October 01, 2002
UK Group Opposes Selecting For High IQ Genes

A British think tank has come out in opposition to selection higher IQ children:

The selection of babies with genes linked to high IQ should be banned, along with the abortion of embryos predicted to have below average intelligence, according to a report published today.

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics, an independent think tank, makes the call in its study, Genetics and human behaviour. This weighs up ethical, legal and social issues raised by the search for genes that influence intelligence, violence, personality traits and sexual orientation.

Note that this group is not arguing against abortion in general. They are also not arguing against artificial insemination. They are arguing against using techniques to select for mental characteristics that are genetically determined when this is done to boost abilities.

The behavioural genetics part of the Nuffield Bioethics website is here

Here is the report Summary And Recommendations as a 115.4 Kb PDF.

Here is the Full Report as a 2.5 MB PDF.

These people do raise some valid concerns. For instance, I fully share this concern from page 9 of the summary:

Medicalisation is an issue that affects many areas of life, not just behavioural genetics. In the case of behavioural traits, since research into genetic influences is at an early stage, it is not possible to say whether medicalisation will be likely, or whether it will have, on balance, positive or negative implications. However, examples of the deleterious effects of medicalisation in other areas suggest the need for awareness of potential problems. We conclude that research in behavioural genetics has the potential to contribute to the existing phenomenon of medicalisation. Deleterious effects that should be borne in mind include shifting the boundary between normal variation and disorder further away from the extremes of variation; reducing social tolerance of previously ‘normal’ behavioural traits; and the routine selection of genetic or medical interventions without adequate consideration being given to environmental interventions and other options (paragraph 13.23).

Medicalisation has led to Ritalin Nation - at least here in America. I suspect too many people are being treated as suffering from mental conditions.

However, the idea that we should not change genes that are within the "normal" range of variations is highly problematic. What if it turns out that a large fraction of the population carries genetic variations that predispose them to depression? Do we tell them, sorry, you have to pass these genes along to your children? Just what counts as a therapy versus an enhancement is in the eyes of the beholder to a very large extent. This is especially the case with behaviour and personality characteristics. Here is a relevant excerpt from summary pages 10-11:

The way to distinguish between those interventions which count as ‘therapies’ and those which count as ‘enhancements’ is by reference to the condition that is to be altered: therapies aim to treat, cure or prevent diseases and to alleviate pathological conditions which place someone outside the normal range, whereas enhancements aim to improve already healthy systems and to advance capacities which already fall within the normal range. This distinction is often used to justify a distinction between interventions which merit public support and those which do not. The suggestion is that there is a duty to ensure that our fellow citizens receive therapies, but no duty to ensure that they receive enhancements. The distinction between therapy and enhancement is not straightforward and requires qualification, but the principle which associates it with that between public and private provision is a useful starting-point in this area.

The term "behavioural" misses the extent to which mental life is to a large extent internal. Yes, mental life does affect behaviour. But there are lots of people living lives of inner torment while putting on a different face with those they come into contact.

On page 11 of the summary one begins to see what values are driving their position on this issue:

It is difficult to adjudicate in the abstract between these egalitarian and libertarian positions. It is only once some effective intervention is under consideration that the costs and benefits of full public availability versus limited private availability for a privileged few can be assessed seriously. We believe that equality of opportunity is a fundamental social value which is especially damaged where a society is divided into groups that are likely to perpetuate inequalities across generations. We recommend, therefore, that any genetic interventions to enhance traits in the normal range should be evaluated with this consideration in mind (paragraph 13.48).

What do they mean by equality of opportunity in this context? When they talk about inequalities across generations it is clear they are referring to equality of outcomes. Their position appears to be a back door acknowledgment that people differ in innate abilities and that those differences lead to differences in outcomes. I think they are really arguing that people should not be allowed to make their children more intellectually able than other children because to do so would allow those smarter children to be more successful. The absolute level of success will be greater for these genetically selected children (which seems good to me) but that means greater success relative to others (which is bad in the eyes of socialists everywhere). So equality of opportunity is really a polite way of saying equality of ability for the purpose of equality of outcomes.

But if they really advocate equality of opportunity and are concerned that genetic selection for higher intelligence will give some people greater ability to achieve more favorable outcomes for themselves they ought to stop and notice that this is already the case. Suppose prospective parents can test several fertilized embryos and choose the one that will result in higher intelligence for their kid where otherwise the odds would be quite high that they'd have a below average kid. In that case aren't the parents choosing to produce a child whose earnings and achievement potential will not be so far below the best and the brighest?

The curious thing about this is that if the less bright people choose to use biotech to boost the intelligence of their children then they reduce the economic inequality of the next generation. But if more bright parents do the same then they will increase the economic inequality in the next generation.

If the writers of this report want a narrower range of economic outcomes in future generations then they really could advocate the use of genetic engineering techniques to do this. Simply require all parents to have children of equal intelligence. No, I am not advocating that. But it would certainly result in greater equality of opportunity and outcomes.

What we see here in this report is the working out from a fundamentally Leftist position on ethics and economics an assertion about what should or should not be allowed to be done with genetic engineering. However, they try very hard to cloak this position inside of the rhetoric of unconditional agape love (pages 14 to 15 in the summary):

At present, parents accept their children as they find them in an attitude of ‘natural humility’ to the unchosen results of procreation. This attitude is an important feature of parental love, the love that parents owe to their children as individuals in their own right; for this is a love that does not have to be earned and is not dependent on a child having characteristics that the parents hoped for. Parental love which includes this element of natural humility is, therefore, incompatible with the will to control. It is not compatible with attempts to interfere in the life of a child except where the interference is in the child’s own interest. Equally, it is not compatible with the practice of prenatal selection which seeks to identify, as a basis for choice, genetic predispositions for enhanced abilities or special character traits. For this is an attempt to determine the kind of child one will have – which is precisely not the unconditional, loving acceptance of whatever child one turns out to have.

Oh come on already. To be consistent an argument for natural humility toward the results of procreation would be an argument against any attempts to intervene for any reason before birth. Of course they are not arguing that. They only invoke this argument for characteristics of the brain. At the same time they bring up the child's best interests. How is it not in the child's best interests to be smarter? Can they argue that parents will love smarter children less? Why? The key argument in their summary report is where they talk about different forms of equality. The rest of it is window dressing.

Posted by Randall Parker at October 01, 2002 11:22 PM
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