Enhancement

Bad news for “intelligence-genes”

Intelligence and its heritability has been a popular topic in scientific communities and public discussions for long. Recent findings give new insight to the debate: one of the largest studies on genetic influence to intelligence and other behavioral traits turned up inconclusive findings, as Nature News reports in a recent article “Smart genes” prove elusive.

Existing literature on candidate gene associations is rich in studies that have been unable to replicate and findings have been based on “wishful thinking and shoddy statistics”. According to an editorial in Behavior Genetics,

it now seems likely that many of the published findings of the last decade are wrong or misleading and have not contributed to real advances in knowledge.

The journal declares it will tighten its publication policy for candidate gene association studies of complex traits: they now recommend direct replication analysis prior publication and rigorous testing of statistical models. By this, they wish to decrease publication of findings brought by mere chance or other kinds of biases.

Especially twin and family studies, which repeatedly have reported a genetic basis for intelligence and behavior, are subjected to critique. The challenge is these studies is the assumption that genetic and environmental effects could be separated, but the case is not so simple.

In contrast to the criticized studies on “candidate genes”, new studies operate with genome-wide association (GWAS) scans of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and large samples of persons – the quoted studies included more than 100,000 participants. The GWAS studies to date have not found genome-wide significant SNPs in social-science genetics that replicate consistently, and researchers predict that most reported genetic associations with general intelligence are probably false positives.

A study on genetic variants associated with educational attainment (how many years the individuals were in education) found three variants, but the estimated effect was not remarkable: each variant estimated approximately 1 additional month of schooling. The researchers report that existing claims of candidate genes and their association with complex social science traits were even 100 times larger than in their findings, and they propose their results to be a benchmark for evaluating the existing literature.

 In social-science genetics, researchers must be especially vigilant to avoid misinterpretations. One of the many concerns is that a genetic association will be mischaracterized as “the gene for X,” encouraging misperceptions that genetically influenced phenotypes are immune to environmental intervention and misperceptions that individual SNPs have large effects (which our evidence contradicts).

In the follow-up study, the education-associated SNPs were related with SNPs associated with cognitive performance. Three variants associated with both were found, but again the effect was low: even if a person had both copies of all the variants, she would score an average of 1.8 higher points in an IQ test (when most of the population scores 85-115; hence, 1.8 points is not a big number). The study is cautious with these kinds of results: with such small effect sizes, the risk of false positives is increased.

The origins of intelligence, thus, remain twisty. Bearing in mind that there is not even a unified definition for the very concept and its operationalization, the situation is somewhat expected.  Are IQ-tests the best measure? What about different kinds of intelligence? Do things such as logical and social intelligence and creativity come together or can they be exclusionary? Can there be a bulk term “intelligence” to describe the “best thing to be”? Many answers of course exist, but simplified would be to say that the question was easy or solved.

But at least this seems to be an easy conclusion: the “intelligence-gene” has little scientific evidence. Many genetic variants are related to cognitive ability, but with small effects. Genetic studies on heritability of complex traits tell us about the variation of a certain trait in a population – not necessarily the reasons why some people have the trait. Heritability does not mean controllable.  What we might call intelligence is a polygenic and multifactorial question: genes of course affect it, but the outcome is the result of all sorts of environmental questions including ecological, physical, cultural, and socioeconomic issues. Genes and environment are a matter of circular causation.  

An interesting question of its own is that what lies behind the “wishful thinking” in studies in genetics and intelligence. Why it is a thing to be hoped for that intelligence would be determined by genetics? What does it mean to hope that intelligence would be genetically determined?

At least it means that intelligence would be inborn, and the division between the intelligent and non-intelligent would be a solid one. This idea indeed has historical roots: “The use of flawed science to help present a case for accepting the status quo is not new. Attempts to link intelligence to social hierarchies were made throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” For example the Bell Curve went on making straightforward connections about the genetic origin of intelligence between individuals and groups, including race. As the scientific validity of that and similar studies have been shown to be highly questionable, the motivation for creating such findings is in need of explanation. Why is the idea preferable that some people, or groups, would be more intelligent than others? That others would, biologically, be less intelligent than others? Moralism, discrimination, and the aim of cementing power structures and social hierarchies should not be hidden into flawed science and purpose-oriented interpretations.

Straightforward conclusions about motives behind optimism of finding specific genetic origins of intelligence are of course not preferable. However, digging up and discussing assumptions and ideologies is worthwhile.

The bioethical literature suggesting genetic enhancement of intelligence of course could have another answer: that the genetic origin would bring the possibility for making us all very intelligent. However, considering the implausibility of the “gene for intelligence”, this is likely to remain as a thought-experiment. If there is a big concern about bringing possibilities for becoming more intelligent, then, taking account the extensive data on increasing “intelligence” with environmental means, there is already now the possibility for fierce campaigning, for example, for access to high-quality education throughout the population.

Playing the game: a story for the pool-side sun-lounger

It’s still summery, and so here is a little story for the beach or the side of the pool

‘There are challenges, certainly’, said the Boss. ‘But we’re confident that we can meet them. Or at least’, he went on, looking over his glasses for signs of dissent, ‘for a critical mass of stakeholders’.

A graph appeared on the screen at his side. He traced its lines with a red laser dot.

‘Here’, he said, ‘we have the expected rise of temperature with time. And here’ (he stabbed with the dot, as if doing the killing himself), ‘we have the consequent reduction in human population – assuming’ (and he held up a schoolmasterly finger), ‘we don’t have any HR66.’

He sipped some water, and waited for this to sink in. It did.

‘But don’t worry’, he said. ‘There’s good news. We do have HR66. Not enough for everyone, sadly, but enough to ensure that the human baton is passed on. And enough, I’m glad to say, for everyone in this room.’

There was a ripple of relief.

‘And their families, of course’, the Boss continued. ‘Families are very important to us. But all this assumes that you want to have the HR66. No one will make you. But, frankly, what’s not to like? You take a single dose, and you survive. If you don’t take it, you don’t survive. It’s as simple as that. It even tastes of candy floss. It has only one side-effect, and that’s a wholly good thing. It increases – increases, mark you – your IQ. Very, very significantly. By about 100 points, in fact. Not only will you be alive; you’ll be a genius beside whom Einstein would have seemed a hopeless retard.’

One more press of the button, and up flashed the logo of the corporation that manufactured HR66. The Boss didn’t think it relevant to mention his shareholding.

‘Naturally’, said the Boss, ‘we have to vote for this in the usual way. Yes, humanity’s facing apocalypse, and there’s one, and only one way out. But we’ve still got to do things properly. But I expect that we can move to a vote now, can’t we?’

‘I’m sure we can’, agreed the Deputy. ‘You’ve all seen the motion. All those in favour….’

‘One moment’.

The Boss and the Deputy, up on the podium, stared. Everyone else turned. A little man in tweed lisped through a badger’s beard. ‘I’d like some clarification, please.’

‘But of course, Tom’, said the Boss, magnanimous and desperately alarmed. ‘Anything you like.’

No one really knew how Tom had got into the government, or why he wanted to be there. He had no strategically significant connections, no dress sense, no publications other than some monographs on moths and mediaeval fonts, no assets other than a dumpy wife, some anarchic, unwashed children and a small cottage on Dartmoor, and no entries in the Register of Members’ Interests apart from ‘Masturbation’. This entry had caused a terrible storm. He’d been accused of injuring the dignity of the House, but, after expensive legal advice had been taken, it had been ‘reluctantly concluded’ that there was no power to force him to remove it.

‘I’d like to know’, said Tom, ‘who’s going to get the drug. And why them rather than anyone else.’ Continue reading

Lord Winston’s warning

Last month, Lord Robert Winston delivered the Physiological Society summer lecture entitled, ‘Shall we be human in the next century?’ You can watch it in full here (the stream starts working around 5”30 onwards). In the lecture, Lord Winston discusses the history and misuse of gene science and eugenics, and points to the potential resurgence of this way of thinking, made possible by advances that would allow us to genetically enhance human beings by modifying their nonpathological traits. Winston would be classified as a ‘bioconservative’ in the contemporary enhancement debate, and below I examine the case for caution that he puts forward in this lecture.

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Horizon 2020 and The Role of Lay People’s Perspectives in Bioethical Reasoning

By Kimberly Schelle & Nadira Faulmüller

Horizon 2020, the European Union’s 2014-2020 largest research programme ever, includes the call to pursue ‘Responsible Research and Innovation’ (RRI). RRI stands for a research and innovation process in which all societal actors (e.g. citizens, policy makers, business and researchers) are working together in the process to align the outcomes with the values, needs, and expectations of the European Society. In a recently published paper on the importance of including the public and patients’ voices in bioethical reasoning, the authors describe, although in other words, the value of the RRI approach in bioethical issues:

“A bioethical position that fails to do this [exchange with the public opinion], and which thus avoids the confrontation with different public arguments, including ones perhaps based in different cultural histories, relations and ontological grounds […], not only runs the risk of missing important aspects, ideas and arguments. It also arouses strong suspicion of being indeed one-sided, biased or ideological—thus illegitimate.”

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Essendon, Doping and Bad Arguments

By Julian Savulescu. @juliansavulescu

The Australian newspaper ‘The Sunday Age’ reports today that “The Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority has built a ”non-presence” drug case against 34 Essendon footballers, adopting a strategy similar to the one used to ban Lance Armstrong without a positive test.”

1. What should we think about this latest drugs “scandal” at Essendon, the so called “war on doping” in the Australian Football League (AFL), and in sport in general?

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Expert workshop on cognitive enhancement device regulation: Are there ‘two worlds’ of devices?

Last week, we held an expert workshop with key stakeholders to discuss our recent Oxford Martin School policy paper. Our policy paper put forward proposals for how we thought cognitive enhancement devices such as brain stimulators should be regulated. At present, if these sorts of devices do not make medical treatment claims (but instead claim to make you smarter, more creative or a better gamer, say) then they are only subject to basic product safety requirements. In our paper we suggested that cognitive enhancement devices should be regulated in the same way as medical devices and discussed how this could be implemented. Indeed, the devices that are being sold for enhancement of cognitive functions use the very same principles as devices approved by medical device regulators for research into the treatment of cognitive impairment or dysfunction associated with stroke, Parkinson’s disease and depression (amongst other conditions). Being the same sorts of devices, acting via similar mechanisms and posing the same sorts of risks, there seemed to be a strong argument for regulation of some form and an equally strong argument for adopting the same regulatory approach for both medical and enhancement devices.

Having published our paper, we were very keen to hear what people more closely involved in making policy and drafting legislation thought of our proposals. Individuals from the Medical and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, the EU New and Emerging Technologies Working Group, a medical devices company, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, and experts on responsible innovation and on brain stimulation joined us. Overall, the response to our recommendations was positive: all participants agreed that some regulatory action should be taken. There was a general consensus that this regulation should protect consumers but not curtail their freedom to use devices, that manufacturers should not be over-burdened by unnecessary regulatory requirements, and that innovation should not be stifled. Continue reading

Moral Enhancement and Violence

In recent years, I’ve written a lot on moral enhancement, including moral bioenhancement (e.g., here, here and here), and argued that we should not reject its potential benefits out of hand. One common objection has been to say something along the lines of “sure, this would be good in theory, but the science behind it is so far off that you may as well be talking about the number of angels on a pinhead”.

But recent research suggests our moral behavior is already improving in some respects. In the UK, admissions to hospital due to violent crime fell by 12% . And in the US, a recent survey revealed a decline in violence experienced by children over the past decade, particularly assault and sexual violence.  This is also a major theme of Stephen Pinker’s “Better Angels of Our Nature.” Pinker documents the widespread reduction in violence over centuries.

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The advantages and disadvantages of stigmatizing smoking

A new study among students, found that those who smoked cannabis performed better academically than their tobacco smoking, stigmatized peers. The study has been collecting data among students (8,331 in total) in grade 7,9 and 11 for 30 years, and noticed the following trends. While the use of tobacco around the 90ties decreased, the use of cannabis increased. While the use of tobacco became increasingly associated with a slow and painful death due to cancer, the cry for legalization of cannabis for medicinal purposes (for example to treats side effects of cancer treatment) gave cannabis a more positive image. The study emphasizes that performing worse academically has nothing to do with the substance tobacco itself. Although it is well known that cannabis can effect one’s memory, no such effect is known about tobacco. The fact that tobacco users perform worse than cannabis users has all to do with changing social norms and the marginalizing of tobacco smokers. The study seems to suggest that it is a double effect: marginalized students will choose to smoke tobacco rather than cannabis, but this will marginalize them further. Students who use marijuana are more like the general population, so perform better academically than the marginalized group. Instead of zooming in on the effects of marginalization of tobacco smokers, the study chooses to warn again the normalization of cannabis use, which, according to the study, is a very dangerous substance, in many aspects as dangerous as tobacco. Non-users of tobacco or cannabis still perform better than cannabis users. The study wants to make a case against the legalization of cannabis.
Zinberg famously distinguished three aspects that determined the effect of a substance: the properties of the substance itself, the characteristics of the person taking them, and the social setting wherein the substance is taken. This study nicely illustrates the importance of setting, or social norms around substance use. It shows that setting determines more of the negative effects of the substance than the properties of the substance itself, and how hard it is to determine the negative effects of a substance separated from the social context. It shows that the attractiveness of certain substances is more determined by their social status than by their properties. Many studies have also shown that the effect of a substance in a vulnerable population is different than in a general population. The famous veteran study of Robins showed that Vietnam veterans who became dependent on heroin in Vietnam, had no problems giving up their habits once returned to the United States. The general population mostly succeeds better in the recreational or temporarily use of a substance, because they have more incentives to control their use, and less other problems to self-medicate for. Continue reading

“Whoa though, does it ever burn” – Why the consumer market for brain stimulation devices will be a good thing, as long as it is regulated

In many places around the world, there are people connecting electrodes to their heads to electrically stimulate their brains. Their intentions are often to boost various aspect of mental performance for skill development, gaming or just to see what happens. With the emergence of a more accessible market for glossy, well-branded brain stimulation devices it is likely that more and more people will consider trying them out.

Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is a brain stimulation technique which involves passing a small electrical current between two or more electrodes positioned on the left and right side of the scalp. The current excites the neurons, increasing their spontaneous activity. Although the first whole-unit devices are being marketed primarily for gamers, there is a well-established DIY tDCS community, members of which have been using the principles of tDCS to experiment with home-built devices which they use for purposes ranging from self-treatment of depression to improvement of memory, alertness, motor skills and reaction times.

Until now, non-clinical tDCS has been the preserve of those willing to invest time and nerve into researching which components to buy, how to attach wires to batteries and electrodes to wires, and how best to avoid burnt scalps, headaches, visual disturbances and even passing out. The tDCS Reddit forum currently has 3,763 subscribed readers who swap stories about best techniques, bad experiences and apparent successes. Many seem to be relying on other posters to answer technical questions and to seek reassurance about which side effects are ‘normal’. Worryingly, the answers they receive are often conflicting. Continue reading

Academia, philosophy, and ‘race’

It was recently brought to public attention that of the UK’s 18,510 university professors, only 85 are of black origin (Black African/Black Caribbean/Black ‘other’), a soberingly disproportionate figure. Some people may want to explain this incongruence by saying that it is proportionate, or makes sense, when you consider the amount of black people entering and remaining within higher education. However, rather than the problem being solved with this explanation, it re-emerges in questions surrounding the reasons as to why this may be the case. If there are a disproportionately low number of black students entering (and remaining in) higher education, this itself needs to be questioned, with discussions had on financial situations, state education, implicit biases, and other social and economic barriers that may be disproportionately affecting certain sections of the population. In this blog post I will explore these factors, as well as suggesting that discussions on ‘intelligence’ genes within bioethics may serve to perpetuate a hostile and exclusionary environment.

The situation for black academics appears to be more acute in academic philosophy. There are only 5 black philosophers employed in UK universities, with just two of these being employed in philosophy departments (both at UCL), and the other 3 in classics, humanities and ‘theology, philosophy and religious studies’ departments. Philosophy is also notorious for its lack of female representation. Statistics show the number of women gradually reducing at each stage of academia – although 46% of philosophy undergraduates are female, this drops to 31% of philosophy PhD students, and is at its lowest with only 24% of full time staff being women.

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