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« Nanobots Not Needed | Main | A Matter of Viruses »

March 04, 2005


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Tom Craver

I gotta say - I don't see how making future generations smarter is a bad thing, if that's the only result of a genetic change. The bad thing would be failing to find ways to make us older folks smarter too! :-)

However, I agree it would be wise to go slow on that front, simply because we aren't really able yet to say that any change is isolated to a single effect. Better to figure out what effect a genetic change has, and see if we can replicate the benefit without genetic changes.

But by "go slow", I don't mean "don't do it at all". As long as we have reasonable certainty that side effects are small and benign, doing an experimental genetic enhancement on a dozen test subjects that might otherwise have a low IQ doesn't seem ethically monstrous.

If those subjects do well through their first 15 years of life, expanding the test to 100 new test subjects seems reasonable. If the first group gets to age 30 just fine, and their offspring seem fine, and the second 100 are also doing well, advancing to 1000 subjects seems reasonable. Etc. Weigh the benefits and the harm of not intervening against the risks.

Brett Bellmore

Don't we always "create our own replacements", and they end up making the decisions? THAT scenario has been going down since life began.

Tom, has it occured to you that, by the time people following your cautious path have boosted the IQ of a thousand (otherwise subnormal) subjects by fifty points, their efforts will be viewed as the genetic equivalent of chipping knives out of flint? And the world will be ruled by the results of experimenters who were less gradual in their approach?

Tom Craver

Hmm - if brainiacs end up ruling the world, how do you explain...no, I'd better not say it, this isn't the forum for that...

But seriously - I'm not saying "don't boost intelligence" - I'm saying "don't change your gene pool until you're really very sure you know what you're doing". Or at minimum, don't reduce it's diversity.

There are likely dozens of ways to achieve higher intelligence without reducing your genetic diversity. Optimized nuitrition for the fetus and infants. Early exposure to stimuli to promote certain kinds of brain function (e.g. the way our brains get wired for the one or two languages we hear our families speaking). Implanted brain augmentation devices. Sleep reduction - more time to think. Drugs to accelerate memorization - the more information you have to work with, the more you can do with the intelligence you have. Uploading to a faster platform. Life-extension with rejuvenation - so we combine the wisdom of age with the brain cells of youth. Genetic re-engineering of people past child-bearing. Etc.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

I've wondered sometimes why we're not smarter already. In my darker moments, I've speculated our species intelligence pool is self-limiting: that a sufficiently smart person who's got a destructive streak can start a destructive and disruptive movement that kills a lot of smart people. A lot of revolutions seem to end up deliberately killing the intelligentsia.

I think Brett is right that Tom's cautious genetic approach will be far slower than other approaches. Two reasons: First, within not too many decades we'll be able to reverse any genetic change we try, making genetic experimentation a lot less risky. Second, as Tom recognizes, non-genetic intelligence enhancements will be developed, and take effect much faster than waiting for babies to grow up.


Brett Bellmore

Well, I don't really think of it as "your" or "my" gene pool. The phrase "gene pool" brings to mind some huge ocean of human DNA, all mixed up, (Think "End of Evangelion".) from which people split off.

Whereas the truth is that all that DNA is in specific people. There's no more a gene pool than there's a kidney pool, or an intestine pool. So the idea that I can claim much say in what you do with YOUR genes, or visa versa, is a bit of a stretch.

And you'd have to be genetically engineering people by the hundreds of millions, at least, to significantly effect genetic diversity in a harmful way.

Tom Craver

>There's no more a gene pool than there's a kidney pool, or an intestine pool.

One does not pass on one's kidneys or intestines to one's offspring. As far as I'm concerned, you are welcome to mess with your own genes. But I expect most societies will overwhelmingly say that you don't have a right to experiment with your offspring's genes.

Once we get to the point where we can accurately predict the impact of any genetic change on a person from developing fetus through adulthood that attitude may change. But by that point, we should have the ability to make equally radical changes to ourselves as adults, including greatly extended lifespans - so why should parents built their choices into their children? So long as they'll have normal and healthy childhoods, why not let them choose for themselves when they get to be adults? That shared experience of childhood may form the commonality that holds a society together, despite the many different choices people can make as adults. Societies whose members have nothing in common will disintegrate.

Mr. Farlops

I don't know if I agree with Chris that we aren't collectively and individually getting smarter (And I mean that very broadly and very vaguely.), even without altering the genetic basis of our children's brains.

Writing, mathematics, libraries, mass education, the Internet, financial analysis software, the scientific method, telecommunications and so on--intelligence amplification has a very long tradition.

The reason we don't notice this is because we're mostly surrounded by people who also benefit from these methods. Citizens in the post-industrial world don't really notice the differences when looking around. Only when we compare ourselves to people without these benefits, when we are suddenly deprived of them or when we compare ourselvs to people in the past do we realize how much we've changed.

If all the kids are doping their brains before final exams, the bell curve only gets shifted upward and if everything is normalized the effect might not be noticable at all.

Getting back to the subject--there will probably be strong political pressure to prevent parents from doing non-theraputic, elective genetic changes to their children. But I'm guess this political resistence won't slow things down too much in the long run since the lines between therapy and enhancement are very, very blurry anyway.

Brett Bellmore

There are different sorts of changes one might make in the nervous system, which ought for good reason to be treated differently.

There are, for example, existing biochemical/anatomical differences leading to increased intelligence. As those existing genes and phenotypes have already been "tested", they could be implemented quite rapidly, with little oversight required. We don't, after all, require laboratory testing before people with IQs over 150 have children... Why require it if all the genius is contributing is one chromosome?

This obviously contrasts with new genetic alterations, not already existing in nature, which WOULD have to be subject to extensive testing.

Another axis of variation, is between the biochemical and the anatomical. Biochemical changes could indeed be feasibly tested on existing adults, and if induced in children by the use of artificial chromosomes, could be expediently "turned off" if they didn't work out.

But changes in brain anatomy would be very difficult to test on existing people. Even if you could make the changes, the effects on memory and personality would probably be severe, as the brain struggled to adapt to the new structures.

So, I'd suggest that introduction into otherwise disadvantaged gene lines of already extant, "tested" alterations, would be the least regulated. New biochemical alterations, being subject to expedient correction, would be next. Most regulated would be novel changes to the neural anatomy of the unborn.

But considering the wide range of human intelligence, even the first catagory of enhancements would have dramatic social effects, while laying the groundwork for the more difficult changes.

John B

Mr Farlops typed, "If all the kids are doping their brains before final exams, the bell curve only gets shifted upward and if everything is normalized the effect might not be noticable at all."

This is somewhat of a problematic statement, as it enhances the impression that it's just 'doping their brains'. It's not. It's exacerbating (to harp on the same bloody string) the difference between the 'haves' (who have access to the drugs) and the 'have-nots' (who don't).

In other words, UNLESS "all the kids are doping their brains before final exams", then "the bell curve only gets shifted upward" but the effect creates more societal stressors, not improving the species.

Other than that - I wholeheartedly agree that one of homer saps great advantages is that we adapt not based on genetic mechanisms, but rather social and knowledge based mechanisms. The advantage an M1 Abrams gives you over a fire-hardened spear is astronomical - assuming you've got the support structure for the Abrams in place.


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