Genetically Engineering Humans Isn’t So Scary (Don’t Fear the CRISPR, Part 2)

by on May 19, 2015 at 9:00 am in Law, Medicine, Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

Yesterday I outlined why genetically engineered children are not imminent. The Chinese CRISPR gene editing of embryos experiment was lethal to around 20% of embryos, inserted off-target errors into roughly 10% of embryos (with some debate there), and only produced the desired genetic change in around 5% of embryos, and even then only in a subset of cells in those embryos.

Over time, the technology will become more efficient and the combined error and lethality rates will drop, though likely never to zero.

Human genome editing should be regulated. But it should be regulated primarily to assure safety and informed consent, rather than being banned as it is most developed countries (see figure 3). It’s implausible that human genome editing will lead to a Gattaca scenario, as I’ll show below. And bans only make the societal outcomes worse.

1. Enhancing Human Traits is Hard (And Gattaca is Science Fiction)

The primary fear of human germline engineering, beyond safety, appears to be a Gattaca-like scenario, where the rich are able to enhance the intelligence, looks, and other traits of their children, and the poor aren’t.

But boosting desirable traits such as intelligence and height to any significant degree is implausible, even with a very low error rate.

The largest ever survey of genes associated with IQ found 69 separate genes, which together accounted for less than 8% of the variance in IQ scores, implying that at least hundreds of genes, if not thousands, involved in IQ. (See paper, here.) As Nature reported, even the three genes with the largest individual impact added up to less than two points of IQ:

The three variants the researchers identified were each responsible for an average of 0.3 points on an IQ test. … That means that a person with two copies of each variant would score 1.8 points higher on an intelligence test than a person with none of them.

Height is similarly controlled by hundreds of gene. 697 genes together account for just one fifth of the heritability of adult height. (Paper at Nature Genetics here).

For major personality traits, identified genes account for less than 2% of variation, and it’s likely that hundreds or thousands of genes are involved.

Manipulating IQ, height, or personality is thus likely to involve making a very large number of genetic changes. Even then, genetic changes are likely to produce a moderate rather than overwhelming impact.

Conversely, for those unlucky enough to be conceived with the wrong genes, a single genetic change could prevent Cystic Fibrosis, or dramatically reduce the odds of Alzheimer’s disease, breast cancer or ovarian cancer, or cut the risk of heart disease by 30-40%.

Reducing disease is orders of magnitude easier and safer than augmenting abilities.

2. Parents are risk averse

We already trust parents to make hundreds of impactful decisions on behalf of their children: Schooling, diet and nutrition, neighborhood, screen time, media exposure, and religious upbringing are just a few.  Each of these has a larger impact on the average child – positive or negative – than one is likely to see from a realistic gene editing scenario any time in the next few decades.

And in general, parents are risk averse when their children are involved. Using gene editing to reduce the risk of disease is quite different than taking on new risks in an effort to boost a trait like height or IQ. That’s even more true when it takes dozens or hundreds of genetic tweaks to make even a relatively small change in those traits – and when every genetic tweak adds to the risk of an error.

(Parents could go for a more radical approach: Inserting extra copies of human genes, or transgenic variants not found in humans at all. It seems likely that parents will be even more averse to venturing into such uncharted waters with their children.)

If a trait like IQ could be safely increased to a marked degree, that would constitute a benefit to both the child and society. And while it would pose issues for inequality, the best solution might be to try to rectify inequality of access, rather than ban the technique. (Consider that IVF is subsidized in places as different as Singapore and Sweden.) But significant enhancements don’t appear to be likely any time on the horizon.

Razib Khan points out one other thing we trust parents to do, which has a larger impact on the genes of a child than any plausible technology of the next few decades:

 “the best bet for having a smart child is picking a spouse with a deviated phenotype. Look for smart people to marry.”

3. Bans make safety and inequality worse

A ban on human germline gene editing would cut off medical applications that could reduce the risk of disease in an effort to control the far less likely and far less impactful enhancement and parental control scenarios.

A ban is also unlikely to be global. Attitudes towards genetic engineering vary substantially by country. In the US, surveys find 4% to 14% of the population supports genetic engineering for enhancement purposes. Only around 40% support its use to prevent disease. Yet, As David Macer pointed out, as early as 1994:

in India and Thailand, more than 50% of the 900+ respondents in each country supported enhancement of physical characters, intelligence, or making people more ethical.

While most of Europe has banned genetic engineering, and the US looks likely to follow suit, it’s likely to go forward in at least some parts of Asia. (That is, indeed, one of the premises of Nexus and its sequels.)

If the US and Europe do ban the technology, while other countries don’t, then genetic engineering will be accessible to a smaller set of people: Those who can afford to travel overseas and pay for it out-of-pocket. Access will become more unequal. And, in all likelihood, genetic engineering in Thailand, India, or China is likely to be less well regulated for safety than it would be in the US or Europe, increasing the risk of mishap.

The fear of genetic engineering is based on unrealistic views of the genome, the technology, and how parents would use it. If we let that fear drive us towards a ban on genetic engineering – rather than legalization and regulation – we’ll reduce safety and create more inequality of access.

I’ll give the penultimate word to Jennifer Doudna, the inventor of the technique (this is taken from a truly interesting set of responses to Nature Biotechnology’s questions, which they posed to a large number of leaders in the field):

Doudna, Carroll, Martin & Botchan: We don’t think an international ban would be effective by itself; it is likely some people would ignore it. Regulation is essential to ensure that dangerous, trivial or cosmetic uses are not pursued.

Legalize and regulate genetic engineering. That’s the way to boost safety and equality, and to guide the science and ethics.

1 Millian May 19, 2015 at 9:12 am

One may as well complain that euthanasia access is unequal – if it’s immoral, it still makes no sense to legalise it. This argument to equity fails the ideological Turing test, it doesn’t speak to the concerns of opponents at all.

2 Urso May 19, 2015 at 9:51 am

I agree that this is addressing “objections” that no one’s actually raising. Perhaps more offensive, it’s not even a remotely accurate description of the plot of Gattaca.

3 Dan Weber May 19, 2015 at 9:59 am

Yeah, the parents in Gattaca had the option to engineer their child and skipped out. It was totally available to them if they wanted it.

4 CG May 19, 2015 at 11:46 am

Isn’t Naam’s position that we should allow regulation of the technology because it would “boost safety and equality” a moral claim? He seems to embrace utilitarian ethics, as many on that side of the debate, but it’s a moral claim nonetheless.

5 Cererean May 19, 2015 at 9:23 am

It’s fairly easy to figure out if a use is dangerous, but… “trivial” and “consmetic”? Why should people be prevented from using genetic engineering to, say, ensure they (if somatic) or their child (germline) has blue eyes, if the procedure is safe?

6 prior_approval May 19, 2015 at 10:05 am

‘has blue eyes, if the procedure is safe’

Well, a group of genetic engineers was deeply interested in that subject, though it must be noted they were utterly indifferent if their procedures were safe.

But as has been ever so thoughtfully pointed out by Prof. Cowen, those genetic engineers were likely only a bump in the road to the bright future of more blue eyed children. Because really, who wants to use contacts to have any eye color one wishes when it is possible, with the informed consent of your parents, for your parents pay to determine blue eyes as the proper color for their offspring. And as contacts to change eye color are unlikely to go away, when those blue eyed children are old enough, they can change their eye color to whatever is in fashion, regardless of what their parents wanted.

7 albtross May 19, 2015 at 12:02 pm

You know, repeating the word “Nazi” or “Hitler” a lot isn’t actually an argument. You’re adding nothing at all to the discussion.

I think there are some legitimate moral and practical questions about plans to edit the genes of our kids. I’d like to see them discussed, and see the implications thought through before we walk off a cliff dealing with them.

But the fact that the Nazis were really bad people who murdered piles of people doesn’t inform that dicussion *at all*. The nastiness of forcibly sterilizing people (something done in many countries, mostly much better places than Nazi Germany) has *nothing at all to do* with parents engaging in voluntary editing of their kids’ genes. Zero. There’s no moral overlap between these actions.

Do you have anything of substance to say about the issue at hand?

8 Every MR Regular May 19, 2015 at 6:36 pm

We all know the answer.

9 Oliver Sherouse May 19, 2015 at 9:47 am

The assumption that parents will make decisions about a child they have not seen, interacted with, and grown attached to in the same way they make decisions about a child they have strikes me as a pretty big one. Seems to me that the latter feels more like a completed work of art, while the former looks more like a blank canvas.

Additionally, I don’t know that the invocation of parents choosing mates gets you anywhere in particular. The spontaneous order of human mating with all its emergent complexities is not very much like making specific affirmative decisions about traits in a laboratory. Well, at least if you’re doing it right.

10 albtross May 19, 2015 at 12:05 pm

Two examples that re-enforce your point:

a. Abortions to avoid having a seriously disabled baby. This is pretty much the whole point of prenatal genetic testing.

b. Abortions to select the sex of your baby. I don’t think this is common in the US, but it’s common in parts of the world where a male baby is much more valued than a female baby.

In both cases, the parents might have a much harder time killing an actual baby they held in their arms and saw with their own eyes than a fetus they’ve only seen on ultrasound (if that).

11 Hazel Meade May 19, 2015 at 2:58 pm

Yes, so in other words, people are *already* making choices about the characteristics of their unborn child to select against undesired traits, including genetic ones. So why is using CRISPR to prevent Tay Sachs different?

12 Dan Weber May 19, 2015 at 9:50 am

Improving IQ and height is hard *now*, because we don’t know the genes, but do we really think that in 50 years we won’t have very good models of what genes to edit, even for minor gains? And buying 2 IQ points is worth a lot. I’d spend $10,000 right now to increase the IQ of one of my kids by 2 points.

Or find the genes for conscientiousness.

13 moreno klaus May 19, 2015 at 7:13 pm

10000 for only 2 IQ points??

14 duxie May 19, 2015 at 10:05 pm
15 Greg May 23, 2015 at 2:02 pm

Four points of IQ is one of the outcomes. It’s not at all clear that it’s causative for the other outcomes.

16 Mark May 19, 2015 at 9:54 am

This was much more useful than Alex’s “Dystopian Future” post. #1 and #3 are very strong.

Regarding #2, a couple points:
a. Reducing intelligence to a unidimensional measure, and then trying to maximize that measure, is what may increase genetic homogeneity (and susceptibility to a future shift when genetic diversity may be necessary for survival).

b. Everyone, not just parents, are typically risk averse. But that doesn’t stop individual outliers in risk tolerance from pushing boundaries and, in a competitive environment, increasing the costs of keeping up with those who succeed. In an athletic competition, performance-enhancing drugs may help some succeed, and those who choose not to enhance (because of long-term risks) are either left behind or placed under greater pressure to enhance themselves. So too with parents: if someone manages to find a genetic enhancement that appears safe and effective (and may not have deleterious effects until much later, or even until next generation), a prospective parent may feel obliged to pursue the same enhancement.

I think a sensible, conservative approach is to allow experimentation, be mindful of the long term risks, and have honest conversations about what type of future (utopia, dystopia, whatever) we hope for.

17 prior_approval May 19, 2015 at 9:58 am

‘But it should be regulated primarily to assure safety and informed consent’

It is pretty hard to get informed consent from a genetically engineered embryo. Not that this should be much of a road bump, with the proper branding and marketing. ‘Think of the poor embryos’ is not exactly original, but certainly sounds better than ‘no embryo left behind.’

Though considering how rabid the abortion foes in America are (gunning down a doctor during church services, for example, or setting two bombs at an abortion clinic, the second intended to kill the responding emergency personnel), it would probably be best for future genetic engineers to not mention anything about what they are doing to the unborn.

18 Andrew Clough May 19, 2015 at 11:13 am

It’s true that you can’t get consent from an embryo but once you start worrying about that regarding genetic engineering I’m not sure you’ll be able to stop there. The embryo never consented to be created in the first place and I’m not sure how you can consistently oppose genetic engineering on the basis of consent without also embracing anti-natalism.

19 Charlotte Allen May 20, 2015 at 9:59 pm

Ha ha! The “two bombs” were set in 1997. The doctor was gunned down in 2009. It’s 2015 right now.

20 Hazel Meade May 19, 2015 at 9:58 am

The opponents of gene-editing the germline havn’t really come up with realistic reasons to oppose it, in my opinion. The fear seems to be based purely on speculative science fiction scenarios lifted from dystopian novels and movies.

We’re talking about baning a technology that could cure Huntinton’s disease, and Tay Sachs and Cystis Fibrosis, for what? Because Because people are taking Gattaca a bit too seriously?

If you want to convince me that this technology should be banned, you should come up with arguments based on real life and real science, not works of fiction.

21 prior_approval May 19, 2015 at 10:15 am

‘The fear seems to be based purely on speculative science fiction scenarios lifted from dystopian novels and movies. ‘

Or the experience of one middle European country, and its devotion to making the world a much better place.

‘We’re talking about baning a technology that could cure Huntinton’s disease, and Tay Sachs and Cystis Fibrosis, for what?’

That nation already had the solution to all those problems. You just need to determine the correct set of priorities, and then follow through on a rigorous program to ensure that no genetically transmitted diseases are transmitted. This is not about technology – this is about how one views humans. The eugenicist is able to tell – often just by looking – who is more worthy and who is less. Otherwise, eugenics would just be an empty exercise.

‘If you want to convince me that this technology should be banned, you should come up with arguments based on real life and real science, not works of fiction.’

There is this thick book from William Shirer – it has more than a few pages devoted to real life and what at least the people practicing it considered real science (changing eye color, for example, as noted above). Of course, some people would just prefer to move on from that earlier attempt to make a much better world.

22 Hazel Meade May 19, 2015 at 10:38 am

You had to Godwin the thread already?

You realize there’s quite a bit of difference between exterminating Jews in gas chambers and germ-line DNA modification via CRISPR right? Starting with the technical details and going from there.

23 Hazel Meade May 19, 2015 at 10:43 am

You just need to determine the correct set of priorities, and then follow through on a rigorous program to ensure that no genetically transmitted diseases are transmitted.

How is this not “eugenics” but CRISPR is?

24 ivvenalis May 19, 2015 at 11:15 am

Dude, shut the fuck up. Yes, genetic engineering could plausibly lead to bad outcomes. The idea that mankind can willfully improve himself has gotten a lot of people killed. Hitler totally did kill all those Jews! And at least as many people have been killed in the last hundred years over the rights of the working man, and yet somehow I don’t see you spamming threads about labor organizations in India or whatever with sardonic catchphrases about the threat of Red tyranny and the fact that Tyler Cowen thinks that, while Communism is a dangerously flawed system, he still supports improving the living standards of impoverished workers and generally favors policies that do so in an intelligent manner. There’s more to this discussion than “lol u no who else thinks that?” and you’re contributing nothing whatsoever by posting it multiple times in every tangentially related thread.

Human genome research has nothing to do with with Hitler. Individuals choosing not to have their children die of preventable diseases has nothing to do with state-enforced negative eugenics policies, and in fact neither does those same individuals choosing what they want their kid to look like. Hell, gene-drive bioweapons and the creation of radically deviant utilitarian phenotypes have nothing to do with the Third Reich, German nationalism, or battalions of goose-stepping black-clad soldiers either.

25 Keith May 19, 2015 at 11:07 am

Hazel, how about the real life example of the Tutsis and the Hutus? The British thought the Tutsis were more caucasian looking so they put them in charge during the colonial period. This arrangement outlasted the colonial period. The Hutus grew resentful and eventually massacred the Tutsis in 1994. Humans have a bad history when it comes to phenotype and populations. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t proceed with this technology, but please stop pretending that thousands of years of genocide and massacres doesn’t matter.

26 ivvenalis May 19, 2015 at 11:19 am

Well, radical genetic engineering (not the kind that Ramez is mostly addressing) would abolish the association between phenotype and population, or at least make it more of an opt-in system. As it is, we already have lots of distinctive-looking population phenotypes anyway, so I don’t know how much worse things could get.

27 Keith May 19, 2015 at 11:46 am

Radical genetic engineering (not the kind that Ramez is mostly attrition) could exacerbate these population phenotypic differences too. This is all speculation, of course, but they require a serious discussion and shouldn’t be dismissed given humanity’s tendency to kill the ‘other’.

28 ivvenalis May 19, 2015 at 11:57 am

The prevention of inter-phenotypic warfare is frequently cited as a justification for introducing as many phenotypes into a given area as possible. It would seem to follow that introducing more new phenotypes would decrease the chances of such conflict even further. Are you saying that’s wrong?

Anyway, even if you think it is wrong, I don’t think it follows that distinctive phenotypes shouldn’t exist because . I presume you don’t support the elimination of existing phenotypes on such grounds currently, so I’m not sure why you would ban creating new phenotypes because some people might resent them. Even materially, while the fact that others might resent me for wearing a nice suit might make it unwise to do so in certain situations, I don’t think that constitutes a moral argument against the existence of fine clothing.

29 ivvenalis May 19, 2015 at 12:16 pm

*because it might be grounds for conflict.

30 Hazel Meade May 19, 2015 at 12:23 pm

I don’t see how there is any connection between one group of people having certain enhanced or modified traits and genocide.
We’re not starting off with a specific ethnic group that has exclusive access to genetic engineering. We’re talking about single gene modifications out of millions, so we’re not really changing the ethnicity of the offspring. Parents want offspring that look like them, they aren’t going to en-masse modify their kids to all be blond and blue-eyed. If an Indian couple wants a blond blue-eyed baby, it’s a lot cheaper to find a blond-blue eyed egg and sperm donor than to genetical engineer all of that into their kid.
We’re probably looking at a genetically diverse group of people with isolated enhanced traits like intelligence and health. And those people’s aren’t going to all exclusively marry eachother, so those traits won’t be isolated in a specific ethnic group.

Finally, we live in a system with pretty strong political guarentees of equality under the law. If you’re worried about the government enforcing a class system based on genetic enhancement, worry about THAT. As long as the enhanced and non-enhanced enjoy equal legal status, there is no legally enforced oppression or class stratification.

31 Keith May 19, 2015 at 2:22 pm

There is definitely a connection between one group of people that look or act one way and genocide. The Tutsis looked more Caucasian than the Hutus. They were put in charge. The Hutus rebelled and slaughtered them. If you want to use the Germany example, the jews were a distinct group that held the top positions in society in Germany. The non-jewish Germans slaughtered them. There are many, many more examples in history: slavery of Africans by Europeans, slavery of one tribe of Africans by another tribe, Romans vs. Visigoths etc.

To your argument (and ivvenalis’) that this technology will enhance trait diversity, my answer is it could also reduce diversity and instead reinforce group differences. No one knows, including you.

Hazel, to your original point, these examples are from the history section of the library not the science fiction section.

32 Hazel Meade May 19, 2015 at 3:08 pm

You missed my point, or only seem to have read the first line, there’s no reason to think that all the genetically enhanced babies will look and act the same way or belong to the same ethnic group. The technology isn’t going to be exclusively offered only to one ethnicity. Thus there isn’t going to BE a distinguishable “enhanced people” subgroup that people can focus on to target.

33 Talos4 June 16, 2015 at 4:35 pm

I would say that there would be stratification a world where access to genetic modification isn’t equal. The poor would be easily left behind by genetically and economically superior rich people. How do we guarantee equal access? If I want to go about in-vitro fertility treatment, I have to pay, don’t I? Why would CRISPR treatments be any different? Hopeful over time you’d see the disease immune genes diffuse throughout the population, but since when do the rich and the poor mix and reproduce? Combined with low economic status and suddenly higher genetic competition, why wouldn’t any poor person feel resentful? The research most definitely must continue, but I’d be concerned about it becoming commercialised.

34 sailordave May 19, 2015 at 10:14 am

Naam’s political and ethical obtuseness is stunning. the current political debate in Europe is whether all GMO plants should be banned, and in the US some factions treat embryos as sacred cows more valuable than teenagers who look funny at cops. Meanwhile, CRISPR isn’t technically ready to treat humans without high rates of side effects and death, an ethical issue much more relevant than hypothetical fears.

the only possible effects of CRISPR in the next five years are to trigger a political backlash. I’m ok with CRISPR to treat diseases, but I hope the scientists involved will be smart enough to listen to critics, to be gracious, and to do a lot more animal testing.

35 ivvenalis May 19, 2015 at 11:34 am

Charles Babbage wasn’t technically ready to build a digital computer, but he understood it was possible, and eventually one got built, even though it was pretty hard. “Don’t use this procedure that has a 5% chance of maybe fixing you and a 95% chance of killing you” isn’t an interesting ethical discussion, and I don’t think that’s what most objections to “CRISPR” are about.

By the way I don’t know why someone who thinks it’s silly to treat embryos as “sacred cows” cares how many have to be discarded as part of this or any other procedure, although I do agree that using CRISPR currently for somatic cell modification on living humans is ridiculously dangerous and unethical, trivially so in fact. Except in one case: the terminally ill. Of course, it seems that some ethicists don’t even agree with that, or even at least appear to think that no matter the outcome or efficacy of the procedure genetic modification of humans shouldn’t be allowed. I think that’s nonsense.

Would you listen to some guy in a turban telling you to kill gays because they make him feel icky? I’m not listening to some guy in a tweed suit telling me to let my child die of Tay-Sachs or whatever because it makes him feel icky either.

36 Todd May 19, 2015 at 10:14 am

And in general, parents are risk averse when their children are involved.

Don’t hang around a lot of crazy sports parents I guess…

37 Greg May 23, 2015 at 2:08 pm

Or education-obsessed parents – cram schools in Asia, pre-school craziness in the US, etc.

38 Alex A. May 19, 2015 at 10:39 am

What are the two most different places that are most commonly cited together in arguments about political economy? Probably Singapore and Sweden. Maybe they’re not really that different at a meta-level.

39 Floccina May 19, 2015 at 11:16 am

People could already do some engineering by getting sperm from Harvard grads but few do. People want their own best genes not someone else’s.

40 Axa May 19, 2015 at 11:38 am


However, acknowledging the fact creates an interesting situation that no one wants to deal with. If your family and much probably your descendants may have a genetic disorder like Huntington’s disease or cystic fibrosis. What would you do? Have a kid in old fashioned way with your partner or go to the sperm bank and assure your descendants are disease free?

Perhaps the moral debate should also include this situation.

41 albtross May 19, 2015 at 12:11 pm

This would be closer to the classic notion of eugenics (though still with nothing much to do with Nazis). And indeed, I don’t see any particular issues with allowing people to select sperm for artificial insemination based on the traits of the donors. I gather this is sometimes done, but I’ve never been involved in that world, so maybe I’m just wrong.

42 Mitch Berkson May 19, 2015 at 2:00 pm

As you suspect, people seeking a sperm donor are very interested in the characteristics of the donor. For example offers 10-15 page donor profiles, donor baby and adult photos, and donor audio and video interviews.

43 Hazel Meade May 19, 2015 at 3:09 pm

Mostly these people are looking for a donor who looks like them so it won’t be blindingly obvious to their friends and relatives that the baby isn’t their genetic offspring.

44 Hazel Meade May 19, 2015 at 12:31 pm

Right. If people all want blond blue-eyed babies, they can RIGHT NOW get a blond blue eyed egg donor and a blond blue eyed sperm donor, and it’s way cheaper and easier than CRISPR.

People don’t do this because they want offspring that looks like them.

45 carlospln May 20, 2015 at 2:47 am

You really don’t understand genetics at all, do you?

46 Keith May 19, 2015 at 11:18 am

Interesting post. The summary is that this technology can one day help avoid monogenic diseases, but genetic enhancement will probably never work.

We seem to have that situation now though if you match the extensive genetic testing that is standard today with abortion. I am not arguing for or against this, I am just noting that the end results of the current technology and future technology don’t seem to differ.

47 Just Saying May 19, 2015 at 11:26 am

Point 1 is so shallow as to be offensive: Enhancing Human Traits is Hard. You know what else is hard? Having an SUV-sized robot operating autonomously on Mars. getting a computer to visually identify pictures of a cat. Self-driving cars.

And yet all of them are possible, today.

His entire premise seems to ignore the reality, and established impacts, of Moore’s Law.

48 Axa May 19, 2015 at 11:50 am

That easy? One single trait would make agriculture easier and end hunger forever on Earth. That single trait is making plants tolerant to salts. You could grow rice on seaside swamps or we could use seawater to irrigate hydroponic crops.

Who’s ignoring reality?

49 honkie please May 19, 2015 at 1:46 pm

I wonder if a red herring could be altered to blue. Why not obviate plants of the need for water altogether?

50 Hazel Meade May 19, 2015 at 2:00 pm

You guys aren’t thinking big enough.

Why don’t we genetically engineer humans that can see in X-rays?

51 carlospln May 20, 2015 at 2:48 am

Why don’t you & Just Saying above learn biology?

52 David H. May 19, 2015 at 11:33 am

Why does everyone who considers gene editing immediately think of boosting intelligence? We know that basically every trait has a genetic component. Why focus so myopically on intelligence? You’re not making a magic-user for your D&D party. You’re making a kid. You should want what’s best for that person.

If you asked me what I would want most for my children, I’d say this: I want them to be healthy, happy, decent and well adjusted. In D&D terms, the traits to which I would pay the most attention would be Charisma, Constitution, Wisdom. STR, INT, DEX and COM would be secondary. While there is some work in figuring out the genetic correlates of constitution, nobody seems to be looking at what genes make someone charismatic or wise. Everybody is chasing intelligence genes. Why? When it comes to intelligence, why not let the dice fall as they will? Why obsess so much about boosting intelligence? To me, it’s just as weird as a father who wants to edit the genes of his son so that he has an unusually large penis. I mean, it’s fine to have a large penis, but anyone who obsesses over this single trait is at least a little fucked up. I see intelligence the same way.

53 albtross May 19, 2015 at 12:13 pm

Eliminating diseases is the killer app here. There’s some depression in my family. I’d pay good money to make sure that tendency wasn’t in any of my kids, because living with serious depression *really sucks*.

How much would you pay to keep your kid from being schizophrenic? I’m thinking the bidding would start at my net worth, and go up from there based on how far into debt I could go.

54 Hazel Meade May 19, 2015 at 1:59 pm

Charisma and wisdom aren’t clearly linked to genetics. Intelligence is.

BTW, what is COM?

55 Adam B June 11, 2015 at 7:28 pm

COM = Comeliness, an optional trait from older editions. Represents strictly appearance, not charisma (which is personality)

56 SUT May 19, 2015 at 5:23 pm

Great comment.

The penis-thing seems like something Genghis Khan would do. I wonder if future generations will look with bewilderment at our society’s obsession with intelligence the same way we look at Khan’s obsession with conquering lands, peoples, concubines, etc.

Anyways, I think the *real* reason people default to the trait of intelligence is that it is too taboo to ascribe the personality phenotypes of affability, charisma, and social-well-adjustedness to genes. For example they are looking at the Newtown child murder’s genes for clues to his behavior. Who would want that genotype? Is it a definitive sentence of isolation and madness? No -we must not think about such things.

And in that way, intelligence is actually a pretty low stakes attribute which we can recognize genetics as a contributing factor, and are comfortable sorting people by it as soon as they enter first grade.

57 albatross May 20, 2015 at 11:31 am

Intelligence determines a huge amount of what careers are open to you, which mostly determines both your social position and your financial situation in life. A guy with an IQ of 85 is just never going to be able to be a doctor or an engineer or a lawyer. A guy with an IQ of 120 can be any of those things, though there could be other issues that rule out some careers (like if you faint at the sight of blood, medical school is probably going to be pretty rough for you).

58 duxie May 19, 2015 at 10:53 pm

Bad example. In D&D zero sum game is enforced for the traits. High CHR means lower other traits.

CRISPR makes it possible for you to max out ALL traits.

It is not weird. Nature behave in such fashion.

All species face a dilemma: is it better to have very many offspring, and hope that some will survive; or have a few and work hard to ensure that they survive? The first strategy involves lots of sex and not much parental involvement; the second less sex and much more parental investment. The Reproductive strategy leads to fast, “live for the moment” lives, the Konservative strategy slower, “live for tomorrow” lives.

See slide no. 5.

59 David H. May 20, 2015 at 8:43 am

You’re basically right, but here are two points. One: gene editing techniques like CRISPR are only useful when we know what genes are worth editing. And it doesn’t seem like we’re even interested in mapping the genes behind traits like easy-goingness, agreeableness, charisma, and all the related traits that we really hope our children will develop. If we don’t even map the genes, we can’t get started in maxing them out. So we are still picking priorities.

Two: Well before we actually do CRISPR editing to humans, we will have the sort of genetic screening and selection, without any editing. Parents might be offered a choice among a hundred fertilized and genetically mapped eggs for implantation. So in a case like that, we clearly have to rank our priorities.

60 cournot May 19, 2015 at 11:37 am

Amazing that in a blog called Marginal Revolution, he seems to base his reasoning on the average “reasonable” parent and not the marginal, but potentially large group of parents who are not risk averse and are willing to risk horrible outcomes for their children (or are paid to do so by various entities and governments) for the chance of large or small gains (Hollywood parents? Unsanitary kidney sales? Drug experimentation anyone?)

61 ivvenalis May 19, 2015 at 11:47 am

I think you’re handwaving #2. *Most* parents are risk averse. Some are not, for all sorts of reasons. Nobody I know would kill someone for insulting their sister, but I know such people exist, and I also know that it’s possible for social systems to exist where such behavior is the norm. Does “parents are risk averse” accurately predict the findings of that study you cited in number 3? How many of those who answered “yes” in Thailand would accept a 50% chance of stillbirth? What if it was 90%, but the child in question was their fifth? Even in not-Thailand, we often see that children are created without any regard whatsoever to their well-being.

Also, to start going out on a limb, what makes you think that “parents” will be the only ones creating new humans in the future? Sounds a little *phobic, actually. I don’t see why my polyfidelitous family-owned commune shouldn’t be allowed to grow a couple of XX/XY chimeric hermaphrodites to continue our legacy. I’ve got a pile of amicus briefs and academic studies right here, saying that there’s nothing wrong with being genderqueer, and by the way I personally am only held back by the (non-consensual, fyi) limits of my chromosomes from being more so.

62 duxie May 19, 2015 at 10:24 pm

Open your eyes. In Australia the IVF institutes that have only 4% live birth rate are still in business.

63 duxie May 19, 2015 at 11:09 pm

Hmm. Seems to be the av rate for the >42yo group in US also.

64 AIG May 19, 2015 at 11:48 am

The main issue I would have with this is that it “sidelines” evolutionary processes. I.e….the traditional way of finding a good mate.

The problems with that are that a lot of these traits are probably related to each other. A “natural” selection approach to breeding accounts for these related traits to some degree…in a latent unobserved manner. I.e., there’s probably a reason why “good looking” people also happen to be “smarter”. That may be nature’s way of signaling.

Bypassing natural selection…you end up with a dog and pony show…where the interactions of various genes and traits are not considered in trying to achieve a particular goal. Dogs and horses are genetic mutants, deformed creatures that have the features and traits they do because we specifically selected a trait to enhance, but which in many cases also ended up creating numerous harmful effects for particular breeds.

My main concern is that something like this could easily happen for humans…if we don’t understand the underlying interactions of genes and traits.

I.e., in the “natural” way of section, you get a “package deal”. A package deal may be better, for the overall evolution of the species, than selecting on a particular trait.

And the reason why the package deal is more appealing to me is because these traits are packaged for a reason. Through genetic engineering you can allow all sorts of “undesirable” characteristics to be shielded from natural selective processes. Which is precisely the problem with dogs and horses (and virtually all living creatures we humans have genetically engineered for our purposes).

For example, super-intelligent people are more likely to have social dysfunctional problems…and that’s probably for a good reason. On the other hand, above average intelligence coupled with particular personality traits, may be far more advantageous in quantifiable terms for an individual. yet we don’t necessarily know why, how they interact, what other factors are important, and more importantly how this all interacts with OTHER humans (the external human-created society is the main natural selection pressure here, so ignoring that would be pretty dangerous if we are to determine what traits are “desirable” and what aren’t).

As for Asian countries, we can see where some of this sort of thinking leads to: i.e., cosmetic surgery rates. I’d be amazed if such a technology in a place like China wasn’t used primarily to enhance particular facial characteristics rather than anything else, since it would be a substitute for plastic surgery.

PS: of course, the “disease prevention” argument is more convincing, but that one suffers from the similar problem. Are we so sure that preventing particular diseases has no other interactions with other traits? Also, it’s a relatively simple issue to solve: allow only genetic engineering for the health purposes, not “enhancement” or “cosmetic” purposes.

65 AIG May 19, 2015 at 12:02 pm

PPS: Also, isn’t this ignoring the fact that people who are already in a financial position to afford such things, also are much more likely to have the desirable genetic characteristics described here? The kid of two doctors is already likely to be far from average in intelligence, and the parents are also far more likely to know this.

Why would these people be willing, and want to, enhance this further?

Seems to me the ones who would elect for such enhancements are precisely the sort of people who aren’t “risk averse”, in the sense that they are already below the “mean” on a particular trait, and are willing to take more risks to get above it.

I.e….the “risk aversion” argument is ignoring the fact that it depends on people’s reference points. People aren’t risk averse if they’re already “loosing” the genetic competition. They’re risk seeking.

But those are precisely the sort of people one might not want to engage in such selective engineering. Because of the whole “package deal” and the complicated interactions leading up to human behavior which we really don’t understand. Imagine someone with some anti-social behavioral underlying genetic issue…impulse control lets say…which is also likely to be more associated with lower intelligence. Now you manipulate that person’s “intelligence”, but not address the impulse control or anti-social behavior genetic issues. Is that a “good” thing? You get a smart idiot.

66 M May 20, 2015 at 3:35 am

I think in general smart idiots will be more useful than dumb idiots (for all that smart sensibles might resent the competition but screw what they want).

67 M May 20, 2015 at 3:31 am

Some dog breeds have issues in the wild because of the characteristics themselves, for others their characteristics may actually be pretty great, but they would lose out due to mutational load, built up by artificial selection. A world where we cleaned the load out of a lot of breeds and then watched to see if fixed Border Collies or a Mexican chihuaua could find a niche that wolves might be interesting.

68 Talos4 June 16, 2015 at 5:12 pm

Is it not true that dog breeds genetic propensity towards certain types of disease is caused by brutal inbreeding? Their “Package Deal” was that allong with great Danes huge size, they also get X disease? I don’t follow how this is an argument against CRISPR, because it should be able to offer genetic alteration without inheriting the diseases found on X chromosome. Are you arguing that perhaps the altered trait would cause a disease, or that traits need diseases to ballance out “Naturally”? Also, from a certain point of view, CRISPR and gene therapy could be seen as a natural extension of the evolutionary process, simply the next logical jump. I do see the linkage between impulse control and intelligence causing problems, but this entire debate glosses over epigenetics, and seems to pretend like even if X gene is inserted to make you super hairy it will totally work. If X gene is added to make some poor, sad little minority child smart, but they’re neglected and privy only to lowly public schooling standards, will there really be a phenotypically significant change?

69 Sanjay May 19, 2015 at 11:59 am

I’m fond of Jennifer Doudna — I was in a lab that shared space with her back when her big claim to fame was the ribosome structure — but I would be leery of calling her CRISPR’s “inventor” — it’s pretty disputed and a lot of groups were on that. If I had to pick one lab it would be Church’s, just because of his long work in that area.

That said: I’m travelling but my main irritation today is that there’s a very wrong elision here of the difference between genetic modification in humans — which isn’t banned and is done — and clinical intervention in embryos, which is what is banned by the new edict. And the author’s own argument suggest it’s something we shouldn’t be doing, because its published efficacy right now fails any reasonable informed consent standard.

70 ivvenalis May 19, 2015 at 12:27 pm

“published efficacy right now fails any reasonable informed consent standard.”

You know what other medical procedure frequently performed on embryos fails this test? Abortion.

71 rayward May 19, 2015 at 12:19 pm

“The primary fear of human germline engineering, beyond safety, appears to be a Gattaca-like scenario, where the rich are able to enhance the intelligence, looks, and other traits of their children, and the poor aren’t.” Why do smart people have dumb children? Why do dumb people have smart children? Why do ugly people have handsome children? Who do handsome people have ugly children? Indeed, why are some siblings dumb, others smart, some siblings handsome, others ugly, some siblings ambitious, others lazy? I suppose it’s complicated. I’m just glad that I’m smarter and better looking than my siblings.

72 Dickwad June 16, 2015 at 5:14 pm

You’re only saying that because you’re too simple to see that they’re, in fact, the pretty smart ones…

73 Jay May 19, 2015 at 2:34 pm

First off, anyone whose read any of Mr. Naam’s books knows he has given these and related topics a lot of thought, so while there may be some handwaving or assumptions being made, I think that is due to the medium: a blog post can only go into so much detail.

Next, take a few steps back and look at the bigger picture and genetic engineering humans isn’t just “not scary” it is essential to the future of the human race (or some version of it). If we are going to survive odds are we are going to need to move off of Earth in some capacity and the human body wasn’t designed to deal with radiation and other effects of space travel or non-Earth living. Genetic engineering will need to play a role in adapting our biology for those challenges. It sounds like science fiction (OK – right now it is), but everything starts out that way and if you just look at how far we have come in 100 years, consider what we will be able to do 200 years from now?

Future generations will look back at human genome editing starting off banned as well intentioned but silly.

74 Jeff May 19, 2015 at 3:48 pm

“The primary fear of human germline engineering, beyond safety, appears to be a Gattaca-like scenario, where the rich are able to enhance the intelligence, looks, and other traits of their children, and the poor aren’t.”

Nope. You’re arguing a strawman.

The primary fear is that governments and military will be able to engineer hybrid type of people for dominating purposes. Folks with they eyes of owls so they can see in the dark. Folks that can echo-locate like bats.

IQ enhancement is smalltime my friend. Let’s insert genes to create useful military chimera.

*That* is what people are afraid of.

75 albatross May 20, 2015 at 11:34 am

That’s a kind of silly fear, though. Machines can already sense better than any human will ever be able to sense, even with whatever genetic enhancements you might like.

76 Dickwad June 16, 2015 at 5:16 pm

Someone just watched the new Jurassic Park movie…

77 Phil May 19, 2015 at 4:22 pm

human genome editing will lead to a Gattaca scenario

What’s so bad about a Gattaca scenario? That movie’s world seemed like an affluent and decent place. The main character clearly had no business flying spaceships given his congenital heart condition. He’s the villain of the movie. He should have pursued some other line of work.

The primary fear of human germline engineering, beyond safety, appears to be a Gattaca-like scenario, where the rich are able to enhance the intelligence, looks, and other traits of their children, and the poor aren’t.

I don’t think it was ever implied in the movie that genetic engineering was available only to the rich. The main character’s parents simply decided to have a “natural” baby. His brother’s genome was engineered.

78 Dickwad June 16, 2015 at 5:19 pm

Then the scenario isn’t a “Gattaca” It’s a stratification of society based on genetic criteria. Stop talking about a critical failure of a movie and just describe the distopian scenario that Gattaca now implies.

79 Jer May 19, 2015 at 9:15 pm

I am always deeply suspicious of an article or deeply leery of the ‘bias intentions’ of an author whose entire piece is predominantly spent naming the best aspects of a thing, minimizing its worst, downplaying its questionably ethical, and making excuses for the obviously unredeemable deficiencies – sounds like FOX news.
Tell it like it is: it will increase inequality, its largest use will be in cosmetic or enhancement, its largest users will be the top 1%, it will typically be unavailable for those poor in dire health for several years in G7 countries and generations in developing countries, it will be unsupported by most health plans, and will be subject to huge amounts of corruption and nepotism and favouritism — in a phrase: it will progress as every other significant technology ever has — and that is ok – because for the 5 ethical steps backward it is 6 liberating steps forward, propelled in a common direction by greed, vanity, and self-interest – a powerful force of development, rarely so focussed. Don’t try to cover over the filth that human society is and is typically found within many of its creations – just make the best of a monstrous technology ‘new-born’ needing refinement, fair deployment, and widespread ‘trickle-down’ availability. Better to clean the mess and fix the devastation that is a chaotic science, eventually realizing its greater good, than never allowing it to birth, subjecting ourselves to the only true crime – a never-improving non-existence of unfulfilled mediocrity. There must certainly be a metric/rubric of the ‘goodness potential of a technology’ – i.e. in comparing such controversial tech as virus biotechnology, large-scale nuclear, even the automobile — this gene-editing tech would be considered very safe, huge number of beneficiaries, and exponential benefit with refined application – though, shame that it may not fit some individuals’ socio-economic policy agenda in the short term.

80 AIG May 19, 2015 at 9:24 pm

That made no sense at all.

As with everything with the Left, the only measure of any significance is the degree to which it is accessible by the “rich” vs. the “poor”. By the mentality of the Left, none of the modern technologies of the last 100 years should have been allowed, since they were all only initially accessible to the “rich”.

But that’s the Left for you.

I’ve changed my mind. If we can discover the gene for logical thinking…I’m all for making this technology mandatory pre-birth. Never-mind available.

81 Dickwad June 16, 2015 at 5:21 pm

Like you could ever predict the outcomes of a new technology. Also, are you saying it’s good to practice dangerous tech on rich people, or just to give them a genetic advantage, on top of their already monstrous economic and political ones?

82 Nathan W May 19, 2015 at 9:30 pm

I think it is inevitable that many parents will soon want to be able to access disease prevention in planned pregnancies. As for all the rest of it … well what’s the rest. Can’t we wait 100 or 1000 years to play God while trying to find a suitable way to regulate things to protect against bad outcomes in a more general level.

83 ohwilleke May 19, 2015 at 10:08 pm

The barriers to enhancement are overstated in the OP. The secret to effective CRISPR based enhancement is to start with the edits of greatest marginal utility – small edits of genotypes with large known effects that are desirable, rather than focusing on phenotypes whose genetic causes are not well known. Some of the difficulty of predicting phenotypes based on genotypes is that the definitions of phenotypes are too broad or just not congruent with what genotypes determine.

Among the fairly simply edited genotypes with large known phenotypic effects are:
* Several genes associated with longevity.
* A gene associated with greatly increased rates of divorce and non-marital relationship breakup.
* Lactose tolerance.
* The ear wax type gene that plays a major role in body odor.
* A gene associated with certain specific kinds of learning disabilities like dsylexia.
* A gene associated with vulnerability to PTSD (spun positiviely, a “resiliance” gene).
* A group of six genes associated with vulnerability to altitude sickness (indeed most high altitude adaptations in human involve small numbers of genes with large phenotypic effect).
* Blood type (who doesn’t want to be a universal receiver rather than a universal donor).
* A gene associated with neuroticism (the “feel good” gene).

My guess is that there are probably at least 200-300 genes with known large phenotypic effects.

84 M May 20, 2015 at 3:01 am

If it ever gets to our error rate declines to, like, 1 error created for 70 fixed (to a consensus state), then using CRISPR to mass remove low frequency rare mutations seems still practical.

The disadvantage is that the new mutations would still be “untested” so could be proportionately worse, but clearing out the mutational load doesn’t require a zero error rate, just to be able to clean in a way that doesn’t create more mess.

85 André May 20, 2015 at 7:23 am

Rather than editing intelligence, what would be the impact of the use of such technology to edit skin color (and other body features associated with race)? Would it be ok, from an ethical standpoint, to do it? This is a more obvious ethical problem to me than the highly theoretical and far-flung in the future intelligence editing.

86 WisdomWouldBeWelcome May 20, 2015 at 6:29 pm

What is stomach-turning in so many comments here is the immense self-interested greed to have the personal use of a new tool by tool-building humans to grasp at self-advantage, or its mirror face in ‘it’s for the children’.

This is a malformation of spirit which no doubt today’s fears contribute to. You don’t have to be ‘left’ or ‘right’ or any in other tribalism to recognize this.

Yes, it’s hard to directly deny scientists their own hard desire to win on the new thing, or these maladies of societies as above, and all the manipulations they will use, humans being humans.

What you can do I think is stand up for a better life than any of these imagine.

We clearly don’t understand the immense ranges of intelligence at all, and how often those judged not highly estimated achieve what is really desired by others, whether it is in business, art and music, or in personal relationships which are the strength and envy of all around them.

Creating more of what rich and followers would really envy, and can’t buy, that is building that better future, no?

87 William May 21, 2015 at 1:59 am

you are quite the philosopher. Reminds me of a few good Star Trek episodes.

88 WisdomWouldBeWelcome May 21, 2015 at 2:41 pm

Well, we all grow up, you know.

Sometimes sooner or later, but with an historic interval like the present, there’s all the more impetus to try, no?

89 SomeyoungGuy June 16, 2015 at 5:26 pm

I need to be that guy who says this. After what amount of genetic manipulation are we even still human?

90 Robert May 31, 2015 at 4:47 pm

The core point is that open, transparent and well-regulated research and development of technology mitigates most if not all of the risks identified. Bans and driving research underground increases the risk of unintentional or intentional bad outcomes.

Also, as someone with a family history of a very rare, inherited, non-fatal but debilitating disease, I can tell you that it was front of mind before having a child. I was lucky, and give thanks every day for it. Others are not, and as pointed out above, a serious dollop of compassion for those in such circumstances would be welcome.

91 Talos4 June 16, 2015 at 5:51 pm

In terms of upping IQ, can we please acknowledge that it’s an arbitrary cultural standard, meant to reflect how good you are at being a north american capitalist? ‘Cause that’s what IQ is. It’s pretty much how well you fit into north American and European capitalist society. Who wants that for their kids? Not me. Gross. *Shivers.* There is no real, reliable standard for measuring intelligence that I know of. Why don’t we just increase brain size in all our kids so they look like the Talosians from star trek? This is the logic being used.

Disease control is a wonderfully humanitarian application for this technology, but I’d be concerned about it’s availability to the poor. Inaccessibility of this technology will only further gaps between social standings. Rich would advance, and use the tech to get smarter, faster, meaner, while poor people would suddenly have even more of a block towards gaining standing and independence, with much higher competition. Why wouldn’t this incite violence?

As far as frivolous use of this tech is concerned, few things alarm me more. Increasing abilities will divide people and make us less human. Curriculum in my country seems hell bent on teaching that wee’re all the same, happy people, with equal abilities. This is far from the truth, and unequal application of CRISPR would only take us farther away from that. How much genetic manipulation do we need to undergo before we can no longer identify as human?

To ivvenalis;
What are you trying to say? Breeding XX/XY hermaphrodites is terrible. You think life isn’t hard enough being born trans or gay or bi without purposefully being made that way?! Let people grow into their sexuality, deciding for them before they have a chance to figure it out is the reason why it’s so difficult to be l/g/t/b/q nowadays, that’s just as horrible as people who believe gays need to be eradicated. Nobody ever asked to be born, and now we get into embryonic consent, which is ridiculous in it’s impossibility. I would argue that growing humans the “Old fashioned way” is the only moral way to do so, because that’s what’s been built into our species from the beginning. Since nobody ever asked to be born, we can’t really justify ever making new people, so I settle on the traditional way as being the only excusable means to do so. If a family is desired, there is no reason why individuals shouldn’t go out and adopt a kid that’s ALREADY BEEN MADE. Does anyone consider how hard it is growing up without parents before they get in-vitroed? The time and effort dedicated to creating more naked pink monkeys is sick when you look at the numbers already here, and in need of family.

In terms of creating progeny that echo self, no one seems to be considering epigenetics either. Go to the orphanage, pick out your blue eyed blond kid, or whatever the in traits are these days, and do a fucking decent job raising them, and you’ll pass on traits just fine.

CRISPR needs to be researched, shouldn’t be implemented into society in any program short of something similar to national vaccination standards, and has great potential to help and harm. It is scary, and access to it needs to be limited so it is not misused.

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