Breeding Smart Babies?
To quote the Herald Sun in Australia:
“Melbourne’s Julian Salvulescu, now Oxford's practical ethics professor, has said it is our "moral obligation" to use IVF to choose the smartest embryos, even if that maintains or increases social inequality.”
So good idea or bad idea - and what does brain science tell us? Well I’ll cut to the point I think it is fuzzy thinking.
1. There’s an assumption that IQ is genetically based. It is not, or at least only partly. In fact intelligence is extremely hard to define. We have become obsessed with an IQ test that was developed many years ago, in 1912 to be precise. Indeed the learnings of the people who deal most with intelligence, artificial intelligence labs, show us that intelligence is incredibly difficult to explain and define. Near impossible, in fact. Malcolm Galdwell in his book Outliers also takes a long and hard look at intelligence and IQ, with a certain amount of negative criticism. In fact he notes that more important than IQ is practical intelligence. An ability to put the intelligence into practice and useful practice at that. This is not necessarily linked to IQ.
2. Genes are modifiable - DNA as the names says, Deoxyribonucleic acid, is an acid. And the gene expression can be influenced by our lifestyle and over time and generations. After all the people today with the highest IQ also come from stone-age man. And yes, genes do affect many aspects of our mind. Certain proteins affect our memory, for example, but it is not just genes that define intelligence. See further below for comments on nurture.
3. We don’t actually know what an intelligent gene is - we know certain genes can affect certain brain functions and chemical reactions in the brain - but intelligence, we do know, is more than a single protein combination or a single gene expression.
4. IQ is inherited to some extent, but only to some extent. Intelligent families tend to have intelligent children. But, a conversation I had with a female banker illustrates the problem of genetics: she wondered why in a family (hers) 1 child could be super intelligent, her brother had an exceptionally high IQ and another not so (her - though I note she was intelligent and socially competent at that). I spoke about practical intelligence, she thought for a moment and commented that her brother though exceptionally “intelligent” preferred to sit by himself and do ridiculously complex computer programming - while she was more successful in terms of job profile, salary and social competence.
5. The issue around intelligent families is, though, a touch more complex than simple genetics - how much does the environment influence this also? In a now famous study with orphans in Romania. Orphan children adopted showed huge jumps in IQ when put into a caring environment. Many had been categorized as retarded previously but then developed into “normal” intelligence children. The age they had been adopted and how long they had been in the orphanage had a large impact on their end IQ. This simple process more than anything how the environment, also meaning nurture, affects our IQ dramatically.
6. Now let’s get into the brain. Our brain, all brains, have about 100 billions neurons. These neurons wire together in predefined ways but, and this is the big but, our experiences define the way the brain develops. So literally as we grow and learn (and this continues all our life) our brain will rewire and our neurons will reach out and make connections (A sensory brain cell has about 1300 synapses, connections to other neurons, of which 40% are active but through increased usage this will increase to 2700 synapses with up to 60% usage). So the more important part in our development is the way we develop our own brains - or rather how our environment develops our own brain. We’re straight back to nurture. Are intelligent children from intelligent parents only intelligent because they are in an environment that stimulates intelligence? Likely yes. Note we do know through the studies with adopted children (such as that mentioned above) that the genetic make up does have an influence: children adopted into similar families but with natural parents with higher IQ also tend to have higher IQ. But, again, the environment plays a large role.
7. In the discussion we are also forgetting that all of this is relative. If you have an IQ of 100 in an environment when everybody else has an IQ of 80 you are super intelligent and not just average. In psychology there have also been many studies on dominance factors. Dominance and status is an ever changing animal. Remember our average IQ has increased dramatically over the last 100 years, yet we still have crime and low status individuals even though the average person today has more knowledge and processing power than the elite a hundred years ago. It’s all relative. breeding smart babies may also just mean breeding smarter criminals!
8. Many psychological dysfunctions such as psychopathy are also developmental and not necessarily genetic issues. There, in many cases, may be a genetic influence but only an influence. So there is only a certain amount of genetic selection that is possible in any case and this does not rule out psychological dysfunction.
9. And all of this is even before we start looking at multiple intelligences (first introduced by Gardener) and social competence. I’m sure we all know people who are fantastic as people and have huge hearts and heaps of social and emotional intelligence, yet they may not have a high IQ.
So where does this leave us? Yes, intelligence is partly genetic, that is true. Believing that through genetically screening embryos you can develop a better society is in short ridiculous and the money and brain effort spent on this would be better spent in balancing society in other ways through better schooling, etc. And remember if we all have super IQs then even with an IQ of 140 you may then by bottom of the pile and have the lowest paid job. It’s all relative and practical intelligence rules. Cutting off IQ may also mean that we cut out people like, George Bush (maybe no bad thing, yet he was president of the USA), Richard Branson (definitely bad thing) and most soccer players on planet earth (umm not sure if that is good or bad).
So the concept of genetically screening embryos seems not only ridiculous, it is also, erm, a bit stupid. I’m intelligent enough to know I should read more of what Julian Salvulescu actually has said in more detail (I haven’t) but I believe this may be a case of an intelligent professor being pretty thick.