Wednesday, September 09, 2015

A Modest Proposal

Success in life strongly correlates with intelligence. Mass university education for both sexes has led to mass assortative mating, the smart hitching up with the smart. They transition into cognitively demanding jobs such as higher management, finance, accountancy, the law, architecture, IT, science and engineering where pay and prospects are good. Smart couples have smart offspring (the heritability of intelligence is high). In consequence, we are in danger of breeding a stable, stratified society with an intellectually-gifted upper class and a rather dim, under-employed lower class.

Some people don't care about this. Others do care, but don't see how we can avoid it. But Toby Young has a rather bizarre idea as to how to fix it. You should read the whole of his rather long article (here, via Steve Hsu who is name-checked) but the essential proposition is this:
"I’m thinking in particular of the work being done by Stephen Hsu, Vice-President for Research and Professor of Theoretical Physics at Michigan State University. He is a founder of BGI’s Cognitive Genomics Lab. BGI, China’s top bio-tech institute, is working to discover the genetic basis for IQ. Hsu and his collaborators are studying the genomes of thousands of highly intelligent people in pursuit of some of the perhaps 10,000 genetic variants affecting IQ. Hsu believes that within ten years machine learning applied to large genomic datasets will make it possible for parents to screen embryos in vitro and select the most intelligent one to implant. Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at New York University, describes how the process would work:

Any given couple could potentially have several eggs fertilized in the lab with the dad’s sperm and the mom’s eggs. Then you can test multiple embryos and analyze which one’s 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. It’s not genetic engineering or adding new genes, it’s the genes that couples already have.

It’s worth repeating this last point, because it deals with one of the main reservations people will have about this procedure: these couples wouldn’t be creating a super-human in a laboratory, but choosing the smartest child from the range of all the possible children they could have. Nevertheless, this could have a decisive impact. “This might mean the difference between a child who struggles in school, and one who is able to complete a good university degree,” says Hsu.

My proposal is this: once this technology becomes available, why not offer it free of charge to parents on low incomes with below-average IQs? Provided there is sufficient take-up, it could help to address the problem of flat-lining inter-generational social mobility and serve as a counterweight to the tendency for the meritocratic elite to become a hereditary elite. It might make all the difference when it comes to the long-term sustainability of advanced meritocratic societies.

At first glance, this sounds like something Jonathan Swift might suggest and, of course, there are lots of ethical issues connected with “designer babies”. But is it so different from screening embryos in vitro so parents with hereditary diseases can avoid having a child with the same condition? (This is known as a pre-implantation genetic diagnosis.) I don’t mean that a low IQ is comparable to a genetic disorder like Huntington’s, but if you allow parents to choose which embryo to take to term, whatever the reason, you’ve already crossed the Rubicon. And screening out embryos with certain undesirable genes is legal in plenty of countries, including Britain.

In an article for Nautilus, Stephen Hsu argues that making this new technology widely available will be essential to prevent it being exploited by the privileged few, thereby exacerbating inequality:

Almost certainly, some countries will allow genetic engineering, thereby opening the door for global elites who can afford to travel for access to reproductive technology. As with most technologies, the rich and powerful will be the first beneficiaries. Eventually, though, I believe many countries will not only legalize human genetic engineering, but even make it a (voluntary) part of their national healthcare systems. The alternative would be inequality of a kind never before experienced in human history.

Hsu isn’t being paranoid. Some rich people, like the movie star Jodie Foster, have already used artificial insemination to try and maximise their children’s IQs utilising the sperm of Nobel Prize-winners. If high-achieving couples in London, Paris and New York are prepared to make their children listen to Mozart in the hope of boosting their intelligence, even though there’s no evidence it has any effect, they wouldn’t hesitate to make use of a technology that actually worked.

Hsu’s solution is to make it freely available to everyone, but that would only help to prevent it making existing inequalities even worse. After all, if people from all classes used it in exactly the same proportions, all you’d succeed in doing would be to increase the average IQ of each class, thereby preserving the gap between them. Wouldn’t it be better to limit its use to disadvantaged parents with low IQs? That way, it could be used as a tool to reduce inequality.

This technology might actually be more effective than anything else we’ve tried when it comes to tackling the issue of entrenched poverty, with the same old problems—teenage pregnancy, criminality, drug abuse, ill health—being passed down from one generation to the next like so many poisonous heirlooms. In due course, why not conduct a trial in a city like Detroit and see if it works? It has become a cliché to point out that the disadvantages of being brought up in a low-income family are apparent when a child is as young as eighteen months, so it shouldn’t take long to see if increasing the IQs of children from deprived backgrounds makes an impact. It would be inexpensive, too, so wouldn’t involve a massive hike in taxation. “The cost of these procedures would be less than tuition at many private kindergartens,” says Hsu.

In a sense, what I’m suggesting is a form of redistribution, except the commodity being redistributed is above-average intelligence rather than wealth. This is a way of significantly reducing end-state inequality that should be acceptable to conservatives (at least, non-religious conservatives) because it doesn’t involve the use of coercive state power. Participation would be entirely voluntary. Let’s call this policy “g-galitarianism”. (For those unfamiliar with the jargon, “g” is commonly used by psychologists and geneticists to stand for “general factor of cognitive ability” and is often used as a synonym for “IQ”. It was first given this designation by Charles Spearman, a British army officer, at the turn of the last century.)

A lot of the resistance to this idea will come from a visceral dislike of anything that smacks of eugenics, for understandable historical reasons. But the main objection to eugenics, at least in the form it usually takes, is that it involves discriminating against disadvantaged groups, whether minorities or people with disabilities. What I’m proposing is a form of eugenics that would discriminate in favour of the disadvantaged. I’m not suggesting we improve the genetic stock of an entire race, just the least well off. This is a kind of eugenics that should appeal to liberals - progressive eugenics."
Young concludes:
"Liberals who deny that there’s any genetic basis to intelligence shouldn’t have a problem with this trial since, according to their logic, the in vitro procedure I’m proposing won’t have any effect on IQ. That doesn’t mean they won’t object, of course. Herrnstein points out this inconsistency in the Appendix to IQ in the Meritocracy: “Thus, the very same people one day abhor the idea of tampering with people’s genes may, the next day, vigorously deny the conclusion that human society involves genetic factors.”
I suspect that Young has his tongue firmly in cheek here. A technique which is guaranteed to give you the smartest kids you can feasibly produce? The middle and upper classes will be all over it!