Skip to content

Should we breed smarter children?

Last Sunday’s Melbourne Herald-Sun published an article reporting Julian Savulescu’s argument for enhancing the intelligence of babies through genetic modification. The argument turns on the social benefits of enhancement. Economic modeling has mounted a powerful case that widespread enhancement of IQ would produce a broad range of benefits. The work builds on previous research demonstrating the effects of reduced exposure to environmental lead. Public health measures aimed at reducing lead exposure caused a small but significant rise in IQ across the population, and brought social benefits including less welfare dependency, less imprisonment, fewer orphaned children, and so on.

I agree with Julian that focusing on the social benefits is important and sadly overlooked. The standard concerns on the part of those opposing enhancement are too often ill-thought out. Worries about hubris, about gratitude toward nature and the wisdom of evolution, about inequality and inauthenticity, all fail, and largely for the same reason: because they overlook how extensively we already enhance ourselves. Coffee and vitamins are accepted, it seems, just because they are familiar, while modafinil and methylphenidate are rejected because they are new. The worries also often seem to rely on an indefensible distinction between altering environments and altering people: it is widely felt to be wrong to enhance by intervening in the person’s body or mind, but fine to alter their environment by giving them extra stimulation, or what have you. Of course, the environmental intervention works only because it does alter the person’s body or brain, so the distinction is untenable.

So I agree that we need to reframe the question, away from the bad familiar objections and toward the costs and benefits for individuals and for societies. The debate then becomes empirical, rather than philosophical. However, it is far from obvious to me that things will go the way Julian hopes. The question ought not to be “what are the costs and benefits of enhancing versus not enhancing”, but “what are the costs and benefits of enhancing versus other ways of using the resources needed for enhancement”? I think it is very likely that we will get much better returns for our money by spending it on environmental interventions, here and (especially) abroad, in developing nations. Better nutrition, better schools, less stress caused by poverty and war; all of these things have a predictable positive effect on IQ (even controlling for malnutrition, birthweight, which reflects how well the mother is fed, predicts IQ, just to give one example).

We should, as Julian suggests, build on the example given to us by the removal of lead from the environment. But that was an environmental intervention. It is likely that other environmental interventions are, at the moment at least, the most effective means we have of raising the IQs of our children. Better spend the many millions that would be required for research on how to intervene in the genetics of intelligence on poverty alleviation at home and abroad.

Share on

7 Comment on this post

  1. It is short-sighted to claim that we would get better value by spending money on environmental interventions in developing nations. This is a "potato farming" philosophy, that might have been employed by our ancestors. The potato farming philosophy holds that, with possible food shortages in the future, we should concentrate on tried and trusted methods of feeding ourselves, like planting potatoes. We should not invest in crazy technological or scientific experiments, like domesticating animals or advancing agricultural techniques. If our ancestors had employed the potato farming philosophy, we would still be essentially cave men.
    Cognitive enhancers can be cheap. It takes 2-3 cents per person per year to iodize salt. This would add one billion IQ points to the worlds' population and raise individual's IQs in area of chronic endemic low iodine by 10-15 points.
    Secondly, we can't assume that the familiar methods of addressing the problems of the developing world will be best. We can't decide that in the absence of doing the science. It may be that cheap cognitive enhancing pharmaceuticals could be produced, if we directed our attention to them, that augmented intellectual development in infancy and offset the effects of malnutrition. It is a feature of the potato farming philosophy that we assume we know what is best in advance of discovery and proper scientific experimentation.
    The fact is we just don't know how useful or cost-effective cognitive enhancement could be because we just haven't taken it seriously enough as an object of scientific research.

  2. The iodine example is a good one, because it reminds us that cognitive enhancers can be cheap (though supplementation with iodine might count as environmental). Perhaps I would be better restricting the scope of the claim to the 'sexy' cognitive enhancers. The original claim in the article was about genetic enhancement, and there is every reason to think that such enhancements would not be cheap, and the research to find out certainly wouldn't be. More generally, I don't think the potato farming analogy is a good one. Unlike your potato farming cavemen, I am not advocating being cautious in case of future famine. There is currently an urgent need to address malnutrition; this is just one more reason to do it.

    It is true that we can't be sure that future research mightn't lead to a cheap method enhancing ourselves that is better bang for buck that nutrition. But that's an argument from ignorance, and arguments from ignorance come cheap. For any x, it might (for all we know) be the case that if we investigate x, or investigate x more, it could turn out to have stupendous benefits. Because this generalizes to all xs, this style of argument is not action-guiding. We can't escape cost-benefit analysis based on what we now know. My claim is that on such cost benefit-analyses, nutrition comes out miles ahead, measured in IQ points, or qalys.

  3. Classic example of individual vs. group benefits. Clearly, the great good for the greatest number would be with effective environmental interventions — please add cooking stoves to the list. As you alluded to in your Guardian / HFEA piece, it is about the public / private divide. Personally, I would like my taxes to support effective environmental interventions and do genetic modification on my own (private) dime (assuming I thought the geneticists have it right) 🙂


  4. We understanding some aspects of mental health at a genetic level much better than we do raw intelligence. For example, reading learning disabilies and vulnerability to psychological harm from abuse are both strongly influenced by single genes. Novelty-seeking and an "impulsive" personality likewise have a better understood genetic basis than general intelligence, yet like general intelligence have significant socio-economic and life experience impacts.

    Because they are better understood, these traits, rather than general intelligence, are more likely targets for genomic analysis based eugenics. But, the potential neurodiversity costs of many of these traits, that determine what kind of people we are, rather than something almost universally felt to be good, may be real to the community of humans as a whole. Atypical people in proper quantities may enhance the fitness of the group. Monocultures may have downsides in human societies just as they do in agriculture. Impatience, for example, may be a key part of the psychological makeup of entrapreneurs who have a vital economic role to play but don't need to be a majority personality type in our society to fill that role.

    Pleiotropy (the notion that a single gene can have multiple phenotypic effects) is also a concern when one is "breeding for intelligence." For example, I've seen some suggestions that one of the BRAC genes associated with breast cancer risk which operates through connective tissue formation, may also be intelligence enhancing. More connected tissue may be more vulnerable to cancer in the breast but more intelligence enhancing in the brain. Several hetrozygous genetic diseases in Azkenazi Jews are suspected of having a similarly pleoiotropic character.

    It is also worth considering the fact that the hereditary component of intelligence is much lower for the poor than the well off. Genetics may play a powerful role in setting peak intelligence, while environment may be the thing that makes it possible to realize that potential. Indeed, if this is so, no amount of genetic enhancement will have much effect in a deprived environment. Thus, environment, rather than "breeding" may be pivotal in enhancing societal intelligence at the low end – where low intelligence leads to a lot of societal pathologies like crime and poor health choices and trouble finding employment.

    But, genetics may be more relevant in enhancing societal intelligence at the high end – which may lead to one of a kind breakthroughs that are hard to quantify. Then again, the long roster of geniuses who have floundered in later life, suggests that sufficient IQ (to a point of diminishing returns) is already present in our society and that our society's shortfall is not of IQ, but of people with IQ plus other key ingredients of the good life.

    The more complex the situation seems, and it does seem to be complex, the less it makes sense to fiddle with it without really knowing the full implications of what we are doing.

  5. Seems to me that we're arguing about two different topics. Sometimes our moral obligations will take us in two different directions at the same time, and not necessarily at odds with one another. Sure we have an obligation to help people in Africa, and that would most definitely help improve the overall IQ of the global population. But while we are donating our money and time to help African states improve their nutrition, couldn't we also selectively choose those embryos that would produce the most intelligent offspring?

    This sounds an awful lot like the typical object raised against giving to Africa…. We have people at home who need the financial assistance, people who might be my friends and family, etc. The typical response has been that we can usually do both, which helps assuage the guilt laden conscience as we spend our money on things that will have a greater ROI in Africa, and try to help our family and friends out with what they need too.

    Its not exactly like the resources that we're competing for in this argument are exactly the same. Sure there is money to be used in both cases, but in Savulescu's case there is are gene resources that need to be donated or harvested. This could be done in parallel to African state improvement.

  6. I can see three ethical issues raised by the possibility of genetic enhancement of intelligence, but I can also see how these issues might be rendered insignificant by the inevitability of such enhancement, if such enhancement is possible at reasonable cost (reasonable to sufficient number of well-placed people).

    (1) As has been suggested, there is the problem of "what good does it do"? There are people with learning disabilities and people in a culture that does not prize education or intellectual achievement. The social value of breeding children for higher intelligence might, given these things, be less than the opportunity cost of spending money on this project and the moral-political cost of further identifying humans as manufacturable things.

    (2) There is the distributional problem. Will this breeding be available to all classes of persons, however one divides humanity into classes? Or will there be an elite (call it Alpha) group created to lead and benefit a social system? In my opinion, the cost of such a program, and its invasiveness with respect to the privacy of the individual family, will probably make the program available only to a select group of politically and socially important families. This would increase rancor because it would magnify the gulf between rich and poor and further impair social mobility. This might trouble utilitarians, but need not if the average utility rises, and it should not bother Rawlsians, so long as the poor benefit as a class, perhaps by increased graduation in taxes on income and wealth.

    (3) It has a whiff of making chilren means to social ends, rather than ends in themselves. This should trouble Kantians. This looks back to my guess under (1) that the enhanced human will look even more like a thing, a creature of industry.

    So, I suppose Europeans will wonder if such enhancement should be available under the relevantn national health plan.

  7. I forgot to add this to the distributional and effectiveness points this potential social cost: It might turn out that one effect of a program of cognitive enhancement of children could produce a very intelligent class of criminals, assuming there is no change in the culture of families who raise the children and no enhancement of social mobility.

Comments are closed.