PART II:  Smart-Kid Creation – Parents vs. the Pros

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Creating super-kids holds an allure – at least to some parents and bioethicists. But there are serious risks, both to the individual child and society. We don’t even have all the information needed to make an informed choice. That hasn’t stopped the technology from being championed.

Last week I wrote about a study in the prestigious journal Science reporting that a majority of prospective parents favored selecting for favored traits, in this case, intelligence, using IVF techniques that rank embryos by polygenic scores (PGT-P). A plurality had no moral objections to using hereditary genetic engineering to achieve the same result: a small (3-5%) increase in getting your kid into a top-100 college.

Changing opinions

As more becomes known about these techniques and increasing parental interest, even experts change their minds. Notable bioethicist Julian Savelescu went from advocating parental beneficence, a kind of malpractice for parents who don’t do the best for their children, including genetic manipulation to get the most intelligent children, to realizing there are other considerations involved in assessing a good life besides getting into the top colleges.

“In 2001,  Julian Savulescu wrote an article entitled 'Procreative Beneficence: Why We Should Select the Best Children,' in which he argued for the genetic selection of intelligence in children.” Flash forward twenty years, and Savelescu has changed his mind. Now, with co-author Sarah Monday, he recognizes the limits and unreliability of the tests; they can only be used to estimate genetic contributions – in other words, promises of a specific two or three-point increase in intelligence are illusory. At best, one predicts “where individuals might fall on a continuum….”

At the same time, there is the possibility of negatives – such as pleiotropy, discussed previously. But there are other negative considerations as well.

What are we measuring? And who’s doing the assessing?

The measurements of these polygenic scores are based, at least so far, on a relatively homogeneous, non-American audience, mostly White Europeans, and may not be relevant in the American space. The determinations of which genes to consider may also be driven by sexual approaches; 90% of embryologists are women (whether they are involved in creating the algorithms that determine the choices isn’t clear). Nevertheless, whether by design or nature, many more males are born when artificial reproduction is involved than nature would dictate, perhaps suggesting parental preferences.

Risk scores for IQ are very hard to interpret and hard to master between different countries and different ethnic groups. They’ll be capturing a lot …that isn’t just fundamental biology, maybe genetic markers correlated with ethnicity or where people live….”

- Peter Donnelly, Professor of Statistics University of Oxford


The quote indicates that these scores, devised primarily by white men, based on European cohorts will reflect the cultural expectation of intelligence of the base cohort, further increasing structural inequity. Even if the procedures are promised to all, the interpretation is skewed toward white males. The reduction of diversity and creativity is all but a given.

Further, Savelscu and co-author Sarah Mounday reflect that the basis for his original argument, maximizing well-being or a good life, is subject to interpretation, admitting, “It is beyond the scope of this paper to settle what constitutes well-being.”

Focusing a survey purely on IQ as a predicate to college admission defeats a full ethical inquiry into the meaning and purpose of a good life.

Then we get to informed consent, or at least assent [1], that level of acceptance required by children. Can or should a parent be permitted to impose their preferences on their children? What if the child would prefer to be a woodworker or artisan? Why be compelled to attend a top-100 college dedicated to intellectual pursuits of the child’s nature is more artistic or musical? Surely, parents influence children’s occupational choices all the time, often, as many psychotherapists would say,  to their detriment. Should we cement the parental preferences further?

Is Genius Hereditable: The Nature v. Nurture Debate

Then we get to the validity of the claim itself. Would genetic manipulation create an actual increase in getting into a top institution - or is this just a come-on?

Manipulating the genome via genetic engineering (like CRISPR) to create a smarter humanoid sounds tempting. But if intelligence were purely inherited, surely we would see much more than the seven pairs of parent-child Nobel Winners. (And how come their parents were of the ordinary type?) How much of little J.J. Thomson’s [2] insight was inherited, and how much was the delight of wanting to be just like daddy (or mommy, in the case of Irene Juliot-Curie) eagerly running off to the lab? Indeed, as Malcolm Gladwell advocates in his book Outliers, beyond a certain point, success is a matter of diligence, perseverance, environmental circumstances, and luck, and not IQ.

SAT prep courses reflect not only “tricks” that can be learned to artificially boost entrance scores but the interest and diligence of the attendees. These courses bear no role in increasing raw intelligence. Indeed, paying for a smarter embryo more likely to gain acceptance to a more prestigious college might tempt a parent into lassitude - hey, let the genes do it, why should I work at enriching my child’s world?

Personal choice vs. Societal Benefit

While individual parents might want bragging rights to their child’s alma mater- what benefit does this confer to society? Even if every child is 3% smarter than the prior generation, that might mean more people are able to code or design better algorithms. (complete with their moral underpinnings). But my personal experience knowing Nobel Laureates (and I’ve been privileged to know a few) suggests that true genius involves creativity. The geniuses I know are unusually gifted not only in left-brain functions (that governing logic) but right-brain artistic endeavors as well, artistic ability or, as everyone knows in the case of Albert Einstein, music. Might it be said that true genius involves the integration of both right and left hemispheres? As the PGT-P algorithms favor left-brain characteristics, we will be churning more tinkerers and fewer thinkerers.

The Final Conundrum: Chasing the Receding Entry-Line

While expert opinion might be useful in forging the final legalities or defining ethical lines, the ultimate nonsense of the study is visible not only to experts or educated parents but to anyone who has the ability to think.

Indeed, any measures by colleges are meant to screen for the top applicants. If all applicants are similarly enriched (a fundamental predicate of the Science article to avoid claims of increasing divergence in disenfranchised groups, racial or economic), then the colleges would simply raise the entrance requirements. So, now you might need only a 2 or 3-point increase; if everyone was similarly smartened, the new requirements would be raised another 2 or 3, and the ziggurat would continue spiraling upwards.

I hesitate to ask how dumb a survey can be created  - but perhaps this is an example of a  situation where we really don’t want to create clones of such authors, nor do we want them to decide what constitutes high enough intelligence.

[1] Generally, the age of informed consent is 18, but several states recognize the mature minor doctrine, in which advanced children can make decisions for themselves once they reach the age of 14 or 15In certain circumstances.  . Even where children are too young to give fully informed consent, in experimental cases, children with some understanding (usually at age 7) are asked to agree to the treatment- called "assent.” You can find more on this topic at The Forever Fix by Ricki Lewis.

[2] Nobel prize winner for the discovery of the electron.