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Should government encourage human genetic engineering?

melian          17 June 2015 07:12 AM

In the near future, technology could make it possible for parents to select their offspring genes, allowing improvements in the IQ, metabolism, longevity etc. Should government encourage human genetic engineering (for instance, by subsidizing it for poor parents)?

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Alice 22 June 2015 04:06 PM

I would say when this is intended to avoid serious health problems, such as when the parents are known to carry some harmful gene mutations that can result in severe health consequences for their children, this makes sense, and it is in the interest of the society to help subsidize this sort of genetic engineering. But when it comes to IQ, personality traits and so on, this is a Pandora box, and no one knows where this could lead. These things are very complex, and the same genes can be responsible for many things. Maybe with increasing the IQ you will decrease other features, such as empathy or creativity, or increase the risk of depression and so on. This is a very risky research direction, and it is not completely clear to me if this should be allowed, let alone government encouraged or subsidized.

That said, I have read in the news somewhere (not sure if this is true) that the Chinese government is subsidizing a research project whose ultimate goal is to significantly increase the IQ of the population. For now they collect genetic information of well-known scientists, and are trying to figure out which genes are responsible for their high IQ. If one country manages to figure this out and will go ahead with human genetic engineering, it is going to be a different story - though it may still be worthwhile to just watch where it's going to go there before legalizing it.


Fwiffo 22 June 2015 05:02 PM

Any kind of serious evolutionary adaptation is likely to come up with some downsides. For example for conditions like autisms the negatives might be first noticed and then a more balanced negatives and positives view reached. If we start culling deviations from expectation too soon we don't see any kind of exploration in the feature space to get to bloom, we get a serious local optimum problem where even the tiniest of setbacks disallows checking whether there is a huge mountain of competence right over it.

For example for a society it would be good to have certain amount of the blood group O+ but then parents might want to favour AB to maximize survival likelyhood in the event of an accident. There is already population skew in china regarding gender that has significant societal effects. Can parents or state have too much say in a persons makeup?


melian 3 July 2015 02:20 PM

Any kind of serious evolutionary adaptation is likely to come up with some downsides.

This statement might be a bit too general. For example, what if we could avoid homozygous allele combination that leads to the sickle-cell anemia? In nature, the allele that leads to the sickness persists in the gene pool because it confers advantage in the heterozygous state. Now, if we could combine the alleles non-randomly we might get the benefits without the downsides.

Also, some features that used to be downside for humans even just a few hundred years ago (like increased calorie consumption by our brains compared to other primates) are no longer detrimental.


RichardPeterson 1 July 2015 01:30 PM

Who is the government in this case? The US? An EU member state? China? Somebody else? I point this out to emphasize that the interests of one government are not necessarily the interests of others, nor do they share value systems. China and The United States have very different ideas about the worth of an individual.

What is the expected value of encouraging human genetic engineering to the state? If we're going to be selecting for IQ, the state obviously benefits given our modern economy. The state also benefits with a citizenry that has high time preference, low propensity to violence, etc.

It seems to me that this is an instance of the one-shot prisoner's dilemma between governments with a weird mutual cooperation corner. In the exploitation corners, one side reaps the benefits of higher average IQ and the economic benefits thereof. In the mutual "defection" state (both sides select for specific traits), neither side really gains a relative advantage against the other (though I suspect living in a state where the citizenry are smarter and have higher time preferences would be more pleasant for the citizenry themselves). The only reason to "cooperate" would be the squeamishness about treating people as experiments...but other government's values are not the West's values, and I see mutual "cooperation" as a pipe dream. The best the West will get is letting other nations perform the human experimentation.

And China is pursuing this. The BGI Cognitive Genomics project is trying to perform large scale genome wide association studies to try to find genes which affect IQ. (I recommend this lecture by Stephen Hsu if you want more background on this topic, and the specifics of the BGI project in particular.)


melian 3 July 2015 02:07 PM

So do you think there will be a genetic arms race between countries? Or will China and a few other Asian countries get an automatic win because the West declines to participate?


RichardPeterson 5 July 2015 10:23 PM

I think it would be closer to automatic win, at least if you're looking at this from the perspective between governments. There'll be quite a bit of money in gene editing techniques, both indirectly by having a smarter population and directly by charging for therapies.

Though it's interesting if we flip perspectives back to the individual. Say you're an American and the US government bans various reproductive therapies. I would assume that this wouldn't stop reproductive medical tourism to Asia. From an individual perspective, banning something locally means banning it for poor people.

One other thing I'll note: While BGI is a Chinese company, BGI cognitive genomics--the actual subproject that's studying genes related to IQ--has several Western university professors on their advisory board. I'm unsure of the funding status there, but I'll admit amusement ... read more

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