China Is Engineering Genius Babies
By Aleks Eror

It’s not exactly news that China is setting itself up as a new global superpower, is it? While Western civilization chokes on its own gluttony like a latter-day Marlon Brando, China continues to buy up American debt and lock away the world’s natural resources. But now, not content to simply laugh and make jerk-off signs as they pass us on the geopolitical highway, they’ve also developed a stateendorsed genetic-engineering project. At BGI Shenzhen, scientists have collected DNA samples from 2,000 of the world’s smartest people and are sequencing their entire genomes in an attempt to identify the alleles which determine human intelligence. Apparently they’re not far from finding them, and when they do, embryo screening will allow parents to pick their brightest zygote and potentially bump up every generation's intelligence by five to 15 IQ points. Within a couple of generations, competing with the Chinese on an intellectual level will be like challenging Lena Dunham to a getting-naked-on-TV contest. Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist and lecturer at NYU, is one of the 2,000 braniacs who contributed their DNA. I spoke to him about what this creepy-ass program might mean for the future of Chinese kids.

But that would take a lot longer to make practical. you can sample one of the cells to figure out the expected intelligence if it’s implanted and becomes a person. Then you can test multiple embryos and analyze which one’s going to be the smartest. You have to provide some evidence that you’re as smart as you say you are. animal genetics. You have to send your complete CV.. they've spent a lot of money researching human genetics to figure out which genes make people smarter. it’s the genes that couples already have. the one I gave my genetics to. anything that’s economically relevant or scientifically interesting.. to trying to manage the quality and quantity of people. and that the results would be available soon. When do you think the embryo analysis might be implemented on a large scale? . the competitiveness of the country. publications you’ve produced. Are you in touch with them? I just got an email a couple of days ago saying that they’d almost finished doing the sequencing for the BGI Cognitive Genetics Project. where you went to college. he took the whole focus of the Chinese government from trying to manage the economy. by a considerable margin. Does China have a history of eugenics? Geoffrey Miller: As soon as Deng Xiaoping took power in the late 70s. What does that mean in human language? Any given couple could potentially have several eggs fertilized in the lab with the dad’s sperm and the mom’s eggs. They’re basically recruiting through a scientific conference. that’s a huge difference in terms of economic productivity. They’re not just doing human genetics. through word of mouth. how their businesses are run. How will the research be applied? Once you’ve got that information and a fertilized egg that’s divided into a few cells. standardized-test scores. how many patents they get. It’s not genetic engineering or adding new genes. but it would be the smartest a couple would be able to produce if they had 100 kids. What was their selection process? They seem mostly interested in people of Chinese and European descent. stuff like that. and how innovative their economy is. BGI is also doing lots of plant genetics. Right. What do you know about BGI Shenzhen? It’s the biggest genetic research center in China. Geoffrey.VICE: Hey. That kid would belong to that couple as if they had it naturally. Could it develop into something more sinister? That same research does open up the door potentially to genetic engineering in the future. they started to do widespread prenatal testing for birth defects with ultrasound. And over the course of several generations you’re able to exponentially multiply the population’s intelligence. In the 90s. Even if it only boosts the average kid by five IQ points. and I think the biggest in the world. and more recently.

They think of it as restoring China to its rightful and historical place as the central culture of humanity. Genetics. this could be troubling. Things like body shape would be easier to do. how politically liberal or conservative they are would be easier. BGI Shenzhen. in terms of issues like global warming or equality or economic stability. Shit. I don’t think they have any imperial ambitions to spread China’s borders—they’re not going to act like Nazi Germany or America in the 20th century—but they do want respect and they do want influence and they don’t trust America or Europe to run the world in the right way. In China. Superpower . personality traits might be a little simpler than intelligence—how hard working somebody is.Actual use of the technology to do embryo screening might take five to ten years. What else is China doing that we aren’t? Well. We know that intelligence depends on lots of genes while physical traits—like hair or eye color—only depend on a few genes. Maybe they’re on to something. Follow Aleks on Twitter: @slandr More about China on VICE: Toxic: Linfen. How religious you are—that’s definitely influenced by genes to some degree. 95 percent of an audience would say. Why not? We have ideological biases that say. How does Western research in genetics compare to China’s? We’re pretty far behind. they’re creating new systems of universities that emphasise more creative approaches to learning. then? The Chinese Communist party has never really sought global domination. DNA. Genome sequencing. almost any trait other than intelligence would be easier to do. and they’re sending hundreds of thousands of college students to America and Europe to see how our education systems operate so they can bring their own systems up to our standards and above. unfair. and brighter!” There’s a big cultural difference. Deng Xiaoping. Science. how impulsive. China In China. happier. “Well. but it could be just a few years. Geoffrey Miller. We have the same technical capabilities. physical attractiveness would be pretty complicated. they’re also investing a huge amount of money in education. It depends on how motivated they are. Do you think global domination is in the cards. Tigers are Being Farmed Like Chickens Raw China By Aleks Eror 1 week ago Like · Comment · Share Tags: China. In fact. Genius. Europe got a temporary advantage. creepy. IQ. like physical appearance? Absolutely. but we’re not. Aleks Eror. the same statistical capabilities to analyze the data. we shouldn’t be meddling with nature. Could this whole process be repeated with other characteristics.” I just attended a debate in New York a few weeks ago about whether or not we should outlaw genetic engineering in babies and the audience was pretty split. we shouldn’t be meddling with God. “Obviously you should make babies genetically healthier. Technically and scientifically we could be doing this. but they’re just restoring the natural balance as the world’s most populous country. but they’re collecting the data on a much larger scale and seem to be capable of transforming the scientific findings into government policy and consumer genetic testing much more easily than we are.

headlined “China Is Engineering Genius Babies. at 5:30 AM Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty Sexual reproduction is a genetic crapshoot. scientists have collected DNA samples from 2. embryo screening will allow parents to pick their brightest zygote and potentially bump up every generation's intelligence by five to 15 IQ points. Here’s an excerpt: “At BGI Shenzhen. Out of hundreds of eggs and millions of sperm. The article. To procreate through intercourse is to take a wild roll of the DNA dice. Within a couple of generations. One stray allele could mean the difference between a healthy baby and one with a debilitating disorder. a widely shared story in the magazine Vice suggested it’s imminent and inevitable—just not in the hidebound United States.000 of the world’s smartest people and are sequencing their entire genomes in an attempt to identify the alleles which determine human ering_genius_babies_not_exactly. Apparently they’re not far from finding them.http://www.slate.” reports that our superpower frenemies in the East have hatched a grand plan to breed a crop of hyperproductive smartypants. gifted child? The idea is as thrilling as it is alarming. But how realistic is it? Last week. March 25. 2013.html The Myth of the Superbaby Can China really breed a crop of genetically selected geniuses? By Will Oremus|Posted Monday. What if science offered a way to stack the odds in favor of a healthy.single. and when they do. one joins one to produce a baby whose natural endowments could reflect the best traits of both parents—or the absolute worst. And the stakes could hardly be higher. competing with the Chinese on an intellectual .

per se. that most closely correlate with high IQ scores. that’s a huge difference in terms of economic productivity. (That may also be possible someday. But experts say the implication that a handful of specific genetic variations “determine human intelligence” is spurious. but most experts believe it’s further off.” Where Vice goes astray is in the article's blithe insinuation that this is all right around the corner. the fact is that you can’t ensure genius. the lab’s director. misleading. exciting. key parts of the story are true—and not just the parts about Lena Dunham doffing her clothes. at least for those who can afford it. conceivably. Scientists are already developing the capacity to screen human embryos for a wide variety of genetic disorders. because the parents can’t change their own genes. exactly. or genetic variations. Let’s start with what’s not true.” You might think that such a sensational report would be received skeptically by readers and dismissed or debunked by the mainstream press. it’s conceivable that parents will face a critical choice when it comes to making babies. But large swaths are naïve. such as cystic fibrosis and sickle-cell anemia. means you are discarding the others based on traits. That’s still a powerful prospect. But . In fact.. It’s true that BGI Shenzhen has embarked on a research project to find relationships between genes and IQ. Chinese scientists wouldn’t know how to genetically engineer a genius. so that the country’s parents can select from a number of their own embryos on the basis of intelligence.level will be like challenging Lena Dunham to a getting-naked-on-TV contest. The premise of the Vice story is that the Chinese government is eager to identify the alleles. you see. is fascinating. because it doesn’t involve manipulating the genes of the offspring. they’re overwhelmingly choosing to have daughters. how their businesses are run. and the technology is advancing rapidly. and how innovative their economy is. says preimplantation genetic screening could one day render procreation via sex obsolete. couples who carry a genetic disease can have their embryos checked for the mutation before implanting them in the woman’s uterus. because in the not-distant future. or doing it the old-fashioned way and leaving the genetics to chance. isn’t just a matter of a few alleles here and there. Munné considers this type of “positive selection” beyond the pale: “Selecting for embryos based on eye color. and that’s unethical. for a few thousand dollars. the competitiveness of the country. Instead it went viral on Facebook and Reddit and earned top billing in BBC Future’s weekly “Best of the Web” roundup. And it’s worth sorting through them. qualities like physical attractiveness or intelligence. Even if it were. What is true. director of Stanford’s Center for Law and the Biosciences. told me that within a year he expects to be able to offer embryo analyses that screen for more than 100 diseases at once. or grossly overstated.” But not everyone shares his qualms. Hank Greely. As NYU evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller—a participant in the Chinese genome-sequencing study—tells Vice. The next leap will be to whole-genome sequencing of embryos. etc.) It’s more like rolling the dice 10 times and then getting to choose from among the resulting combinations. And it isn’t engineering. a private laboratory in New Jersey. because genius depends on environment as well as genes. The process is referred to as preimplantation genetic diagnosis. though. And even if they did know how to genetically engineer a genius. At Reprogenetics. That opens the door to screening not just for sex or single-gene disorders but for more complex disorders like autism—or even. and troubling. how many patents they get. And in the United States. “Even if it only boosts the average kid by five IQ points. Women are already using preimplantation analysis to select the gender of their embryos. The choice will be between fertilizing embryos in a lab and analyzing their DNA to try to select and gestate the healthiest possible baby. let alone the claim that “apparently they’re not far from finding them.” Intelligence. Santiago Munné. China is not “engineering” babies. That isn’t loading the genetic dice.

Even if you could pinpoint a handful of genes that were likely to result in a higher IQ. is it OK to screen for a genetic predisposition to alcoholism. a genetics expert and molecular biologist at Princeton.” and the project is basically hopeless. The problem is simple math. it’s just an academic study. “They’re looking for the millions of genetic variations that contribute to intelligence and how they add up in aggregate. technology is expanding our minds. But it will have an expanding role in avoiding disease likelihood in children. which remains controversial among psychologists—involves a boatload of genes and genetic combinations. he says: Preimplantation genetic testing is “unlikely to be useful as a method of positive selection. That should give us some time to decide what’s worse—a risky dice roll or a rigged game. for one. “Add in the fact that nongenetic factors account for 40 to 50 percent of the variance of something like intelligence. That’s what gives you the potential power to do the embryo selection. Miller. the sole source cited in the Vice story.that doesn’t mean it will result in a generation of geniuses. so there is no point even trying to control for that. tells me he was basing that assumption on “my speculation based on the history of Chinese population policy” combined with “off-the-record discussions with a couple of people involved.” he says. Read more from this series: Human enhancement is giving us superpowers once reserved for comicbook heroes. choose your own sixth sense. or obesity? Where do you draw the line between developmental disabilities and low IQ? Maybe it’s a good thing that the ability to build genius babies is a long way off. and steel yourself with a robotic exoskeleton. counts himself as an advocate of the procedure. he defends the idea that embryo selection could eventually lead to significant gains in intelligence.” Munné agrees. all of them substantially mediated through the environment.’ ” Yet the line between screening for disorders and selecting for traits can be blurry. The bottom line. even a partially informed choice is always better than chance. The chances that genetic selection is going to lead to really substantial increases in human intelligence in your lifetime are low. the chances of any given embryo containing the right combination are minuscule. . While Miller agrees that aspects of the Vice story may have been framed a little sensationally.” Even those who disagree with Miller about intelligence think it makes sense to start grappling with the ethical implications of preimplantation genetic screening today.” he says. depression.” In any case. ‘Mother Nature is a nasty bitch. but rather as God or Mother Nature doing her work.” he says. But as I said to Stephen Colbert on his show. adds Lee Silver. “In my opinion. at least in certain cases.” At this point. Silver. “IQ is controlled by probably more than 1. “The key point is that the [BGI Shenzhen] project is not just looking for a handful of genes to genetically manipulate. there’s no evidence that BGI Shenzhen or the Chinese government is actually planning to try to use the study’s findings to implement some kind of genetic-selection program. “Those who reject this point of view often don't think of the natural process as chance.000 genes. If it’s OK to screen for Down syndrome. “I think it’s pretty clear that intelligence—if it even exists as an entity. brain-computer interfaces let you move things with a thought.

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