Should we welcome genetic engineering?

That is the topic of my latest column from Bloomberg, here is one excerpt:

If you could directly alter your kids’ genetic profile, what would you want? It’s hard to know how the social debate would turn out after years of back and forth, but I was dismayed to read one recent research paper by psychologists Rachel M. Latham and Sophie von Stumm. The descriptive title of that work, based on survey evidence, is “Mothers want extraversion over conscientiousness or intelligence for their children.” Upon reflection, maybe that isn’t so surprising, because parents presumably want children who are fun to spend time with.

Would a more extroverted human race be desirable, all things considered? I genuinely don’t know, but at the very least I am concerned. The current mix of human personalities and institutions is a delicate balance which, for all of its flaws, has allowed society to survive and progress. I’m not looking to make a big roll of the dice on this one.

It’s also not difficult to imagine parents wanting children who are relatively well-behaved. The same research paper found that mothers, after extroversion, preferred the trait of “agreeableness” in their children, again over both intelligence and conscientiousness.

I was struck by a recent Chinese report that some parents are asking for children who are able to drink socially, for business purposes, and thus trying to avoid some genes that make it difficult to process alcohol. Caveat emptor.

Best sentence: “I don’t trust people to take so much control over the future of human nature.”


I, for one, welcome the new master race of extroverted, 80-IQ, barflies.

Some brilliant filmmaker made the first three minutes of Idiocracy and then died, the rest of the film was made by a next generation moron.

The set designer was occasionally brilliant.

+1. Great idea, but the end product was a two hour SNL skit.

Half Sigma, is that you?


My argument throughout this century has been that the first thing we can do to evaluate the risks and potential of genetic engineering is to study openly and honestly the effects of currently existing genetic diversity.

One aspect of the "designer babies" problem I wish had been addressed in the article is the way in which genetic engineering advances interact with income inequality. Presumably, the best of this technology and the "genetic engineering tourism" Tyler refers to would be accessible only to the very top earners in a society, at least for a time. If these top earners had exclusive access to engineering that gave their children even more advantages over their less well off peers, inequality could be ingrained into the fabric of societies.

The idea of a genetically superior master class looks like the far-out material of science fiction, but then again a tri-coder in Star Trek just a few decades ago. With the pace of advances in CRISPER and genetic technologies, it appears to be feasible within the next 50-75 years.

The vast majority of the very wealthy are significantly past childbearing age. Americans over 80 own more wealth than all Americans under 50. Besides a few outliers like Trump, men who are decades older than their wives, this isn't an issue.

Why wouldn't a wealthy person pay to have their grandchildren genetically engineered? I know I would.

They already seem to chip quite a bit in for education. I imagine only a certain amount of squishiness about reproductive matters would hold it back (haven't heard of grandma and granpa paying for IVF, for example)

I assume you know about 100 women (a representative sample) who have attempted IVF, and have explicit knowledge of how they financed it. Otherwise your comment would be one for the record books for "Phenomenally stupid comments that never should have been made."

The best way to combat this is to make it legal (thus likely cheaper and safer).

Legality would also open up the possibility of government subsidy. We spend a lot of education which we know can't improve IQ. Might as well spend a fraction to fix the problem at the source.

While the wealthy always get the best of everything, full legality + government subsidy would mean every couple would have access to at least the most common, safe, proven methods of genetic enhancement.

The inherent risk involved in genetic engineering might even scare off many wealthy couples from the most radical cutting edge regardless of cost.

We spend a lot of education which we know can’t improve IQ. Might as well spend a fraction to fix the problem at the source.

Will no one think of the teacher unions?


Encourage and pay 100% for the lowest in society. There is more margin for improvement there. :-)

I've long been aware of leftists who would rather throw capital in a pit than allow wealth inequality, but I never imagined future Einstein's would be thrown in the pit. And from the IFLS crowd, too!

Of course this is about "leftists" Thomas.

Is there anything in your worldview that isn't?

You are right to object; there is also a religious subset in opposition. Some might be surprised to find the religious and the social justice crowd standing together but both are ideologies based on faith tenets.

For purposes of natural selection, I don't see how gene modification really differs from random mutations. Once you add a gene to a child he/she will pass it on to their children, and evolution will take care of the rest. If its a really great gene then all humans will have it eventually, either from a doctor or their parents seed.

This process could take thousands of years to play out, even for a hugely beneficial gene. See lactose tolerance, for instance.

This ties in to the "endowment effect" video posted earlier about selling lottery tickets. We have no idea which genes will turn out to be important in the far future. That makes some people leary of genetic engineering now. Not promoting genes that turn out to be important seems like less of a mistake, due to endowment effect, than inadvertently suppressing a gene that turns out to be important. Apparently, some people are not so afraid of not doing the genetic engineering that will in the future turned out to have been humanity's salvation.

If we have no idea what genes will be important and it is so irreversible and we can't afford the most minute diminution in diversity, we had better stock up on diversity now and start passing out the radioactive pills to children. We can't risk not having the right mutation millennia from now!

Isn't inequality already ingrained into the fabric of societies?

“I don’t trust people to take so much control over the future of human nature.”

The alternative is the genetic lottery or "chance"..

I'll take human control, thanks..


Horrible, horrible, horrible article.

"I don't trust people to take so much control over the future of human nature"

What is ironic things said by people who support government nudges, top-down public schools, socialism, and climate-change based global governance?

I am surprised Tyler fell into this trap because he certainly understands Hayekian fatal conceit. I trust people on government or ethics committees with so much control over the future of human nature even less than people who are parents of the children in question. The alternative to parents making decisions regarding their own childrens' genetic engineering is not some omniscient being with pure motives making such decisions; it's a government or ethics panel of self-styled "experts" deciding perfect strangers' childrens' genetic engineering.

It's not obvious to me that individual parents will all make the same, non-diversifying decisions but a central panel certainly will try to apply the same rules to everybody and, thus, pose a greater risk than billions of parents acting independently. The eugenics movements of the early 20th century comprised "experts" trying to regulate the genetic makeup of everyone else's children "for the greater good", not individual couples deciding to have or not have children based on their own genetic makeup. Even if today's ethics panels would eschew racial homogeneity, the rules they create, because applied universally, are likely to create widespread unintended consequences, much more widespread than the decisions of individual parents, which will be limited to their own children. Even ethics panels' attempts to maintain genetic diversity would be fraught with peril due to fatal conceit. What is the "right" proportion of tall to short people, extroverts to introverts, and how could any central committee know?

It's not sufficient to list all the ways that parents might make "bad" decisions on behalf of their own children. Those arguing for regulation carry the burden of showing that regulators and ethics "experts" possess the required distributed, localized knowledge, and face the right incentives, to make better decisions.

Evolution is not "chance".


For any one individual and the gene's they inherit from their parents it is absolutely chance.

Evolution is a meat grinder bro!

Darwin thought evolution was chance. But the early Darwin could not figure out how beneficial traits could be passed down to later generations and avoid dilution with the mediocre traits. The later Darwin became a sort of Lamarck-ian.

Oh, don't worry, the control of human nature is only partial and perhaps even temporary. Natural selection (and particularly sexual selection) will be working as well.

Hasn't worked that well since the dawn of civilization. For the last 100 years, reaction times and sperm counts have been falling, and only better nutrition (aka Flynn Effect) has saved the human species from physical degeneration. Socrates even saw this and divided mankind into a Gold Age, then Silver Age, then Bronze Age, steadily degenerating. And if Kim nukes the USA and vice versa, the USA may enter a Stone age again.

Flynn effect has nothing to do with nutrition.

Humans have engaged in genetic engineering since time immemorial. It's a classic technique known as "mate selection". I don't see how this current crop of technologies really departs from that. We're not talking about a Gattacca-scenario where all of a sudden everyone will be 6'7", 200-IQ, and in perfect health. It's more like identifying a few SNPs that might nudge a trait up or down by a tenth of a standard deviation.

That's probably at most the same magnitude as picking a mate. Children aren't created from a random selection of two paired parents. Mothers-to-be already do pick fathers who are intelligent, extraverted, and agreeable. Yes, they often even select based on the ability to drink socially. (I've heard rumors that bars are actually a very good place to meet single people. For shame.)

Maybe you say gene selection is just adds in too much unpredictability to a previously stable system. Maybe it will tip the scales. And it's not like mate selection is some carefully tuned, static, perfectly balanced equilibrium. Generation to generation the ideals of attractiveness vary wildly. One year women will brave, strong-and-silent types with good corporate jobs. The next generation their daughters will want outgoing, funny entrepreneurs.


Good points Doug, but keep in mind most people marry their mother or father (Noah's Ark) and mixed race couples, which social scientists say are healthier and smarter than non-mixed race couples, are relatively rarer. That's why we need a Czar for reproduction, and/or tax incentives, to favor mixed race couples like what I have going with my hot 20-something Filipina.

Surely there's a point in the intelligence distribution where it's marginally better, in terms of future income or status, to tack on some extraversion than more intelligence?

Can't blame those Chinese parents either, really.

I think the point is that it is better for individual earning to possess extraversion over intelligence. But that for the population as a whole the opposite is true.

Blerg. Let people decide.

This gives a very important and key insight into our modern economies. What this literally means is that being more sociable is effectively more important than the insight necessary to come up with flying machines, the internal combustion engine, or computers (Alan Turing was a well known for being largely anti-social).

Think about that very carefully. In the abstract it means is that our modern (and potentially future economies) economies essentially elevate politics over the ability to be creative or industrious. That your soft-skills dictate your success in getting or assigning resources.

“Mothers want extraversion over conscientiousness or intelligence for their children.” This phrase literally explains the history behind nerds not getting laid. Idiocracy, woman is the name.


"Alan Turing was a well known for being largely anti-social."
He now is well-known as the English homossexual who, instead of being loved and spoiled by all around like Noel Coward or Guy Burgess or George Ives, was sentenced to be messed up by hormone treatment. You can thought heterossexual versions of the story, too.
Mothers everywhere probably do not want their children tortured by thugs. Tragedy of commons. No one wants to torture its own child for the well-being of mankind, everyone enjoys the fruits of the labors of tortured people, be it computers, Chrisitanity or religious tolerartion. If we could nationalize children and treat them as means for a bigger GDP, that problem would be solved.

I'm not sure what that has to do with the price of tea in China. Don't believe what you saw in that movie. Long before his outed homosexuality he was well-known as being extremely terse and hard to work with, even by others that had similar social-dysphoria. That being said he was more-than-often right about his theories and what some people would call highly elevated genius, others would call not being able to work well with others. INTJ. It's lonely at the top. It stands to reason that children or adults that fall into this category seem anti-social and introverted because they can't see the logic in playing with someone that can get on their level. That is a well known phenomena.

Look, women are more social beings and are more collaborative mostly because they have to be. Nature. Not nurture. This is not a bad thing necessarily. It just means that, as James Damore at Google indicated, men and women are optimized for being very good at different things. Optimization. That's the key here. Trying to get the best of both worlds by creating a high-achieving but ultimately not ideal (not successful) extraverted child does no body any good when you're doing the extremely hard work of creating a whole new system to discover where every Nazi U-boat in the Pacific is.

It is not a pre-destination that human mean IQ will continue to create "high-flyers". It is exactly the opposite. The universe doesn't care about intelligence unless it provides a method to pass on those genes. Selecting for more extraversion gets you more extraversion, that is the dominant trait you're selecting for. The others are nice but as time goes by the r-selection becomes further and further apart. You get an Einstein every 500 not every 100.

We need more intelligence. Not less. According to this that is precisely what women are not selecting for, precisely because they FEEL that is not the best way to procure and distribute resources. That is a "pie-shrinking" economic model, not a pie-expanding one. Complacency in a nutshell.

Again, the guy's poor social instincts earned him barbaric legal torture and death when other people who fell under the same legal conditions earned money, approval, love, adulation. "But he helped to crack the German code and helped made so much for coputarion" doesn't begin to make it for a mother (or father, by the way). It is not surprising to me that mothers are not interested in letting their children be tortured for the supposed well-being of mankind.

"Complacency in a nutshell"
More or less like those complacent kulaks, who did not want to give their cattle for the new, shinning collective farms. Now, the social Moloch asks for children imstead of cattle.

Modern society, thanks to property rights, testing/educational credentials, and financial markets, rewards intelligence light years more than most pre-1900 economies (Mandarin China's probably the only major society that's in the ballpark). It's just that once you get above 1-1.5 standard deviations in intelligence the marginal benefit of extraversion is higher, just as once you get above 1-1.5 standard deviations in extraversion the marginal benefit of intelligence is higher.

And it's the intelligent people who are going to be the most likely adopters of this technology, in part because they'll be the ones who our society gives the money to afford it.

+1 EverExtruder deduced, using a different set of facts, what I've been saying all along, as has P. Thiel in a different way: we need better patent policy. And yes "middle managers" aka smooth operators have been disproportionately compensated by society since at least the 1950s. Sadly I don't see that changing. If you step on somebody's lawn, the laws of Fee Simple Absolute will bring the full weight of the law down on your trespassing shoulders. If you infringe somebody's IP, such as copyright, nobody cares and even winks, encouraging it (and yes I use Piratebay too). We need better IP laws. We are on the wrong side of the Tabarrek curve for IP since our laws favor such absurdities as "first past the post" for inventorship (almost no invention, and that includes radio, especially radio, has a single 'father').

If I were to have kids and to choose their traits, I would choose those traits to maximize *their* happiness, not global utility. I'm mostly Utilitarian, but fuck that. Let some other parents make the Alan Turings. I want my kids to be extroverted and agreeable not for my sake but for theirs. I'd try to max out their charisma, constitution and wisdom, and if there are points left, put them into comeliness, and then dexterity and strength. With intelligence, I'd accept whatever I rolled.

How smart are you? You don't think intelligence leads to happiness? I am +3 SD and would certainly want the same for my children. It makes everything easier, not just making money, though obviously it helps a lot with that as well.

I am also +3 SD and I often feel cursed with my ability to see things effortlessly that seem to befuddle those with less deviations. Perhaps I am simply not clever enough to use my +3 SD in a way to increase happiness, but I have personally often felt like Cassandra, which hasn't increased my personal happiness.

We know intelligence certainly makes a good income a lot more achievable. So you get the rather large happiness bonus from that source.

Not sure about other things though. Intelligent people are much easier to torture through their need for intellectual stimulation. Remember the long weekends you had to spend with your boring relatives?

@Alistair: no longer a problem with smartphones to entertain you


Yeah, well, back in the day one got stuck with whatever the relatives had by way of periodicals, which turned out to be 200 copies of "Readers Digest". The Horror.

Yep I remember those days too LOL

To the extent that alcohol might (as a remote possibility) act as an antibiotic on the gut biome I'm reminded of the genetic engineering of GMO's for resistance to the pesticides sprayed on crops. (FWIW, I seem to recall seeing some small study years ago that those who drank enough alcohol close in time to the food consumed in association with shipboard food poisonings tended to be significantly less at risk. Something like at least two drinks with the meal.)

I assume most Trump supporters are extroverts. Does that make up for lack of intelligence and conscientiousness?

Who could have known Rayward was a Trump supporter.

White, male, votes Republican = Trump supporter. And if you're rich like my folks that means being a Trump supporter, for such single issue causes as cutting the inheritance tax, or cutting taxes in general. That's all it takes to get them to favor any candidate, no matter how deplorable. And lots of people are like them.

And here I was, hoping that by being less prolix, Rayward would be more insightful. And we get this. For shame.

Mama's gonna make all of your nightmares come true
Mama's gonna put all of her fears into you
Mama's gonna keep you right here under her wing
She won't let you fly but she might let you sing
Mama's gonna keep baby cozy and warm

Raises interesting moral dilemmas such as why it is okay to kill a fetus for any reason or no reason at all but it is wrong to engineer for particular traits. And, will a black baby born of two white parents have white privilege? And, will engineering straight white males betray latent Nazism?

Can genetic engineering withstand accusations of sexism and racism? Is PC the new Ludditism in a future reality of genetically engineered humans?

Because rhe fetus who will suffer the effects of (maybe) ill-thought alterations at some point will not be fetus anymore (which is a different issue from if it is accaptable to kill a fetus), same with people who will live with the engineered being. I doubt the Chinese are trying to limit themselves to create agreeable and extroverted fetuses.

murder > torture > assault

Surely if it is acceptable to kill a fetus is it acceptable to make a medical decision based in science with potentially damaging side effects, but benefits on average?

If you already have the answer that killing a fetus is wrong (which is independent of the other answer if people should live with alterations). You asked why people could AT THE SAME TIME defend abortion and not want to mess up children who will be born. The answer is, for those people, the fetus and the baby/child/adult are not in the same deontological category. (Cry, yell, stamp your feet, it is your business how you react to the joys and vicissitudes of life). It is the same reason fetus can be (right or wrong) aborted and children get social benefits and should not be tortured (by scientific experiments or otherwise). Again, it is a quesrion about other people's conceptions and isliking the answer is different from not knowing it. So, no, there is no dilemma here, between abortion and not torturing kids, any more than there is between abortion and not strangling six-month chidren. It may be a wrong answer, but it is not a dilemma. Wanting to torture children is probably far from being the strongest arfument against abortion.

If the fetus has no moral standing then it can be disfigured without any moral harm. If it is wrong to disfigure a fetus because that fetus is the seed of a person then we must be transferring the moral status of the future person on to the fetus, in which case murder is certainly out of the question. This is a dilemma. To be fair, I'm not pretending that abortionists care. To abortionist groups, abortion isn't about whether the fetus has rights as much as it is about militant lesbianism, hatred of men, hatred of religion, and hatred of babies. That is why you will never see NARAL ending the fight to kill fetuses regardless of the medical technology to remove them from the uterus.

EVEN if the fetus can be desfigured at will, the person who will be born (who is, fairly or not, legally considered at a superior deontological category than the fetus) and the society she will live in can not. But if you want to give parrot beaks to fetuses who will be killed anyway, it is OK by me (if they should be killed is a separate quesrion). Against, WHATEVER one thinks about abortion, it is no more a dilemma not torturing people with genetic engineering than it is not strangling or starving three-year kids just because three-month babies (fairly or not) can be aborted. Again, wanting to torture kids and adults is hardly the best argument about abortion.

What is the difference, that stands up to prohibitions on disfiguring, between killing a man in his sleep and abortion?

TR? is that you? You are not writing as the TR I'm used to... the old TR does not use such American-isms as "Cry, yell, stamp your feet". Hmmm... not authentic.

The difference is, the word "dilemma" does not mean what you think it does mean. The idea, whatever fair or not, is that lasting damage that will affect a child or adult (or the society at large by creating, say, unstable sociopaths if things go wrong) is frowned up, the fetus, fair or not, is expendable. Again, not liking the answer is different from not knowing it. Again, if you want to give horns to a fetus who will be killed (to prove you can), go ahead. Preventing genetic engineering is no more a dilemma than saving someone from drowning or breastfeeding a four month baby.

"What is the difference, that stands up to prohibitions on disfiguring, between killing a man in his sleep and abortion?"
Now, we are discussing abortion fairness, not if one can protect children from harm and care about them and still be for abortion. I, myself, defend the Brazilian law as it is, abortion only allowed to save the mother, in case of rape or a brainless child. In those cases, I think the mother's rights have precedence over whatever one believes about fetuses. Otherwise, I would rather risk erring defending the fetus' existence. But, as a philosophical inquiry, I would say we tend to side with sentient beings, with an adult is, sleeping is accidental. The problem, of course, is what kind of intellectual capacity we demand from a being (from our species or from an animal species or from an hypothetical alien species) before we protect it. If an adult is sufficiently intellectually damaged, can we get rid of them (well, apparently we already can let him starve, so...)? At the end, what is the common bond uniting all the beings we want to protect charging their killers with murder? Sentience, intelligence, just sharing our cromossomes? If the latter, are we free to shoot without guilt the first Vulcan to step on Earth?

@thiago appreciate your responses.

> I don’t trust people to take so much control over the future of human nature.

Do you trust entropy more? There are on the order of 80 new mutations in every childbirth. Like throwing grains of sand into a car engine, mutations can in theory improve the fitness of the species, but in practice they are almost always harmful or irrelevant. The only force that currently counteracts the implacable advance of genetic load is natural selection -- which is a cruel engine fueled by human misery, that in any event loses potency as medicine advances.

Preimplantation genetic screening and in-vitro fertilization offer an alternative to the Sophie's choice between entropic decline and brutal natural culling. We should embrace it and celebrate it. If we don't, the future of the human race will belong to other nations who will.

Yes, some parents will make dumb decisions with PGD -- but many won't, and intelligent selection is better than a slow death by entropy.



There are game theory effects. If everyone goes for stupid extroverts, then the potential rewards for being a smart introvert improve.

An engineer is more valuable to society than thousands of other occupations but if directed design started making every third person an engineer the health of the overall society/system would likely suffer.

Random changes that may be harmful for most individuals may produce benefits for the group. Autism may be a problem for most individuals but it likely gave society Mozart and Bill Gates.

Designing away 'problems' likely means removing the random nature of genius that arises from millions of environmental and genetic factors we don't understand.

> “I don’t trust people to take so much control over the future of human nature.”

And yet, that control is largely a mirage. Natural selection will continue to operate as ruthlessly as ever. Expect the law of unintended consequences to apply.

Modern medicine largely ended natural selection 50+ years ago.

Modern medicine changed some of the details about what is being selected, but humans still have heritable traits and those heritable traits still have reproductive consequences.

Correct. But we're not having much selection against weakly harmful genes, and none against the deterioration of the brain.

Just different traits. Do you have any kids?

Josh is right. Nature is now selecting for whatever traits keep people from going to grad school.

Yes, why? You don't seem to have understood my point. nothing to do with different traits. Mutations happen. They're mostly bad. We're no longer wiping them out through purifying selection very often.

Ah. I see. Are you talking about mutational load? Pretty scary stuff.

Tell that to anti-vaxxer whose kid died from measles, or to Ebola victims, or cancer victims (was there ever a better demonstration of natural selection at work?). Or for that matter, to anyone who dies childless. or grandchildless, etc. Have they not been selected against?

The genome is not code to be optimized like the Google search algorithm. Many seeming optimizations will have negative consequences which may not be observable for many years, or even generations. Many seemingly deleterious mutations are present for a reason, sickle cell being the classic example. In nearly ALL other cases we have no idea what the reasons may be. But as we tinker they will reveal themselves, over time.

You make a good point. I had in mind natural diseases killing off populations pre-reproduction but your examples are correct.

"Tell that to anti-vaxxer whose kid died from measles, or to Ebola victims, or cancer victims "

The first two numbers are statistically insignificant and the third group is probably statistically insignificant for those young enough to bare children.

Brian says: "tell that to anti-vaxxer whose kid died from measles, or to Ebola victims, or cancer victims (was there ever a better demonstration of natural selection at work?)" - no, the OP was right: modern science ended natural selection since the diseases you mention are either (1) old age diseases, like cancer, when you're already past your reproductive stage and thus evolution no longer matters, or, (2) a tropical disease like Ebola, that has not been cured because there's no money for research, as it's not a 'Western' disease, or (3) a voluntary disease (aka a form of suicide). Re (2), as the last Ebola outbreak in west Africa showed, Ebola is rather harmless even as it exists now, and rather fragile. I fell for the hype and predicted a Planet of the Apes dieoff but the disease stopped on its own, before it even got to the USA. When and if Ebola gets to the USA you can be sure somebody within 2-4 years will come up with a vaccine for it, which underscores again Darwin / Spencer is dead.

They already have vaccines for it

No, it simply shifted it from "survival of the fittest" to "increase of the most prolific." The people who chose to have no kids: they are functionally the same as those who fell off a cliff 10,000 years ago.

This is another example of why the mega-Empires that Tyler likes so much stifle innovation. If you had dozens of advanced truly-independent countries, it's certain that some would encourage genetic engineering of humans.

I thought it was pretty funny that Tyler Cowen is worried that parents will try to prevent their kids from being gay. I'd pay a lot to reduce the chance of my descendants being gay (for the purpose of family survival). That's hardly the same as aesthetic concerns like skin tone.

Best sentence: "Parents are also a potent voting bloc, and if they really desire such choices, they may end up getting their way." The horror!!!

"I’d pay a lot to reduce the chance of my descendants being gay (for the purpose of family survival)."
Or Catholic priests?

Or a European head of state since that seems to require childlessness (a gross overgeneralization, of course).

So that is, the noblest human aspirations must give their place. As if people were rabbits or bacteria.

I think what most people want is the best of theirs and their spouses genes.

Many "good" genes may have trade-offs associated with them.

And many more are just unalloyed good, at least with respect to the modern environment.

Yeah, I'm not an expert.

The classic sickle-cell isn't something you'd choose for modern times, for sure.

As I've mentioned before, mutations working how they do and medicine/modern society working how they do, there are three possible futures for non-singularity humanity:

1) Genetic engineering
2) Eugenics
3) Cataclysm (a loss of modern society through war or simple atrophying of mental abilities to the point where they can no longer sustain modern society)

Genetic engineering seems like the best option, I'd say


I finally.know what self recommending means.

The rubber will hit the road on genetic engineering of offspring when it is possible to lighten skin color and engineer out homosexuality. I feel bad that I won't get to watch it all since I am likely to be dead.

I bet they'd simply ban certain genes being manipulated.

Sad, but it's true that the more-moronic states (you know who you are) would try to say:

"You may modify any gene you like, except Q227R and XP49D. That would be a hate crime, obviously. The science is settled!!"


"Welcome to Planned Parenthood 3000!

We'd be delighted to slaughter your unborn child. But do NOT ask us to lighten its skin color -- we are not animals here."

Were people really imagining that parents would be allowed to do the selecting. Will parents even be necessary? Maybe everyone will be genetically engineered homosexuals and reproduction will be done through cloning. In the year 2525...

Yup. As soon as "people are born homosexual" narrative got established I could see this one coming down the road. File under "ugly but inevitable" outcome. Homosexuality goes the way of sickle cell amenia; genes that are very useful in single copies but a pair is disastrous.

Maybe sex may become entirely recreational, and you can persuade people to select for homosexual children; "they'll have great extraversion, and still have your grandkids out of a bottle!".

Many years ago I had a discussion about God with a classmate. She said that if God was all powerful why would it create humans who are capable of such depraved behavior as we see every day?

I answered that it gave us free will. The ability to choose any path we wanted.

I argued that my classmate should assume that she was an all powerful being, able to create any kind of beings she wanted. What would she create?

I said that I would prefer to create a creature that could evolve, that would be free to surprise or disappoint me. I wouldn't want to control it, I would like it to set it's own path. I would find much greater pain and joy on such a path but the journey would be more interesting.

Genetic engineering will not make superior humans. We will still have disease, cruelty, and death. The mix will change but we will not eliminate it. Human utopian dreams have always ended badly so far.

I didn't know what I was getting when my daughter was born. I didn't know that I was capable of so much love toward such a tiny creature. Engineering her before birth so that she could fit my notion of what a good person should be seems like a terrible burden to place on such a small being. As she has grown, there are things about her that I wish were different. But I love her the way she is. Imperfect, frustrating, amazing, ...human.

Of course I'm grateful that she is healthy. But I also know that one day she will become sick, one day she will die. That knowledge, that uncertainty about the future, shapes how I view my time with her. Shapes my relationship with the world.

Societies that have sought to create a master race seem to lose much of their humanity. The offspring seem to tend to revert to the mean, but the process changes society and the way we treat each other, and not for the better.

John 3:16

Look, I just want my kid to not have gout.

Maybe toss in a super-liver.

Is that too much to ask?

"She said that if God was all powerful why would it create humans who are capable of such depraved behavior as we see every day? I answered that it gave us free will. The ability to choose any path we wanted."

when a person has free will to commit murder and rape, the freewill of the victims is violated. God ought to have endowed humans with freewill which does not give them the power to violate the freewill of others

He should have created round squares as well.

At the moment, GWAS for Big 5 personality are pretty unimpressive relative to cognitive ability and mental health (e.g. schizophrenia), so it may be a bit of a moot point.

(Loci discovery on neuroticism unimpressive relative to schiz., intelligence -

Even cigarette addiction is easier than personality.

There's likely some part of "extroversion" that just reflects cognitive skills and mental health and more effective cognitive functioning. If we discover that first, and likely we will, then sure, we should select for that.

If we did want a maximum safety rule for all this stuff, though, disallow selection of common variants (e.g. DRD4 alleles at high frequency which are associated to personality variation) and allow us to clean out low frequency variants.

and you have linked to the clown-in-chief on this topic

"and you have linked to the clown-in-chief on this topic"


This is all signaling. There is no real concern about genetic engineering anywhere. If there was genuine concern, we would be monitoring a powerful technique that in theory could already be used. It may be already used, but nobody knows exactly how much. We can do IVF with gametes from high-IQ people. In practice the biggest venture so far to try this, the Genius Sperm Bank (ha) failed and shut down. So why do we expect genetic engineering, which will remain a *less* powerful technique for the foreseeable future than simply plucking a gamete from a brilliant person, to be different? There are many groups on each side with interests in pretending to have a debate on this topic or looking clever or edgy. Gin up enough hysteria and you can get plenty of donations for your nonprofit. But nobody has an incentive to point out more mundane realities.

(following comment is sarcasm free) Alex - I assume you are very intelligent and have access to lots of data. Please expand on (a) why Steve Hsu is stupid for claiming CRISPR-like techniques may be extremely powerful in the near future. I can figure out what you are trying to say about (b) other people's hysteria so you don't need to expand on that, at least not for my sake.

Don't presume I'm "extremely intelligent". Steve Hsu is, but he's a showman. I don't know if "CRISPR-like techniques" will be "extremely powerful" (who knows) but we are ignoring what is already happening with IVF. Nobody is monitoring it or even blogging about it. That shows there is no interest in the purported subject of eugenics. There is interest in flashy new tech for image purposes.

The genius sperm bank method is essentially cuckoldry, which most of us don't want to do. Genetic engineering will be much more attractive to people.

Introversion is exploding in the general population. Perhaps these mothers already have older, introverted children and know the consequences.

Will there be a day when we advertise

That our child is

A Non-GMO Baby.

Worst haiku attempt ever.

Well, considering that I wasn't and haven't

Been attempting to write haiku's

That's quite a compliment

From an undiscriminating critic

Who doesn't know the difference.

This raises some other interesting questions.

Say you marry someone who has been genetically modified for some trait, and now the other parent, for whatever reason, does not want to have a kid who has been gmo-ed or the recipe has been lost, or whatever.

The baby could be a real surprise, and quite different from either parent, more so than today.

Or, if you do decide to go the gmo route once, that also means that all offspring thereafter will have to follow the gmo route to retain the trait. This could be costly.

Or, consider skin color. Now Steve Sailer will have to worry that the white person he wants to marry is in fact black because the parents changed the skin color for their baby, and, as revenge, this spouse will not tell him until after the first born arrives.

"the white person he wants to marry is in fact black because the parents changed the skin color for their baby"

How many Black people would do this? I think a good median estimate would be 0. Anyway it would be a non-issue with genetic ancestry testing.

Sounds like an admission that you cannot tell the difference without a genetic test.

Good for you.

"Sounds like an admission that you cannot tell the difference without a genetic test."


You just made it.

Why would fiddling with physical attributes or reasoning capacity change human nature? There are plenty of smart, beautiful people who variously exhibit courage, envy, altruism, greed, etc. and genes for those traits are elusive at best. As I see it the worst we'd get with gene editing would be human nature in a different guise; that and a vast underclass doomed to raise dim ugly children as their servants.

>“I don’t trust people to take so much control over the future of human nature.”,

... "However, creating an all-powerful government which can micromanage every last atom of culture and economy is absolutely the way to go."

More relevantly, genetic engineering would wipe out homosexuality, so be careful praising it.

Not sure that asking mothers of infants what qualities they currently appreciate in their infants is very indicative. I mean infants aren't exactly great conversationalists but they do squall and cause trouble alot easily explaining these answers.

Also even if we are talking prospectively, note that these children already exist. Parents have strong psychological incentives not to say that traits that their child might turn out not to have are the most important ones. But that doesn't mean when given the chance to change traits those won't be the ones they change. Indeed I'm quite confident they will be.

I mean there is a reason everyone assumes the trait people will want to change is IQ...because they introspect and see that this is what they would change.

Research Project

After asking parents to list their preferences, ask them
Would you trust your parents to design your children?

Enough said

If you would prefer randomness, your parents must suck. If my parents picked the traits of my children, I can't even begin to imagine that their choices would be anything but wise, probably wiser than my own. A core reason why I'm scared to have kids has to do with the currently unavoidable dice rolling element of the process.

+1. People with bad parents have my sympathies, but they have a tendency to assume that everyone hates their parents. We don't.

Discussion on the difference between simple behaviors and complex polygenic traits. TC has previously voiced his skepticism on this topic in past blog posts. I believe he subscribes to the "gloomy prospect" that factors like randomness undermine the optimism of future efforts of behavioral genetics.

Perhaps extroverted parents or would-be parents are more likely to respond to the study and invision children with similar attributes?

Tyler's signalling with this article. He mostly ignores IQ, the variable which will completely swallow all the others as far as its effect on society. But thinking that personality traits matter more than IQ has become fashionable among the journalistic class, who like to rank people on a measure that can't be measured well, so they can convince themselves they are part of the "creative, outgoing, elite of leaders," unlike those scientists and engineers who outrank them on objectively measured tests of IQ.

As for the possibility that people will favor personality traits over IQ: I would say it doesn't matter, the fact that they can't be measured very well means it will naturally be hard to find the genes for them, and since they correlate weakly with IQ a conflict in what choice to make will be less likely to occur.

What if IQ becomes less, rather than more, important in the future.

What if machines become smarter than humans, making smart people far less valuable, particularly if IQ is associated with other traits, such as autism.

I'll ask Watson about this.

Isn't there a sci-fi short were explorers find a herd of bovine, healthy animals lovingly tended by highly intelligent and capable machines? They wonder where the original builders went....

Also, reference The Time Machine and the Morlocks providing for the Eloi.


What makes you think personality is not measurable? There are thousands of published studies on the topic. I think that talking about "signaling" in the comment section s is a pretty good indicator of you own personality and IQ.

"I think that talking about “signaling” in the comment section s is a pretty good indicator of you own personality and IQ."

I think your handle is a good indicator of your personality and IQ.

Can you think of any other work that rhyme with anus? Being able to quickly produce an answer is pretty good single item indicator of intelligence.

"The fact that they can’t be measured very well means it will naturally be hard to find the genes for them"

They can and that has nothing to do with the failure. Personality is measurable. Look at the test-retests or loadings for Big Five inventories. Even the short ones are better and more reliable than many IQ tests.

The real problem with personality GWASes is that, as Penke predicted a decade ago, it's under frequency-dependent selection (like in wild animals) which creates a genetic architecture of highly polygenic but non-additive traits. That is why the GWASes have failed to turn up anything at sample sizes that produced IQ hits despite garbage intelligence measures, and why the GCTAs are consistently miserably small (despite no reason to think that SNPs tag any less of the relevant variants). Bigger sample sizes aren't going to solve the Big Five, we need better algorithms and much more computation.

It'd be worrying to make people more agreeable: last thing we need is more Tyler Cowens!

But being serious, this is like if people had said in 1900 "we shouldn't build flying machines, they might crash."

Its going to be fun when the state has to draft women to bear whatever kind of people were lacking.

"Now that we're a society of affable, handsome people, we need to create some haunted souls to write novels."

or maybe parents won't want borderline-autistic geniuses that are needed for math and science to progress, so we'll draft women to bear some of those children.

Would genetic engineering not lead to less human diversity, but to speciation?

Also, couldn't this be a one-off?

Basically a large list of genes that are "bad" get un-chosen. Like, gout, short-sight, tendency to bunions, cancer risk, whatever, and then people don't need to select genes so much?

This is the dysgenic theory of intelligence. Some people argue that higher IQ is normative and that the accumulation of many small genetic anomalies produce decreases in IQ.


"Welcome to Planned Parenthood 3000!

We'd be delighted to slaughter your unborn child. But do NOT ask us to lighten its skin color -- we are not animals here."

Tyler, you worry too much. You will be long dead by the time these things possibly happen. That said, can you even be certain that "this" will even continue to exist after you pass away. You may, like the rest of us, be living in your own holodeck creation. The only thing I'm most certain of when I die is this all ends. Consequently, it is not to be taken seriously no matter how dreadful it appears at times.

"You will be long dead by the time these things possibly happen."

CRISPR editing in live humans is in clinical trials now. CRISPR editing of human embryos has been an accomplished fact for 3 years now and has even happened in the USA. PGD embryo selection has been happening commercially for several years before that (possibly more depending on how loosely you want to define it). Embryo selection for complex traits is possible right now, and I hear whispers that it is being done, or at least seriously considered, by some fertility clinics. The more exotic possibilities, which even Cowen doesn't seem to dare talk about, are only 10-20 years away while Cowen's life expectancy is more like 30 years.

The things are not merely 'possibly', they are actual, so unless Cowen dies tomorrow in a car accident, have no worries on that score.

The real question is, how much will they cost, how much is the true demand, how widespread will they become, and how far will the technology advance in what timeframe?


But... but... he heard whispers!!

Yeah, not exactly an airtight source. Nevertheless, it's true that it's technological possible now and it's not illegal, I would bet money that it will be done within the next five years, simply for the fame value that will accrue to whoever does it. Note that currently with IQ it'd only be a few points, the individual created would not be particularly exceptional.

Here's a look at how breeders have changed dogs over the last century:


And if Cowen's argument held we should have LESS diversity in dogs than before, right?

There is less diversity in dogs now: the breeds are usually established by a very few founders and the genetic diversity is very low compared to wild or feral or just mutt populations in terms of number of genetic variants, homozygosity, or Fst. (Sometimes catastrophically so, in the case of bulldogs, who are so inbred that they are all the equivalent of human... first cousins, I think? It doesn't work any better in dogs than it does in human populations with bottlenecks.) This goes to show why Lewontin's Fallacy is a fallacy: mere genetic diversity can have little to do with phenotypic diversity or group differences. There can be much more 'genetic diversity within groups than between groups' as long as that 1% or whatever is focused on the critical variants which affect size, fur color, intelligence, aggressiveness or whatever else a breed has been selected for.

Fortunately, some cherrypicked photos of supposed deterioration of dog breeds has nothing to do with the proposed methods of editing or selection, as no one is proposing we pick 5 or 10 humans who have pretty red or white fur and force them to have thousands of offspring to create an entire new race from them.

Glad we're at least talking about this subject. It seems that ever since the election it's been doom and gloom this, doom and gloom that. The Left has its Trump Derangement Syndrome, but the Right can be almost as bad. I was reading Stormfront today and, while I disagree with a lot of the antisemitic stuff on that website, much of what they say is correct.....if you assume that technology will cease to advance this year. You'd think they'd be all interested in the subject, but to them "eugenics" seems more about identity politics than science.

Genetic engineering, AI, that's what'll matter in the long the run. This political crap will be a footnote.

"some parents are asking for children who are able to drink socially ... Caveat emptor"

Easy for the European to say that as evolution has already filtered out (almost 100%) of the potential alcohol drinkers with allele A, see chart for CEU

What is wrong with desiring less risk of esophageal cancer? 50% of global esophageal cancer cases are in China.

genotype (A;A) increased risk of esophageal cancer; East Asian ancestry;

genotype (A;G) worse hangovers; increased risk of esophageal cancer (non-drinker 3.7x, heavy drinker/smoker 130x); East Asian ancestry;

genotype (G;G) Normal hangovers. Normal risk of Alcoholism. Normal risk of Esophageal Cancer.

For comparison the risk of breast cancer from BRAC1 mutation is about 5x.

For rs671 (A;G) the risk is 1.04 per drink per week, thus for 1 drink per day the risk is 3.7+7*1.04=10.98

Hold on; I think your maths is wrong. Never add odds. Multiply

7 drinks a week is 1.04^7 = 1.32 not 7.28

In the case of esophageal cancer the risk for single effect is cumulative, e.g.

However the joint effects of drink and smoke are approximately multiplicative

Strange model. I'd expect a log-linear odds risk for this type of biostatistics.

The cause is episodic. If the effects are multiplicative a long time heavy drinker might be forecasted to return to the minimum baseline risk level if he stops drinking for a week.

If I read you correctly...

3.7 (base odds) x 1.04^7 (marginal risk) = 4.86 over (GG)

Will people accept genetic engineering?

Take the case of Angelina Jolie and breast cancer,

Her risk ratio against the baseline is 87/12.5=6.96, she preemptively decided to have a double mastectomy surgery and reduced her risk ratio to 0.4. Still her mutated BRCA1 gene might still passed down to her descendents. If she has a chance to remove that from her line of descendents, will she accept genetic engineering if the techniques have matured enough? Those figures might be the interim Jolie Risk Benchmark for evaluating individual risk acceptance profile for genetic engineering, i.e. if the risk ratio of do nothing is above 6 and that for ineffective procedure is less than 0.4.

Amazing how common the "logic" is that if A some time in the next billion or so years increases adverse effects compared to B, then regardless of A's near-term benefits, we should avoid it. Also a lot of comments which basically say that since we can't know everything, then we should change nothing. Given the number of fools who run out and buy the latest herbal supplement, non-therapeutic genetic intervention is just as likely to be no more significant than natural selection as to cause a great distortion of our population's genome distribution. We're going to be soon seeing the effects of therapeutic mtDNA modification on fairly significant level. It will be interesting to see if a market develops for "top-tier" mtDNA.

I am sure that when genetic engineering becomes more doable, there will be some who will produce offspring that look like the movie star of the day. However, eliminating cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, muscular dystrophy, etc are such obvious great boons that it is worth it. Most of Darwinian fitness via pruning has been focused on eliminating vulnerability to infantile diarrheal illnesses via the mechanism of teenagers coupling with the nearest possessor of complementary gametes. I doubt that an engineering approach would be worse.
Of course, if we're all uploaded to electronic devices, my comments become irrelevant.

It's been amusing following your interest in CRISPR and genetic engineering turn from naively positive like a socialistic society shown in Gatica (which would be terrible) to "oh no, parents will turn kids into people I don't find interesting". Seems like you are just worried about too many New York bankers being the default selection case.

As this is an economics blog, I'm surprised we haven't commented on the possibility of some government deciding to make New Soviet Man a reality...

"The current mix of human personalities and institutions is a delicate balance which, for all of its flaws, has allowed society to survive and progress."

What is supposed to be meant by "delicate balance" here? Is delicate balance supposed to imply human biology is exceedingly fragile, or that human biology is currently optimal? Neither view is plausible as a matter of evolutionary biology.

“I don’t trust people to take so much control over the future of human nature.”

Neither do I. That's why decentralization of this and other technologies is a good thing.

If people are by nature good, any system ought to work. If people are by nature bad, what sense is there in putting one person or group of persons in charge of everyone else?

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