14 September 2013

Wired Science: “Why Are Some People So Smart? The Answer Could Spawn a Generation of Superbabies”

This is an idea that makes us incredibly uncomfortable. People don’t like to talk about IQ, because it undermines their notion of equality, Detterman says. We think every person is equal to every other, and we like to take credit for our own accomplishments. You are where you are because you worked hard. The very idea of the American dream is undermined by the notion that some people might be born more likely to succeed. Even if we accept that intelligence is heritable, any effort to improve or even understand the inheritance process strikes us as distasteful, even ghoulish, suggesting the rise of designer superbabies. And given the fallout that sometimes results when academics talk about intelligence as a quantifiable concept—such as the case of Harvard president Lawrence Summers, who in 2006 resigned after suggesting that science is male-dominated due not to discrimination but to a shortage of high-IQ women—it’s no surprise that IQ research is not a popular subject these days at Western universities.

But in his lab at BGI, 21-year-old Zhao has no such squeamishness. He waves it away as irrational, making a comparison with height: Some people are tall and some are short, he says. Three years into the project, a team of four geneticists is crunching an initial batch of 2,000 DNA samples from high-IQ subjects, searching for where their genomes differ from the norm. Soon Zhao plans to get thousands more through Renmin—his former high school—as well as from other sources around the world. He believes that intelligence has a genetic recipe and that given enough samples—and enough time—his team will find it. John Bohannon

Indeed, some people are tall and some are short, just like some are more intelligent than others. But in selecting for embryos with higher IQ you are actually making a judgment that ‘more intelligent’ is somehow better than ‘less intelligent’ – just like a century ago a group in Germany started believing that light-haired people are superior to dark-haired people.

Ethical view aside, IQ is still a controversial measure of intelligence; trying to understand it will likely yield interesting results, but I think enhancing IQ by selecting the right embryos should wait at least until the process is better understood. Since brain functions are influenced by a wide range of genes, selecting some in the detriment of others could easily have adverse effects; the article itself mentions a possible correlation between higher IQ and Asperger’s syndrome.

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