Further small steps toward designer babies

A personal-genomics company in California has been awarded a broad U.S. patent for a technique that could be used in a fertility clinic to create babies with selected traits, as the frontiers of genetic enhancement continue to advance.

The patented process from 23andMe, whose main business is collecting DNA from customers and analyzing it to provide information about health and ancestry, could be employed to match the genetic profile of a would-be parent to that of donor sperm or eggs. In theory, this could lead to the advent of “designer babies,” a controversial idea where genes would be selected to boost the chances of a child having certain physical attributes, such as a particular eye or hair color.

The technique potentially could also be used to create healthier babies, by screening out donors with genes that are predisposed to disease, either on their own, or in combination with the recipient’s genes.

The awarding of the patent “is a massive addition to what is currently being done” in fertility clinics, said Sigrid Sterckx of the Bioethics Institute Ghent in Belgium, who co-wrote a commentary on the 23andMe patent in the journal Genetics in Medicine on Thursday. “It indicates a different attitude, not just about disease-related traits, but nondisease traits.” 23andMe, based in Mountain View, Calif., says that while its new patent encompasses trait selection in babies, through a tool called the Family Traits Inheritance Calculator, it has no plans to apply it to that end.

As I understand the article, this works only when there is a sperm or egg donor, although a potential marrying couple could use it ex ante (“come on Biff, let’s just try it, I’m just curious.  I’ll always love you.”)  My view has long been that most people, if they have the chance, are willing to embrace and also use eugenics, albeit with some reframing and rebranding.  Eugenics was a very popular idea with Progressives earlier in the twentieth century, and also with economists (in particular, pdf), and ultimately the Nazi connection will be seen as a bump in the road.  Competition with the Chinese will help push Americans toward this ideological shift.  I am more skeptical myself, as I see greater value in the genetic outliers and I fear their disappearance or diminution.  I also am relatively skeptical about the quality of the processes — legal and otherwise — which are likely to govern such experiments.  In any case, you can think of this as the next step after “early intervention.”  Why don’t we call it “very early intervention”?

The story is here, and if you need to get through the gate, enter “Gautam Naik”, the author of the article, into news.google.com.


Politically, Eugenics was very different because it's supporters saw it as a way for society to improve its genetic stock - top down. That kind of thing was always going to have some relationship with Nazism & friends. This kind of bottom up process is similar, but different - and terrifyies me less. In 200 years time, the horror stories will be about how some isolated community has been turning itself into a new species.

I'd really like to know why this is so hard. Not being snarky whatsoever.

In reply to Andrew', I believe that to 'change a genetic stock' takes, according to one estimate by a scientist I read (a pioneer in the field (was it T.H. Morgan of Columbia? R. Fisher? Bobby Fischer? No not Bobby) about 1000 years minimum. That is why eugenics will not really work to change society quickly.

Question to ponder: if TC is consistent about valuing diversity, he should be for anti-incest laws, and against free will in selecting a mate. Think about it and Google ("allelic drift"). BTW two people closely related only develop genetic anomalies in their offspring about 8% of the time at most, not 100% as is popularly supposed.

"its supporters," not "it's supporters." its its its.

It's means "it is."

Sorry to be a jerk, Adrian. You got it right on the second reference. Maybe the computer thought it was smarter than you. It wasn't.

Ray: go kill all the dogs that aren't, say, Maltese. There, you've just gotten an enormous change to the genetic stock of a species in a single generation.

That time estimate is based on encouraging some people to have children and discouraging others. If they can go in and alter the germ-line directly by genetic engineering - which the Nazis didn't contemplate - then any amount of change can happen in a single generation.

'has been awarded a broad U.S. patent for a technique that could be used in a fertility clinic'

A patent extremely unlikable to be enforceable in many parts of the world - it seems about as obvious as the one click shopping patent which is also not recognized in most of the rest of the world. The flow chart is particularly patent worthy in and of itself - gather information, analyse information, make decision based on information, patent process.

'are willing to embrace and also use eugenics'

Average is truly over, when we just get over the bad marketing of the idea in the past. As compared to actual results of attempting to do this in the past - how did Soviet Man turn out, by the way?

'and ultimately the Nazi connection will be seen as a bump in the road'

I used to think you had something to contribute, but this removes all doubts.

"I used to think you had something to contribute, but this removes all doubts."

Does this mean we won't be enjoying any more of your thoughtful well-reasoned contributions to the comment section?

Yes, from now on he'll only give us his off-the-cuff, alcohol-fuelled comments. We don't deserve any better. :-(

"how did Soviet Man turn out, by the way?"

Not very good, because the Soviets condemned genetics as fascist.


"As I understand the article, this works only when there is a sperm or egg donor, although a potential marrying couple could use it ex ante."

But a potential marrying couple is already using a rough version of this technology ... I see it hard to fight trends whether sort functions on OKCupid or genetic profiles from 23andMe when they are simply a extension of what people have done for a long time. I agree that there are downsides to unborn "genetic outliers" but there are upsides to "very early intervention" too, it's not clear how the social welfare or individual utility calculus comes out. In any case, as the article notes at the end ... this is "a signal to the world that this is what the future is going to look like."

Very good comment! Singles use a bazillion cues when finding a mate; this process is way more sophisticated then what 23andme is offering. I spent about twenty years in the genomics field, and the lack of any useful services or products continues to disappoint me. My wife and I are 23andme users. They already have a feature on their web offering that shows what traits a child may have based on our genetics. I assume it is related to this patent. It is cute and fun, but that is it. The human genome was sequenced over a decade ago.
There is a Great Stagnation in genomics.

The paternal age (sperm mutation accumulation) argument for men freezing/preserving their sperm at an early age, say 16-18 years old, if implemented might serve as the sperm donation in this context.

Good news. Liberal eugenics holds quite a bit of promise.

"and ultimately the Nazi connection will be seen as a bump in the road"

Not here in Germany, where unreflected Nazi association angst is part of the cultural DNA. Thankfully, Germany is not the future.

I personally hope these technologies can ultimately pave the way to hedonic enhancement, making life more tolerable for the suffering.

Being awarded the patent is half the battle. Literally. Patents only hold up in court about half the time.

Even if true, it doesn't follow that half of all patents have been invalidated.

@ Dan Weber: that's because only 1% or less of patents are litigated.

This is NOT preimplantation diagnosis - what they showed in Gattaca; this is nothing more than high-tech arranged marriage based on looking for some partner traits. Not interesting. The best way to arrange a "designer baby" is to use your eyeballs to look at your mate and see if they have the desired characteristics.

There's a big potential demand from lesbians and the infertile for quantitative advice on which egg and sperm donors to employ. It doesn't even require genetic analysis -- just an evaluation of the odds based on phenotype would be helpful.

So that's how you've chosen to procreate? High-IQ Jewish lesbians?

I expected SS to be overloaded with joy with such a topic, right in his wheelhouse, but he's so overloaded he comes up with a nonsensical one liner. It's like me and chess sometimes--I get too excited to give a simple answer, instead giving an answer that's too clever by half. "There’s a big potential demand from lesbians and the infertile for quantitative advice on which egg and sperm donors to employ" LOL what a gem!

There is value in genetic outliers and diversity in general, but theoretically this technology would be used precisely to select for the good outliers. There is some risk that we inadvertently weed out outliers whose beneficial traits are not obvious at the time (e.g. something like the malarial resistance that carrying a single copy of the sickle cell allele offers could be missed).

Highlights everything that is wrong with patents these days. There is exactly zero original material in this patent. And it's not a "process", it's just a few simple equations. How the hell did we get to the point of allowing to patent mathematical formulas?

Competition with the Chinese will help push Americans toward this ideological shift.

What do the Chinese have to do with it? If they start practicing eugenics, we'll have to too, just to keep up? I'm not aware of any evidence scientific eugenics gives a society a significant edge over traditional societies.

Compare the quantity of dogs vs. wolves, or domestic cats vs. wild cats. Eugenics could apply equally-powerful selection effects to humans to make us better adapted to our environments.

I refrain from either endorsing or condemning this for now...

Again, what does that have to do with the Chinese? Will the Communist Party of China engineer a future citizen that is completely obedient to the Party? That would push us how? Perhaps the Tea Party withdraws to a hidden ravine in Texas and breeds a new human species.

If you're the kind that typically only comes back to review your comments--and I'm one of them, after all, who is smarter than me? likely only a few people posting here, sad to say--then I repeat for your benefit my comment upstream: experts say human eugenics would take a minimum of 1000 years before you could detect the changes in a population. That's why Hitler's 1000 yr Reich ironically would not have been enough time to see his version of paradise.

Bonus question to ponder: it's well documented that the Han Chinese, who objectively more or less look all the same, are more genetically robust and diverse than the Europeans, who look different (except to each other, but that's a sociology problem). There is a biological reason for European phenotype (pseudo) diversity: Europeans inbred more. Does this make the Chinese better humans than the Europeans? Genetically, yes. Then why did the Europeans colonize the earth quicker, using some say Chinese inventions? Environment (aka 'culture'). A koan to ponder, and it shows environment is just as important or more important than genes. Nature vs nurture. Augustus Cesar, one of the most successful humans ever, was adopted. So I believe are TC's kid(s). Another master race: the 1%. And so it goes.

As I've pointed out before, that's absurd. You could get enormous changes in a single generation, with strong enough selection pressures. Want to shrink the average American by 4" over the next generation? We can do that. We have the technology.

Jason Collins has calculated dramatic effects of evolution on fertility through a variety of heritability models in 1-20 generations. He argues that fertility is set to dramatically rise in Western societies in a lot less than 1,000 years.

Surely I am not the only who selects partners based, at least partially, on appearances...

But most genetic mutations make a person look less attractive in some way. You think a person is hot/funny/happy and you are really selecting for certain gene combinations.

As the parent of a donor-egg child, I think Tyler's way off in his estimation of the general public's willingness to embrace eugenics. There is an overwhelming preference toward using one's own genetic material, consistent across all of the available literature and all of the other similarly-situated parents we met. The donor process is a last-ditch method short of adoption, not an option that couples readily jump into for the purpose of building a better baby, and I don't see that marginal improvements in identifying that baby's likely traits are going to chip away at that preference.

And as for couples already doing this in a rough form when they select a mate, I don't think that's remotely comparable. How many of you broke up with a potential mate because of the cancer history on her mother's side?

To your point about breaking up due to cancer in the family, I think that is the wrong way of putting it. A better way to say it is, how many of you never even considered a mate because their family's battles with cancer reduced their financial success and the potential mate wasn't able to afford the same elite university as you. This is just one way selection works, I could have used others.

Here is an interesting nugget from the article about the enthusiasm of progressives for eugenics:

The socialist Sidney Webb devised the term "adverse selection" for the theory that "inferior races" will dominate the "superior races" via the mechanism of much higher birth rates.

It would be interesting to trace the intellectual history of the transmutation of the term "adverse selection" from a technical term in racist theories to a technical term in the economics of asymmetric information.

Insurers used it extensively before Webb, eg, 1871a century before Akerlof.

Good to know, thanks.

Damn, I already had a broken kid.

She's seven, is it too late to take care of that?

She might have a little Jewish in her, too. Double bad.

Nah, I'm sure she's totally okay with her preventable ailments, and her life as a disabled person is totally consensual. And if she would prefer euthanasia, she could just decide so at any time and you would respect her decision.

After all, you Catholics aren't aggressors or anything. You would never make children suffer against their will, I'm sure.

Hmm... I also did not know that the socialist couple Sidney and Beatrice Webb advocated for the minimum wage by _explicitly endorsing_ its eugenic effect on the "unfortunate parasites" from the "inferior races."

The racism of the early progressives: the gift that keeps on giving.

If anyone there had any sense of humor they would have called their product Intelligent Design.

As a general question: has there been any link established between Keynes' antisemitism and his interest in eugenics? (I am not saying that a link between eugenics and a racist ideology aways exists. But given European intellectual history and how widespread antisemitism was back then, I'd be interested if there is a more general framework that links the two in Keynes' worldview.)

Most people still prefer their own kids. Genetic determinism it seems might reinforce that.

"I see greater value in genetic outliers"
That's still eugenics.

What if we are the self-improving machines of The Singularity?

Remember recessive genes? So looking for the most attractive woman/man may not yield the desired results......this is where the technology can help.

I'm pretty sure people do this all the time already. When my wife and I were having trouble conceiving we both underwent genetic testing for various traits that (in tandem) could lead to miscarriage. Turns out I'm a carrier for some horrible genetic condition that's mostly limited to people of Northern European stock and almost always leads to miscarriage. She isn't, so we're good. If we had discovered she's also a carrier we'd have almost surely abandoned our attempts to conceive a child and just adopted. Voila: eugenics.

I think that it's highly likely that an extremely high IQ elite will form in the coming generations, through the use of eugenics. If the PRC government for instance began to strongly subsidize such things, they could create an elite Han class that would result in great economic and possibly political dominance. And subsidies to a general population could make a country significantly happier and civilized. (imagine a society of far less mental illness, higher life satisfaction, education, lower crime, wealth, etc) International aid to poor countries consisting of eugenic technology could change the poorest countries into being as rich as the richest.

Comments for this post are closed