Results for “gattaca”
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Gattaca University

From the NYTimes, Berkeley will give its students genetic tests. 

…this year’s incoming freshmen at the University of California, Berkeley, will get something quite different: a cotton swab on which they can, if they choose, send in a DNA sample.

The university said it would analyze the samples, from inside students’ cheeks, for three genes that help regulate the ability to metabolize alcohol, lactose and folates.

Those genes were chosen not because they indicate serious health risks but because students with certain genetic markers may be able to lead healthier lives by drinking less, avoiding dairy products or eating more leafy green vegetables.

Don't be surprised if this is soon canceled.

Using Nature to Understand Nurture

An excellent new working paper uses genetic markers for educational attainment to track students through the high school math curriculum to better understand the role of nature, nurture and their interaction in math attainment. The paper begins with an earlier genome wide association study (GWAS) of 1.1 million people that found that a polygenic score could be used to (modestly) predict college completion rates. Panel (a) in the figure at right shows how college completion is five times higher in individuals with an education polygenic score (ed-PGS) in the highest quintile compared to individuals with scores in the lowest quintile; panel b shows that ed-PGS is at least as good as household income at predicting college attainment but not quite as good as knowing the educational level of the parents.

Of the million plus individuals with ed-PGS, some 3,635 came from European-heritage individuals who were entering US high school students in 1994-1995 (the Add Health sample). Harden, Domingue et al. take the ed-PGS of these individuals and match them up with data from their high school curricula and their student transcripts.

What they find is math attainment is a combination of nature and nurture. First, students with higher ed-PGS are more likely to be tracked into advanced math classes beginning in grade 9. (Higher ed-PGS scores are also associated with higher socio-economic status families and schools but these differences persist even after controlling for family and school SES or looking only at variation within schools.) Higher ed-PGS also predicts math persistence in the following years. The following diagram tracks high ed-PGS (blue) with lower ed-PGS (brown) over high school curricula/years and post high-school. Note that by grade 9 there is substantial tracking and some cross-over but mostly (it appears to me) in high-PGS students who fall off-track (note in particular the big drop off of blue students from Pre-Calculus to None in Grade 12).

Nature, however, is modified by nurture. “Students had higher returns to their genetic propensities for educational attainment in higher-status schools.” Higher ed-PGS students in lower SES schools were less likely to be tracked into higher-math classes and lower-SES students were less likely to persist in such classes.

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that higher-SES schools are uniformly better without understanding the tradoffs. Lower SES schools have fewer high-ability students which makes it difficult to run advanced math classes. Perhaps the lesson here is that bigger schools are better, particularly bigger schools in poorer SES districts. A big school in a low SES district can still afford an advanced math curriculum.

The authors also suggest that more students could take advanced math classes. Even among the top 2% of students as measured by ed-PGS only 31% took Calculus in the high-SES schools and only 24% in the low SES schools.It’s not clear to me, however, that high-PGS necessitates high math achievement. Notice that many high-PGS students take pre-calc in Grade 11 but then no math in Grade 12 but they still go on to college and masters degrees. Lots of highly educated people are not highly-educated in math. Still it wouldn’t be a surprise if there were more math talent in the pool.

There is plenty to criticize in the paper. The measure of SES status by school (average mother’s educational attainment) leaves something to be desired. Moreover, there are indirect genetic effects, which the authors understand and discuss but don’t have the data to test. An indirect genetic effect occurs when a gene shared by parent and child has no direct effect on educational capacity (i.e. it’s not a gene for say neuronal development) but has an indirect “effect” because it is correlated with something that parent’s with that gene do to modify the environment of their children. Nevertheless, genes do have direct effects and this paper forces us to acknowledge that behavioral genetics has implications for policy.

Should every student be genotyped and tracked? On the one hand, that sounds horrible. On the other hand, it would identify more students of high ability, especially from low SES backgrounds. Genetics tells us something about a student’s potential and shouldn’t we try to maximize potential?

For homework, work out the equilibrium for inequality, rewatch the criminally underrated GATTACA and for an even more horrifying picture of the future, pay careful attention to the Mirrlees model of optimal income taxation.

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

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.

*In Time* (spoilers about the macroeconomic model)

It is rare to see a movie with such a perfectly realized economic model, albeit one pulled from such exotic territory.  Imagine a Keynes chapter 17 world where the “own rate of interest” on time — which can be borrowed and lent — rules the roost.  Many people are at or near subsistence in their time endowments, and there are economies of scale in supply, so short rates on these loans are high.  Those high rates choke off other investments and a version of TGS ensues.  Medium-term rates, however, are negative in real terms.  Carry around too much time and it will be stolen and you die.  The economy has a strongly inverted yield curve and that discourages traditional financial intermediation and investment.  Wealth continues to fall, which exacerbates security problems, in turning lowering the negative medium-term real rates even further.  A downward spiral ensues.  The only way to make money is to buy marginal security (for time endowments) and spend less on that security than you earn on short loans of time.  More and more resources go into security, again exacerbating the inverted yield curve.  The economics of producing security are also the fundamental source of market power in the economy.  Market segmentation reigns and the marginal rates of substitution on time loans are not equated across different social classes.

The hero has read Kalecki (1943) and he operates under the assumption that a redistribution will prove isomorphic to an “Operation Twist” and restore full employment equilibrium, and positive economic growth, by fixing the inverted yield curve.  But is that policy commitment credible?  Does he have the support of the heroine?  You have to watch the movie to find out…

In Time also raises questions about why we find time inequality more objectionable than money inequality.  You also can interpret it as a model of a world where health care really works.

This is by no means a flawless film but conceptually it was stronger than I had been expecting.  Kudos again to Andrew Niccol, Gattaca is a worthwhile movie too.

Here is Robin Hanson’s review, he liked it less than I did.

Markets in Everything: Lookup Before You Hookup

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Some of you may recall the scene from Amazon Women on the Moon in which this idea was featured as a joke.  I also recall but couldn't find online a scene from the great movie GATTACA in which a women on a date kisses a man and then rushes to the ladies room to have the DNA on her lipstick analyzed for suitable qualities.  How long untill we have that technology?

Hat tip: Chris Rasch.

The ten most underrated science fiction movies

Here is one such list.  It offers up:

1. Primer
2. Aeon Flux
3. Body Snatchers (1993!)
4. Tron
5. Sleeper
6. eXistenZ
7. A Boy and His Dog
8. Enemy Mine
9. Gattaca
10. Silent Running

My picks would have been Mission to Mars and Titan A.ESunshine is also quite good and not so well known.  At times I regard What Dreams May Come as science fiction.  Can I call John Carpenter’s The Thing underrated?  (Is Gattaca underrated?  I don’t think so, not any more.  Is the wonderful eXistenZ underrated?)  Then there are the three Stars Wars prequels, each deeply underrated (unlike The Clone Wars, which defies every rational choice theory known to mankind).  But we’ve had other comment threads on the prequels, so don’t flame me on that one.  Offer up your picks, with an explanation why.

I welcome the Ubermensch

There is a great scene in the movie Gattaca of a piano recital.  (As I remember it).  As we listen to the beautiful and complex music the camera slowly pans in on the pianist’s fast-moving fingers until we see why the music is so amazing, the pianist has six fingers on each hand.  Was the music written for the pianist or was the pianist written for the music?  Even though Gattaca is often understood as a dystopia the movie is great at showing the promise of genetic engineering.

In India, genetic mutation has done what we are close to doing with genetic engineering.  Devender Harne has six fingers on each hand and six toes on one foot and seven on the other.  He says the extra fingers let him work faster than other children. 


If you think the photo has been Photoshopped, it hasn’t.  See here for the full story and video.  Thanks to J-Walk Blog for the link.

My favorite things New Zealand

Having once spent a year living in Wellington, this one is easy:

1. Movie and movie director – Forget Peter Jackson and Lord of the Rings, I’ll opt for Vincent Ward’s The Navigator, where a group of medieval peasants suddenly emerges in late twentieth century Auckland.  Ward’s Map of the Human Heart might count as Canadian, but I love its surrealistic treatment of love and memory.  What Dreams May Come is sappy in parts but has Robin Williams doing a serious take on Bergman and Dante, doesn’t that sound strange?  Note that this category is especially strong – for instance Andrew Niccol directed the underrated Gattaca.

2. Music – The Kiwis have many good indie bands but Split Enz is the peak, buy their greatest hits.  Otherwise I’ll nominate the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience, if only for their name.

3. Fiction – Keri Hulme’s The Bone People or Janet Frame’s autobiography are both first-rate, catch the movie too.

4. Painter – Umm…things slow down a bit here.  The obvious pick is Colin McCahon, here are some images.  Here is my favorite, but I will admit some lameness in the category overall.

5. Food – Fish and chips is to New Zealand as barbecue is to Texas — tops in the world.  The best places are owned by Greeks.  New Zealand is also a first-rate locale for Malay, Cambodian, and Burmese cuisines.

6. City – Wellington is for me the single most beautiful city in the world, make sure you go to the lookout on Mount Victoria, here is alas only part of the panorama.  Wellington is also full of lovely Victorian homes.  I will Napier as an underrated second, here is some Art Deco, the city center was destroyed by an earthquake in the 1920s and rebuilt in that style.

The problem? I like New Zealanders so much, I wish there were many more of them.  Here is a brief photo tour, if you haven’t already decided to go.