Chinese Labs Are Engineering Genius Babies, Should the U.S. Follow Suit?
In a variety of dystopian fantasies, many writers have questioned how humanity might face its own demise. Enslaved under the boot of Big Brother's surveillance? Defeated by a revolution of robots we once considered our tools? Perhaps plummeted into a culture of stupidity, where "retweets" and "likes" are a form of currency and people spend all day being entertained into complacent obesity?
While we continue to debate, design and hope for a better tomorrow, China has begun pursuing avenues it hopes might guarantee it. In a recent Vice interview, China's plan to increase its population's IQ by 15 points was discussed with one of the 2,000 geniuses who’s DNA was sampled for the program. The Beijing Genomics Institute collected samples from several of the world's smartest people, in the hopes of sequencing their DNA and singling out human intelligence within their genomes.
"Any given couple could potentially have several eggs fertilized in the lab with the dad's sperm and the mom's eggs. Then you can test multiple embryos and analyze which one's going to be the smartest. That kid would belong to that couple as if they had it naturally, but it would be the smartest a couple would be able to produce if they had 100 kids. It's not genetic engineering or adding new genes, it's the genes that couples already have."
America has offered tense diplomatic words over China's vast global resource grabs and corporate data hacking. Meanwhile, China continues to buy up oceans of American debt and pursue a variety of population policies which secure its footing in the global power structures of tomorrow. America shares lots of the technology that could be used to pioneer genetic research, but we're years behind China due to hindrance from a religious bias against "meddling with god's plan" and the historical specter of Nazi eugenics programs. So is this a race we should try to catch up on? Is genetic engineering the next step in our evolution, or a monstrosity of ethical distortion?
If it's considered fully, there's a curious contradiction in the "evolution vs. creationist" debate. We are not entirely the product of surviving chaotic circumstances and reproducing favorable traits, nor do we owe our supremacy entirely to intelligent design. Both played a role in our development; only the designs were our own!
We have a long history of meeting nature's threats with uniquely designed solutions. By paving roads, farming crops, wearing clothes and building cities we've continually reshaped the world around us to cater to our evolving needs. Our ingenuity became the main expression of our natural selection. Survival of the fittest became survival of the most adaptive, and the evolution of intelligence measured in how quickly we created technologies to aid in those adaptations. So does it naturally follow to allow technology to augment our evolution further, by turning our tools inwards?
The biotechnology field seeks to improve our complex internal mechanics, and is making strides in a variety of industries. DNA sequencing has become cheaper and more accessible – opening the doors to highly personalized medication replacing one-pill-suits-all approach. Wake Forest university researchers are making milestones in the 3D printing of organs and cartilage, hoping to soon cure arthritis and long waits for organ replacements. Mind-controlled prosthetics allows patients who've lost limbs or suffered spinal injuries to regain their dexterity through complex robotic arms controlled by microchips in their brain. Researchers keep discovering genes in mice that can be deleted to end obesity – genes that humans also posses. Is the fine-tuning of our genetics not the final frontier of all these repair endeavors? Wouldn't it be better to avoid disease and illness altogether rather than fight it?
We already have the ability to go directly into our DNA and swap genes around. We are only missing a completed map and knowledge of which genes are good, and which bad. Rather than the Chinese model of simply selecting the "best of the bunch" in our potential babies – gene therapy could one day "turn off" any undesirable traits, like cystic fibrosis or muscular dystrophy, and without the use of surgery or drugs. A few steps down the road, and we'll use gene manipulation to enhance and increase everyone's memory and intelligence from conception. Not to mention the purely aesthetic changes like increased height, muscle density, cleavage size, eye color, hair length, etc.
Apple may one day offer us a world of designer babies.
Of course, people fear the possibility of a technological class system, which separates "naturalists" from those who can afford or choose scientific enhancements. The potential exists for two or more distinct new species to develop among us, separated by significant genetic advantages. What about beyond the individual/consumer level? National programs forcibly instituted by governments which seek to increase fertility and boost the population? Perhaps increase violence and aggression in soldiers? What about docility and obedience in citizens, or control over their sexual orientation? It's easy to imagine what some of history's dictators might have done with this power.
These issues, however, seem more related to policy rather than science. You cannot be blamed for discovering fire, if someone chooses to burn a house down with it.
The discussion of any form of eugenics can cause visceral reaction in the public. Forcibly sterilizing people on a basis of poverty, education or health is monstrous. Allowing all parents to choose the healthiest possible outcome for their baby less so. The scientific ability to improve the human genetic stock, and desire to do so, is not inherently evil. It is only how we pursue that path that defines whether we maintain the moral high ground. I once had a Political Science professor who proudly stood left of Lenin on most social issues. But after volunteering at a hospital to treat crack babies, she grew to despise the addicts who were having 5-6 children, and abandoning them with all their health ailments for someone else to take care of. She suggested a policy that would give repeat offenders a choice: if you abandon more than two crack babies, you either go to jail or have your tubes tied. Reasonable, or tyrannical?
It's perfectly sensible to debate where our pursuits might lead us, and to tread carefully in the shaping of our collective future. But life is the result of complex chemistry, evolving biology and our own will. We should always discuss, monitor and regulate our actions, but not to the point of never moving forward. We're still debating abortion in this country, while the rest of the world experiments with far more radical ideas. Private, military and government labs around the world are already working on genetic engineering; to think we can stop it is naïve. The best we can hope to do is ensure that it serves mankind's best interests, and doesn't leave anyone behind.
There's a lecture by Neil Degrasse Tyson which is worth a watch in its entirety, but I've started the video at a particular point: Tyson explains that humans and chimps share approximately 98-99% common DNA. In that 1% difference we see the separation of intelligence between our species. The smartest chimp can perhaps understand sign language, while the smartest human can create the Hubble telescope. Imagine alien creatures that were only 1% smarter than us … even our greatest geniuses would be "drooling, blithering idiots" in comparison. So in light of the genetic engineering debate, I would pose one suggestion: we can either wait to meet these superior creatures, or we can strive to become them.