases, the victims came disproportionately from the ranks of each nation’s best and brightest; its scientists, its engineers, its literary and philosophical intelligentsia, and anyone else who happened to be educated beyond the mean.

It seems to me wildly implausible that these events had no significant impact on the heritable cognitive abilities of the populations of these two nations, whether in the form of IQ or any other plausible measure.  Would not a metric of exactly what these effects were be extremely useful in helping us decide whether the whole project of coming up with yet another wonderful new morality is really in our best interests or not?  Who knows, we might find out that there are actually better ways to promote “human flourishing” after all.