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China Is Engineering Genius Babies

By Aleks Eror

Its 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 worlds natural resources. But now, not content to simply laugh and make jerk-off signs as they pass us on the geopolitical highway, theyve also developed a stateendorsed genetic-engineering project. At BGI Shenzhen, scientists have collected DNA samples from 2,000 of the worlds smartest people and are sequencing their entire genomes in an attempt to identify the alleles which determine human intelligence. Apparently theyre 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.

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

When do you think the embryo analysis might be implemented on a large scale?

Actual use of the technology to do embryo screening might take five to ten years, but it could be just a few years. It depends on how motivated they are. Could this whole process be repeated with other characteristics, like physical appearance? Absolutely. In fact, almost any trait other than intelligence would be easier to do. We know that intelligence depends on lots of genes while physical traitslike hair or eye coloronly depend on a few genes. Things like body shape would be easier to do, physical attractiveness would be pretty complicated, personality traits might be a little simpler than intelligencehow hard working somebody is, how impulsive, how politically liberal or conservative they are would be easier. How religious you arethats definitely influenced by genes to some degree. Shit. How does Western research in genetics compare to Chinas? Were pretty far behind. We have the same technical capabilities, the same statistical capabilities to analyze the data, but theyre 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. Technically and scientifically we could be doing this, but were not. Why not? We have ideological biases that say, Well, this could be troubling, we shouldnt be meddling with nature, we shouldnt be meddling with God. 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. In China, 95 percent of an audience would say, Obviously you should make babies genetically healthier, happier, and brighter! Theres a big cultural difference. What else is China doing that we arent? Well, theyre also investing a huge amount of money in education, theyre creating new systems of universities that emphasise more creative approaches to learning, and theyre 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. Do you think global domination is in the cards, then? The Chinese Communist party has never really sought global domination. They think of it as restoring China to its rightful and historical place as the central culture of humanity. Europe got a temporary advantage, but theyre just restoring the natural balance as the worlds most populous country. I dont think they have any imperial ambitions to spread Chinas borderstheyre not going to act like Nazi Germany or America in the 20th centurybut they do want respect and they do want influence and they dont trust America or Europe to run the world in the right way, in terms of issues like global warming or equality or economic stability. Maybe theyre on to something. Follow Aleks on Twitter: @slandr More about China on VICE: Toxic: Linfen, China In China, Tigers are Being Farmed Like Chickens Raw China By Aleks Eror 1 week ago Like Comment Share Tags: China, Genetics, Science, Aleks Eror, BGI Shenzhen, Deng Xiaoping, Genome sequencing, DNA, creepy, Geoffrey Miller, Genius, unfair, IQ, Superpower ering_genius_babies_not_exactly.single.html

The Myth of the Superbaby

Can China really breed a crop of genetically selected geniuses?

By Will Oremus|Posted Monday, March 25, 2013, at 5:30 AM

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty Sexual reproduction is a genetic crapshoot. Out of hundreds of eggs and millions of sperm, one joins one to produce a baby whose natural endowments could reflect the best traits of both parentsor the absolute worst. To procreate through intercourse is to take a wild roll of the DNA dice. And the stakes could hardly be higher. One stray allele could mean the difference between a healthy baby and one with a debilitating disorder. What if science offered a way to stack the odds in favor of a healthy, gifted child? The idea is as thrilling as it is alarming. But how realistic is it? Last week, a widely shared story in the magazine Vice suggested its imminent and inevitablejust not in the hidebound United States. The article, headlined China Is Engineering Genius Babies, reports that our superpower frenemies in the East have hatched a grand plan to breed a crop of hyperproductive smartypants. Heres an excerpt: At BGI Shenzhen, scientists have collected DNA samples from 2,000 of the worlds smartest people and are sequencing their entire genomes in an attempt to identify the alleles which determine human intelligence. Apparently theyre 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. You might think that such a sensational report would be received skeptically by readers and dismissed or debunked by the mainstream press. Instead it went viral on Facebook and Reddit and earned top billing in BBC Futures weekly Best of the Web roundup. In fact, key parts of the story are trueand not just the parts about Lena Dunham doffing her clothes. But large swaths are nave, misleading, or grossly overstated. And its worth sorting through them, because in the not-distant future, its conceivable that parents will face a critical choice when it comes to making babies. The choice will be between fertilizing embryos in a lab and analyzing their DNA to try to select and gestate the healthiest possible baby, or doing it the old-fashioned way and leaving the genetics to chance. Lets start with whats not true. China is not engineering babies. Even if it were, Chinese scientists wouldnt know how to genetically engineer a genius. And even if they did know how to genetically engineer a genius, the fact is that you cant ensure genius, because genius depends on environment as well as genes. What is true, though, is fascinating, exciting, and troubling. Scientists are already developing the capacity to screen human embryos for a wide variety of genetic disorders, such as cystic fibrosis and sickle-cell anemia. At Reprogenetics, a private laboratory in New Jersey, couples who carry a genetic disease can have their embryos checked for the mutation before implanting them in the womans uterus. The process is referred to as preimplantation genetic diagnosis, and the technology is advancing rapidly. Santiago Munn, the labs director, told me that within a year he expects to be able to offer embryo analyses that screen for more than 100 diseases at once, for a few thousand dollars. Women are already using preimplantation analysis to select the gender of their embryos. And in the United States, theyre overwhelmingly choosing to have daughters. The next leap will be to whole-genome sequencing of embryos. That opens the door to screening not just for sex or single-gene disorders but for more complex disorders like autismor even, conceivably, qualities like physical attractiveness or intelligence. Munn considers this type of positive selection beyond the pale: Selecting for embryos based on eye color, etc., means you are discarding the others based on traits, and thats unethical. But not everyone shares his qualms. The premise of the Vice story is that the Chinese government is eager to identify the alleles, or genetic variations, that most closely correlate with high IQ scores, so that the countrys parents can select from a number of their own embryos on the basis of intelligence. That isnt loading the genetic dice, exactly, because the parents cant change their own genes. And it isnt engineering, per se, because it doesnt involve manipulating the genes of the offspring. (That may also be possible someday, but most experts believe its further off.) Its more like rolling the dice 10 times and then getting to choose from among the resulting combinations. Thats still a powerful prospect. As NYU evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Millera participant in the Chinese genome-sequencing studytells Vice, Even if it only boosts the average kid by five IQ points, thats a huge difference in terms of economic productivity, the competitiveness of the country, how many patents they get, how their businesses are run, and how innovative their economy is. Where Vice goes astray is in the article's blithe insinuation that this is all right around the corner. Its true that BGI Shenzhen has embarked on a research project to find relationships between genes and IQ. But experts say the implication that a handful of specific genetic variations determine human intelligence is spurious, let alone the claim that apparently theyre not far from finding them. Intelligence, you see, isnt just a matter of a few alleles here and there. Hank Greely, director of Stanfords Center for Law and the Biosciences, says preimplantation genetic screening could one day render procreation via sex obsolete, at least for those who can afford it. But

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