Stream: Designer Babies To Be Super Intelligent?


Today’s post is at Stream: Designer Babies To Be Super Intelligent?

Word is that “Scientists in the UK could begin genetically engineering human embryos as early as March”. But don’t worry. As another report says, “it will be illegal to allow the embryos to live beyond 14 days”.

Besides “curing” diseases (by killing embryos that have them) and studying other aspects of human development, one thing scientists hope to discover is how to engineer babies which are of higher intelligence. What are their chances of success?

That aspects of intelligence are correlated (I use this word in its plain English sense) with the brain, and that brain development is correlated most strongly with genes and to some extent to the environment, is nowhere in dispute, except among egalitarian ideologists who feel (not think) that intelligence is a matter of environment alone. What makes it strange is that these same ideologists are “for” killing enwombed humans who test positive for things like Down Syndrome. Never mind that now.

The scientific questions of interest are how well we can identify those genes which are correlated to those areas of the brain which are correlated with intelligence. Notice the different correlations. And once we identify those genes, and understand how those genes interact with neighboring genes in the development of persons, can we manipulate these genes and increase the intelligence of babies while simultaneously suppressing dysgenic side effects of our manipulations?

The answer is probably yes, but with many qualifications. Finding a set of genes that are solely responsible for intelligence is no easy task, and perhaps impossible. The best efforts to date are fraught with statistical over-certainty; only the weakest and most error-prone experiments have so far been done. My reading of this literature suggests were are miles away from the goal. Discussing why this is so would take us too far afield, but for those readers who know, most evidence for “intelligence genes” is by wee p-value and hypothesis tests; in other words, most evidence is wrong.

The possibility of side effects is never mentioned and little thought about. The lessons of Icarus and Herr Doktor Frankenstein are always thought to apply to the other guy, which is why the hubris in this field is none too small. Since we have little idea which exact genes control intelligence, and how intelligence “interacts” with the rest of a person, there is no way we can accurately predict the effects of our meddlings. This should, but does not, dampen enthusiasm.

What about limitations: how smart can a human be? Nobody knows. How far can we push the purely material aspects of intelligence? I mean, what precise combination of genes, assuming also no side effects, will produce a man who is smarter than any before? Nobody knows this, either. It could be that our natural “experiments”, i.e. having babies the old fashioned way, is the optimal way to go about this, and that, perhaps, our best days as a race are behind us. We may now lack the intelligence to understand how to increase our intelligence in any designed manner!

One thing is clear. There are intelligences vastly superior to humans…

Go there to read the rest. And hurry! I only have about half the arguments/points in the excerpt.


  1. Funny, the Brits can try to make really smart humans, but no GMO carrots?

    Can genetically engineered smarter kids turn on society like robots (AIs) are rumored to be able to do? (DAV: I’m going with AI meaning “nonorganic intelligence which would not include designer babies. But cute word play.)

  2. Briggs,
    “That there will be distinct classes guaranteed, because the poor will be unable to afford designer services, which means only the rich will partake.”

    This argument has been used to oppose every medical advance that we now take for granted and which is widely available, for example, open heart surgery. Your basic concern may or may not be valid but your argument is considerably weakened with this statement. Socialism may produce this result of course but not the open market. A related idea is summarized in this abstract.

  3. Oh, the irony.

    Linked at the bottom of the Stream page is an article on Hawkins, “Stephen Hawkins: Suicide if I be one a burden, can’t contribute.”

    Under designerism, no Hawkins — killed in his mother’s womb.

    And sickly Darwin? The very same (his weak genetics markers deciding his fate early on).

    Note: What makes Hawkins think he gets to decide whether his actions are considered “contributions?” Under a (say) Stalin-esque or similar collectivist, utilitarian regime, his bourgeois ideas would
    have been deemed anathema to the state.

  4. Jim,
    You are forgetting Frederic Bastiat’s “That which is seen, and that which is not seen”. It is the broken window fallacy in reverse, you see what might be lost and not what would be gained. Also since the past is past I do not understand your argument at all. You might as well rail against modern vaccines that have allowed the survival of potential criminals.

    I’m also not convinced that anyone who undertook the Voyage of the Beagle was a sickly youth.

  5. Scotian,

    You lost me in your non sequitur. What “good” would have been realized by killing Hawkins in the womb?

    Keep in mind that genes do not manifest themselves right away. And since Darwin had weak genes, so to speak, his vigorous youth is not an argument against removing his genes from the collective pool.

  6. Jim,
    I’m not sure it is me who has stated a non sequitur. The topic presented by Briggs is not about the selective removing of people from the past. You, for example, refer to Hawkins but not Ted Bundy. It is about the future selection of one genetic profile over another. In either case one child out of many possibilities is chosen. At some level it is similar to the choice that we make when we marry one person rather than another or use birth control one night but not another.

    Be aware that I am not defending the immediate use of an immature technology or that I do not understand the dangers, which is true of any new technology. I just do not like what I see as weak arguments. I also do not like the implication that individuals should suffer debilitating diseases for the good of society.

  7. Scotian,

    I believe you may be missing the irony gene — watch out, that may be considered a “defect” in the future.

    The irony is that many supporters of this “technology” indict themselves. Similar to when those who believe in the “selfish gene theory” have no children. The irony is that these folks are stating their genes do not believe in replicating their genetic material. Indicted by one’s own genes. Oh, the irony.

    That all said, your belief in scientism scares me. Hasn’t the collective we seen enough of that already, such as the creation of the New Soviet Man?

    Obviously, not enough for you. You are defending the cracking of eggs, so to speak, for the benefit of an omelet. Seems you are OK with allowing suffering as long as the result is the dawning of a glorious new age.

  8. Well this takes all the romance out doesn’t it? That won’t do.
    The public won’t like it. Babies are a gift not a commodity.
    Michael Crichton was right about Britain and medical research but not for the reasons he gave.

  9. Engineer babies? Ok, but I highly recommend creating a better ratio between male and female engineer babies. This should make life much more interesting for the engineering profession in the future.

  10. Jim,
    “That all said, your belief in scientism scares me.” etc
    What belief would that be? What I did was object to weak arguments as stated. This does not give you the right to assign beliefs to me as if this were the only reason that your statements could be questioned. Claiming a fall back position of irony makes no sense. Are we not to take any of your statements seriously on the off chance that they may be meant ironically? Also whether you consider someone’s position to be ironic is irrelevant to it validity. I’m trying to cover both bases here.

    I foolishly copied Jim’s spelling.

  11. Again, sci-fi has been there, done that. See Brave New World (not strictly sci-fi), Van Vogt’s “Slan” and most recent and most pertinent, Nancy Kress’s “Beggars in Spain” trilogy. In the last, genetic engineering is common, and humans with super-intelligence and that wonderful faculty–they don’t need sleep–try to take over the world but are hunted down by us common sorts. It’s a great series and enough to make one think about banning all genetic research. See

  12. Scotian,

    I am stating exactly what I believe is irony, so you are really losing me here (hence this as my very first sentence, “Oh, the irony.”).

    I am at a loss as to why you are unable to grasp the irony in the claims made by others. It is ironic that many of those who claim the existence of an ability to create the perfect man evidence great imperfections themselves — imperfections that would have led to their death in the womb. If you cannot see that, and the irony around it, … well …

    To claim that imperfect man can design a perfect man is false — obviously. And it is interesting — and scary — that you believe such a claim.

    You support the belief that humans can be perfected in the future through the use of technology — this is the point of the article. Maybe not now, as you stated — so a few eggs cracked to improve the developing technology, but in the future, nevertheless.

    Of course, you do not, and cannot, state what perfect means other than to fall back on science — scientism.

    This has been tried before, with horrific results. That you do not see that is also scary.


    * It would appear the definition of perfect might soon be defined by the likes of HRC, Trump, Cruz, or Saunders. Scary … to me, anyway.
    * It appears you have no issue killing people (embryos) in order to save people. Please publish your utilitarian model for this. Or, if I am wrong, state as much and define how this technology (what a euphemism) will be developed to ensure that does not happen.

  13. Jim,
    I will quote Willis Eschenbach here: If you disagree with me “quote my words”. Do not assign beliefs to me, i.e. throw mud at the wall hoping that something will stick.

    “It is ironic that many of those who claim the existence of an ability to create the perfect man evidence great imperfections themselves — imperfections that would have led to their death in the womb.”
    This is, of course, completely irrelevant since future actions can not change the past. What is your point here? The same argument would seem to preclude a physician working to cure a disease that he suffered from himself. This makes no sense to me. Note that a physician curing himself is also ironic.

    The rest of your posting is just assigning beliefs to me that I have not expressed. The more absurd and scarier the better apparantly. If you have nothing more to offer we are done.

  14. Scotian,

    “Be aware that I am not defending the immediate use of an immature technology or that I do not understand the dangers, which is true of any new technology. ”

    So what are you defending? Are you defending the testing of it (which is, as I am certain you understand, the immediate use of it), and its associated evils, until it is sufficiently developed?

    Look, you brought up Bastiat in an attempt to add credence to your argument. Yet your use of the Bastiat quote nullifies all of your arguments … in fact, it nullifies all arguments. Why is that? Because you are using it loose and out of context.

    Apply your errant rendition of Bastiat to the physician working to cure a disease and see where it goes.

    By the way, I sense more than a little irony in your use of sophisms in the name of Bastiat. Funny.

    What is interesting, and slippery, is your defence of the article while hiding behind a “I’m not defending its implications” claim. The onus is on you to defend your position — and implications — in light of your defense of the article. Do not hide from that.

    Your sense of irony is off. There is no irony in a physician curing himself — please. There is a sense of irony in the claims made relative to those making the claim (as stated above). That you refuse to accept that is telling.

    We are done.

  15. Jim,
    Why does it bother you that I refuse to express an opinion on the matter or to defend a position? I am only interested in the arguments presented.

    “What is interesting, and slippery, is your defence of the article while hiding …”
    What article would that be? I haven’t defended any article that I can recall. But as you say we are done.

  16. Jim,
    There is no winning in internet debates. 🙂
    I suspect that we don’t disagree as much as you think. It is just that I have little desire to express opinion on the internet and I can’t stand having opinions assigned to me.

  17. All of this would be more convincing if anyone could define “super-intelligent” in the first place. It can’t mean “knowing lots of facts” because one does not become more intelligent the more one imitates a filing cabinet. Nor can it mean to imitate high speed difference engines, unless the idiot savant is the ne plus ultra of intelligence.

    The main difficulty one sees is that intelligence as normally intuited is not simply genetic, but is a complex interplay of inherent capabilities, upbringing, cultural influences involving two brain hemispheres, numerous proteins and structures, and so on.

    The most grievous obstacle is design coupling. A simple example of what this means is the typical sink faucet. It has two behaviors: temperature and volume; and two controls: the hot water knob and the cold water knob. If you wish to increase the temperature you might twist the hot water knob. This makes the water hotter, but will also increase the volume. Perhaps this is not desirable: so you decrease the volume by reducing the cold water flow. But this increases the temperature past what you had wanted. And so on. The point is: “You can’t do just one thing.” And in a highly coupled design, it may be impossible to optimize one output without impairing some other output.

    Genes and traits are like acrostics. Few traits, even when well-defined, are controlled by a single gene; and few genes affect a single trait. So even if and to the extent that intelligence is affected by genes, it may be topologically impossible to optimize intelligence without producing… clubfoot or deafness or blindness or some other defect.

    The amount of experimentation equivalent to juggling the hot and cold water faucets to get the right temperature and volume means a lot of babies in the waste bucket. A lot of monsters. And I don’t mean exclusively biological monsters. There are those who would experiment on babies.

    For a fictional treatment, see “Hopeful Monsters” in:

  18. Scotian,

    As I stated earlier, “’cause you know the last post wins an internet debate.”

    Seems your actions prove this point.

    Just having a little fun showing the impact of having the last comment — the appearance of winning the debate.

    Remember, you didn’t hold to your statement, “But as you say we are done.” Seems you realize your refutation of my argument that the last post wins an internet debate is lacking.

    While it may not be true (i.e. the winner posts last), it does create that appearance to many later blog readers — the dread of ever beginning the debate. And it appears you agree.

    We are done now.

  19. What will be the effect of greater average human intelligence? We can get an idea +from the impact of computers IMHO. Computers have effectively made men smarter. Our plans are better devised and tested. They take more knowledge into account. The result is that complex projects are more apt to be effective.

    OTOH basic human nature doesn’t change. As Robert Heinlein said, “Man isn’t a rational animal; he is a rationalizing animal.” Computers have not helped people understand policy errors that they don’t want to understand.

  20. Bob,

    Also check out Sarah Hoyt’s books. Darkship Thieves introduces the idea that there are a few super genetically engineered geniuses who see it as their burden to take care of the rest. She fleshes the idea out in the sequels. It’s a bit more space opera-y than hard sf but interesting all the same.

  21. YOS,
    Is your point that since “intelligence as normally intuited is not simply genetic”, it is not possible to optimize intelligence using genetic engineering
    OR any genetic manipulation with intelligence would likely have deleterious consequences elsewhere e.g. deafness?

    I myself lean towards the first option–it is not possible to scientifically define and catagorize intelligence. It can not be formalized hence it is nonsense to optimize intelligence using technical means.

  22. umm?

    1) there is no generally accepted definition of “smart”. We know it when we see it – provided it’s not much different from us. So what does “smarter babies” mean? better memories I’d go for, and this kind of thing may be possible, but I have known people with better memories than mine who were stupider.

    2) In power, the left always seems to want to make more stupid people, not smarter ones..

    3) Anyone else notice that highschool’s pretty party people all loudly despise nerds; but usually want their babies to become nerds?

  23. Briggs says:

    What about limitations: how smart can a human be? Nobody knows. How far can we push the purely material aspects of intelligence? I mean, what precise combination of genes, assuming also no side effects, will produce a man who is smarter than any before? Nobody knows this, either.

    A related question: How big can an infant English bulldog’s head become relative to its bitch’s lower extremities? Big enough to prevent their birth by any means other than ceasarian section. That’s how big. There’s fitness… and then there’s Fitness.

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