March 11, 2005
Should We Fear Transhumanism And Identity Copying?

On the Marginal Revolution blog Alex Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen are debating transhumanism. Tyler discusses how much will people be willing to genetically engineer their children when doing so makes the children be less like their parents.

Most people want their children to look like themselves, and to some extent to think like themselves.  We invest many thousands of dollars and many months of our time to acculturate our children.  Now let's say your children could be one percent happier throughout their lives, but this would mean they were totally unlike you, the parent.  In fact your children would be turned into highly intelligent velociraptors and flown to another planet to live among their own kind.  How many of us would choose this option?  I can think of a few responses:

1. Transhumanism will bring improvements of more than one percent; we should forget about identity and let everyone become healthier and happier.  What's wrong with uploads?

2. Governments should not restrict transhumanist innovation.  Let people and their children choose their degrees of identity continuity for themselves.  (Isn't there a collective action problem here?  Everyone wants a more competitive kid but at the end humanity is very different.)

As for the idea of making kids 1% happier: It will become trivially easier to genetically engineer offspring to feel happier: give them genes that make their minds feel happy even in the face of adversity. I do not think that large physical changes in shape or other non-cognitive body changes will be needed to make happier people. I do not even think that IQ boosting will be needed to do that. My guess is that genetic engineering for happiness will be aimed at directly enhancing the feeling of happiness independent of other characteristics that might also be changed in offspring.

Regarding uploads: the ability to copy one's mind into a synthetic brain will cause some severe problems. One can easily imagine a sort of arms race between different identities competing for influence. Some will try to acquire wealth in order to get the computing capacity needed to create many copies of their brains. Competition for resources will probably become much greater when copies of sentient entities can be made quickly.

Uploads are also problematic because a person could be copied against their will and then the copy could be modified to be more compliant and willing to work for some cause that the original mind would reject as immoral. Imagine a great weapons scientist kidnapped and copied in order that some country or group could have many copies of an extremely talented scientist to work for their cause. The world would become a much more dangerous place.

Even without uploads the potential exists to some day infect a person (or an entire population) with a virus that changes personality and motivation. This capability would be attractive to governments, business interests, and people in relationships. Not sure if he loves you? Genetically reengineer him to make him more committed to long term relationships.

Alex Tabarrok expects the transhumanist change between generations be fairly small and unlikely to produce much opposition.

Transhumanism will never make as large a difference between a single generation as does immigration.


Fortunately, change across a single generation is likely to be small so parents will say yes even though 5 or 6 or 10 generations down the line the changes will be dramatic.  It's because of this wedge effect that Fukuyama is so worried about relatively small changes today and it's precisely for this reason that his opposition has no hope of success in a free society.

I disagree with Alex regarding the potential rate of change across generations. The rate of biotechnological advance is going to accelerate by orders of magnitude because biotechnology will increasingly be driven by the same technologies that drive computer technology advances. For example, microfluidics devices will be fabricated using some of the same technologies used to create semiconductors and microfluidics devices in all likelihood will have lots of semiconductor gates and analog electronic circuits built into them.

We will have all the existing genetic variations in humans to choose for offspring. But we will also have the genetic variations for similar proteins in thousands of other species to investigate to look for variations that yield some desired quality. Plus, as we come to understand the genetic signalling system regulating cell growth, differentiation, and other functions of the cell lots of obvious ways to modify genes to create desired effects will jump out at us.

My guess is that in 30 or 40 years time a person planning to have an offspring will be able to choose from millions and perhaps even tens of millions of well understood and functionally significant genetic variations. Personality type, assorted behavioral tendencies, intelligence, and many physical characteristics that determine abilities and esthetic qualities will be selectable. Combinations of genetic alleles to code for physical appearances and cognitive characteristics that have yet to naturally occur in humans will be available to put in offspring. Download "Alligator Boy".

The ability of people to introduce huge number of genetic changes from one generation to the next is not the biggest reason to be worried about what sorts of semihumans or transhumans might be created (though that will be problematic). I think the real problem with big changes in sentient beings (either through genetic enhancement to create transhumans or human-machine interfaces that create cyborgs or uplifting other species - see David Brin's science fiction novel Startide Rising and the sequels) is the potential to create intelligent minds that do not have some of the emotional and ethical structures that cause human societies to function.

For example, the tendency to dole out altruistic punishment could some day be genetically engineered out of offspring. Think about people who report crimes they witnessed being perpetrated against others or who take the time as witnesses to step forward and volunteer to testify in a criminal trial. Imagine that the genetic variations that code for the rewards brains deliver to themselves for doing acts of altruistic punishment were just edited out when some people designed the genomes for their offspring. Well, that'd lead to a decrease in the rate of criminals being caught and of punishment of non-criminal abuses of people.

Tyler wonders whether the rate of change across generations should be slowed so that older generations do not lose the way of life they've had due to radical differences in their offspring.

So work backwards to transhumanism. We cannot and should not ban it, but to what extent should we regulate/tax/patent/subsidize it? We don't know until we determine the value of identity at the margin. The Icelanders -- all 279,000 of them -- are not crazy to insist on some language skills for their immigrants; they would otherwise be overwhelmed and lose their way of life. The fact that their customs are changing each generation anyway -- and often quite radically -- is beside the point. Nor is it relevant that many Icelanders emigrate to the U.S.

Imagine, for example, the first genetically engineered generation is made to be, on average, so averse to killiing animals that they all oppose fox hunts. This just happened in England without the use of genetic engineering to produce the inter-generational change in attitudes. With genetic engineering we can expect successive generations to have far greater changes in values than we are witnessing in the West due to effects of industrialization.

Alex discusses whether competition and fear will drive the spread of transhumanist changes to ourselves and our offpsring.

When the demand for a change in personal identity is strong it can have important external effects.  You may not want to be a velociraptor but if I change what choice do you have?  Or you may simply have a preference (atavistic and irrational perhaps but still a preference) for human beings as they are now.

Tyler makes the mistake, however, of jumping from such and such preferences are important and real to such and such preferences justify regulation/taxation/subsidization etc.

Certainly some day the awareness of some parents that other parents are starting to genetically enhance the intelligence or motivation of their offspring will cause many in the first group of parents to follow the lead of the second group simply in order to keep their own kids competitive.

Transhumanism is going to present a problem to libertarians: On the one hand libertarians will tend to favor a laissez faire approach to regulation of offspring genetic engineering. On the other hand genetic engineering will easily be able to produce offspring that like to follow orders and that dislike those who are not like them in some way. If some fraction of society decides to use genetic engineering to produce offspring that are more communist or more totalitarian in attitude or extremely religious and hostile to non-believers or criminal then libertarians are going to have to decide whether highly coercive government intervention in the short run is worth tolerating in order to prevent far larger rights violations in the longer run.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 March 11 02:31 AM  Transhumans Posthumans

Robin Hanson said at March 11, 2005 6:32 AM:

Regarding uploads, yes, the introduction of new attractive investment opportunities will raise interest rates and the price of capital, as these new opportunities will "compete" better with old ones. This is what happens in economic booms, and is something widely sought after by policy makers. It seems odd to worry about such competition just becaus the new investment opportunities take the form of brain copies. Are you also worried that in good times parents might invest more in creating children?

Robin Hanson said at March 11, 2005 6:57 AM:

You worry about "the potential to create intelligent minds that do not have some of the emotional and ethical structures that cause human societies to function" such as "offspring that like to follow orders and that dislike those who are not like them in some way" or "that are more communist or more totalitarian in attitude or extremely religious and hostile to non-believers."

The idea that society will collapse unless we actively mold preferences has long been popular among communists and socialists, and for very different reasons among conservatives and the very religious. This is used to justify requirements for "education"/indoctrination, and strong punishments against apparently private actions such as sodomy and recreational drugs.

Libertarians should be especially suspicious of arguments of this sort, and should want to see a bit more detail about how society would collapse without the supposely essential emotional and ethical structures. Economists such as myself mostly understand how societies function in terms of institutions that channel self-interest, whatever that self-interest may be.

Ramez Naam said at March 11, 2005 7:15 AM:

( Trackback seems to be having some problems for me, so I'll post my comments here directly. Also at }

A lot of this conversation hinges on how possible and likely it is that parents make radical personality changes to their offspring.

I think it's important to keep three things in mind when thinking about that:

1 - Parents are typically conservative in choices they make for their children

Parents have strong urges to help their children get ahead and to pass on their own belief system to them. But the one desire that's even stronger is the drive towards safety of their children. In situations where parents weigh potential advantage with risk, they seem to generally come out opting for the safest (or apparently safest) course for their kids. As I said in a previous post, this will slow the rate of inter-generational change as compared to the types of changes people (especially 20-somethings) will be willing to try out on themselves.

2 - Genetic personality alterations are hard to fine tune.

While genes play a large role in many behavioral traits, what they really code for are predelictions in one direction or another, not an exact degree. That means that when genetically pushing behavior in one direction or another, it's easy to undershoot or overshoot. Parents trying to create children that are more confident and assertive increase their odds of producing overbearing brats.

At the same time, it's possible to select genes highly associated with one end of a behavioral spectrum but still not have it manifest to the degree expected. An example I use in the boook is IQ. Imagine you found thousands of individuals with 160 IQs, cloned them (so that you had all of their IQ-affecting genes) and raised the children in average homes. What would the average IQ of the kids be? 160? Nope. If the genetic correlation with IQ is about 0.5, then the average IQ of the kids will be 130, because those individuals with 160 IQs typically had exceptional genes AND exceptional environments. The fraction of the clones that have a 160 IQ will be exactly the same as the fraction that have a 100 (totally average) IQ - with a mean right in the middle.

On the other hand, a few of these children will have truly freakishly high IQs - not many in absolute numbers, but at a much higher rate than in the base population.

Now apply this logic to a trait like religious intensity. Imagine an "RQ" - religiousity quotient. Even if RQ had a large genetic component (which does not seem to be the case), kids engineered for high RQ would still fall on a spectrum. Some of them would be no more religious than the norm, while others would be so religious they might even apall their parents...

3 - Any genetic alteration of behavior will have broad ripples and side effects

In some ways, what Randall's arguing reminds me of an argument Bill McKibben makes in Enough. McKibben is a nature lover and wants his daughter to be too. He spends time with her in the woods around their home to try to pass this trait on. But he's frightened of the idea that parents might genetically engineer their kids to pass on values and preferences like this.

Well, I don't think he has much to fear. There's no gene - or collection of genes - for loving nature. Now, there is a well documented genetic contribution to scores on the personality test axis that personality psychologists call Openness to Experience. So probably we could engineer children to be more open generally. But you can't guarantee that this will manifest as a love of the woods. It may very well nudge the child towards some other behavior - world travel, psychedelic use, role playing games, theatre - who knows?

The point is that the behaviors we tend to think about are usually caused by the interplay of a large number of genes plus the environment. And every one of those genes affects a large number of other behavioral traits. So using genetic techniques to create super-obedient children, even if the motivation were there on the part of parents, seems to me unlikely.

Dennis said at March 11, 2005 9:20 AM:

Stirling's Draka series of science fiction
stories addresses some of these issues.

Randall Parker said at March 11, 2005 9:23 AM:

Robin Hanson,

I am especially suspicious of arguments from libertarians because I view their ideology as suffering from the same kind of flaw that afflicts communism: It is built on top of a model of human nature that is incorrect.

There is a great deal of difference between socially molded preferences and biologically molded ones. Communists thought they could mold New Soviet Man out of biological starting material that was obviously incompatible with the type of human they were trying to shape. Similarly, feminists have failed to turn girls into boys and boys into girls. They have managed to inflict a lot of damage on children as they try though.

You speak of "supposely essential emotional and ethical structures". Are you serious? Are you a Blank Slater? For example, do you think that empathy does not exist? Or that empathy does not get coded to exist in the first place by genes? Or that empathy is not needed for a free society to exist?

I want to see how libertarians explain the significance of psychopaths in their ideology. A psychopath who feels no empathy toward other humans can not be made to respect the rights of others. A psychopath is fundamentally incompatible with a free society.

Similarly, the instinctive desire to dole out altruistic punishment is an essential element of a free society.

michael vassar said at March 11, 2005 9:34 AM:

Ramez: I'm not sure that playing down the effect of "only" an average IQ of 130 is sensible. The consequences could be discretely discontinuous with altered population. What happens when all the kids in a city start with an expected mean IQ of 130. Might there be a significant amount of positive feedback in the acquisition of intellectual capabilities? At any rate, they would probably develop better social skills for dealing with people of their own intelligence, and would avoid wasting the first 10 years of their educations repeating the times tables. Also, traits relating to personality would probably be synergetic with traits boosting IQ. At any rate, it seems to me that a group of 100 such people who grew up together might develop collective competence far greater than any small groups we have encountered previously.
Note though, that in your clone scenario, you are reducing variance by eliminating genetic variability. As a result, you don't necessarily get any freakishly intelligent people in this manner. I wish that I had some sense of how the collective competence of a group changed with differences in mean intelligence and variance.
Randall: This seems to me to be a very sensible analysis, but its not clear to me that it relates sensibly to any particular timeframe.

Randall Parker said at March 11, 2005 9:57 AM:

Ramez Naam,

Aside: I am going to write a post about your book More Than Human once I've finished it.

As for inheritance of intelligence in identical twins: To quote from page 107 of The Bell Curve: "The most modern study of identical twins reared in separate homes suggests a heritability of general intelligence between .75 and .80, a value near the top of the range found in the contemporary technical literature."

I have argued that in the future children will be more genetically determined than they are now. One reason for this is obvious enough: Some children now have a mix of alleles for a particular attribute (e.g. introversion/extroversion) that put them in a boundary region that allows environment to push them one way or the other. But parents who want a particular outcome will choose allele combinations that will yield a more certain outcome. So children will become less susceptible their social environments.

It is a mistake to think that just because something is not caused by genes it will not become more determined by greater technological control. Look at homosexuality. While it is politically incorrect to say so the vast bulk of parents do not want homosexual children. This has implications for the future. Genetic factors may contribute to susceptibility to develop into a homosexual but the evidence to date argues that genes are not by themselves decisive. Eventually we will develop a deep understanding of how a brain develops down paths toward homosexual orientation. Regardless of what portion of the contribution to homosexuality is genetic we will find ways to tweak early embryonic development to nudge a brain down one pathway or another to produce a desired sexual orientation. So sexual orientation will become more determined and therefore homosexuality will become less common. Whether you approve, disapprove, or are indifferent to this future change it will happen because technology will enable parents to exert more control over events that happen during embryonic development.

As for genetic alleles that influence the odds of developing attraction to nature: Of course such alleles exist. How can you imagine otherwise? Every preference humans have has some alleles that make the preference more or less likely to happen.

Ramez Naam said at March 11, 2005 11:57 AM:


Three things:

1) Correlation between IQ and genetics. I think the Bell Curve overstates its case somewhat here. I've never seen two papers that compared the heritability of IQ that came up with the same answer, but the range of values seems to stretch down to about 0.3 and up to about 0.75. A good meta-study is in the Nuffield Council on Bioethics's report on genetics and human behavior, which finds the mode of other studies to be around 0.5. You can get the report from

2) I think the observation that some things will become more heritable is astute. I agree with you.

3) But the crux of the issue is how precisely it's possible to control behavior. Of course, as you say, there will be genetic modifications that make it more likely that someone will develop a love of nature. My point is that those alleles will have other effects at the same time. And the exact nature of the effects will depend on environmental factors. There will be no allele that codes for ONLY a love of nature. Most likely to get this phenomenon will require a large number of subtle changes, each of which have their own ripple effects on behavior, and each of which are dependent on the environment in some way.

If I try to engineer my children more religious, I may find that they're drawn to a more fundamentalist religion than my own. If I try to engineer more monagamous behavior, I may find that I've made them more jealous. If I try to engineer them to love nature, perhaps fewer of them will become computer scientists and engineers.

I'm not denying that this stuff is powerful - I'm actually on your side regarding how quickly I expect to see advances in the field. I'm just saying that behavior is not a simple thing. It's not a zero sum pie where if genes account for N% then environment must account for (1 - N). Every genetic change is, in some way, multiplied by environmental factors. As Matt Ridley would say, Nature is expressed via Nurture. And with that sort of a complex relationship, we should expect that any genetic change meant to alter behavior is going to come with its share of surprises.

Randall Parker said at March 11, 2005 12:24 PM:


Aside: The Nuffield Council opposes genetic engineering for higher IQ and I disagree with their opposition.

Just as I expect behavior to become genetically more predetermined I also expect to see the development of means to more narrowly and selectively change behavior. Behavioral tendencies that are linked today may not stay linked in the future.

Look at some of the more pathological human compulsions. People can have very specific compulsive behaviors. There are many different types of compulsions. If this can occur naturally then some day narrowly aimed compulsions will be introduceable with engineering.

For artificial intelligences I certainly expect behavioral tendencies to be much more unlinked. Software can be programmed to be highly selective in what is responded to and what responses are used.

However, just because a tendency toward religious fundamentalism could end up playing out with attachment to a fundamentalism that is different than what the parents believe does not mean the parents will refrain from choosing genes for fundamentalism. By making that choice the parents will still be increasing the chances that their offspring will end up believing the same religion as they believe.

More generally, just because selecting some genetic variation does not guarantee a desired outcome parents will still make that choice for the same reason people make decisions like starting up a company that may or may not succeed. If you don't try at all your odds of success are even worse. Given that people will be selecting genetic variations that produce group average differences in outcomes it seems reasonable to expect group average behaviors to change over successive generations.

BTW, I expect monogamy and jealousy to be fairly easily unlinkable.

T. J. Madison said at March 11, 2005 1:12 PM:

When things really get interesting is when RUN TIME personality modifications can be made. This is especially an issue with uploading. Say we could choose to modify ourselves to be more/less altruistic, etc.

As for the concern about sociopaths, I have an interesting data point for you. One of my friends was born with fairly severe Aspergers, and had real difficulty relating to other people, understanding their emotions, etc. Luckily, he also has absurdly high IQ, probably around 170. What's really remarkable is that he seems to have successfully "rewired" his personality, developing the various modules needed to relate effectively to people "from scratch." He has developed a well-thought out system of philosophy and ethics which guides his actions.

In his current condition, he's a tremendous asset to the cause of liberty. If he had a merely "genius" IQ, he could very easily have become a serial killer, a weapons designer, or some other form of sociopath. If had normal IQ, he likely would have ended up institutionalized.

My point is perhaps we'll get lucky and more IQ is the way out: just design whatever offspring/AI to have a high enough IQ, and trust that IQ to unscramble whatever stupid design flaws/unsustainable personality traits we've carelessly designed into them.

Roxanne said at March 11, 2005 1:48 PM:

If only the powers to be could see that everything is built like a house, starting from the foundation going up, ideally with a very decent and functional blueprint, and at least accept to give genetic engenieering a fair chance, safely one step at a time and I do support the use of stem cells and such for obvious reasons to myself. Trouble is, not that I have proof or knowledge of it, just judging from the stultyfying way history has of relentlessly repeating itself ad vomitum, there will allways be rogue factions researching and experimenting with any and all potential advantage over others this including scientific breakthroughs, regardless of international agreements and any other laws. This leaves everybody else in this climate of racing against the clock with not enough resources or become government or corporation property, even with the best of governments, that option means great chances of militarisation of the product, in the case of corporations well there are good ones and there are bad ones I guess there too, again a salesman will sell anything to anyone so one would want to be discriminating, easely said, hardly done when one has to feed a family, which is unfortunate considering in times like such for the researcher scientist, one is like a race driver who heavyly relies on the cohesion, integrity, knowledge and effectiveness of his crew and reliability of the parts constituting the whole of the machinery involved, penny wise and pound foolish, lack of safety precautions, cutting corners, premature production and such are all frivolities that cannot be indulged in when walking such a tight rope, and neither is self doubt for that matter. How many people are happy with their working conditions? the public hears very little one way or the other, when it comes to what goes on behind the research labs closed doors, I'll go by my father's saying " no news is good news "; on this I conclude and thank you for the above dialogues it's nicely written for the rest of us who haven't studied these fascinating new developpements, making it an enjoyable read, and the saga continues...sure could use more intelligent people in this world, intelligence does rise the probability of wisdom which I see as a mixture of phylosophy and simple Einsteinian relativity ( for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction...) so sadly needed these days, onwards and upwards, keep up the good work: Roxanne ( friend member WTA )

Jamisia said at March 11, 2005 3:46 PM:

What do parents want for their children? They obviously want the best, that their kids do better than they did. This is becoming increasingly hard in present Western societies, but it's - to my mind anyway - still what parents want. Are parents inherently conservative for what they want for their kids? Well, maybe, but so what? Isn't it better to say that there exists such things as 1) growing up and ) personal responsability? It seems unpopular to claim either, but that's what I want for my kids. So what if he or she does something I disagree with? It's his life & his happiness. Does a child's message: mom, I'm gay - really stop the parent from loving their kid? I do hope this is a peculiar trait of American culture. But what if I could make my child better by genetic enhancement? I want to know first how much of intelligence is inherited? How much value should I attach to IQ-scores? I think I'm going to ask myself: can I really be sure that what I make of my child, will still be appreciated in twenty years time? Wouldn't it be better if I raised him / her the old way and let her make her own choices?

* * *

Suppose that I make my body anything I want. This will enable me to make a centaur, a robot and a mermaid, all in my lifetime.
I think velociraptors are out, because people recognize the nature of humanity. Let's say that humans (and all other living creatures) are pure matter. Souls do not exist. Let's assume that 'mind' is a pattern, unique to each brain. It turns out that this pattern is actively shaped by the eyes and the hands. Humans think different once they had hands and eyes are not camera's, but computers. Information goes from brain to eye and vice versa. So what if my mind found it's body transforming to velociraptorhood?
Best guess: if you transformed in the morning, you'd BE a velociraptor in the evening. Think: every way you experience the world is altered. That puts us back at philosophy 101: what's it like to be a bat? You certainly wouldn't be a human anymore. Maybe we'd be able to exchange messages with velociraptors, through braincircuitry, but that doesn't make understanding.
So I don't think people will become velociraptor because everyone will treat such a being as what it is: a dangerous predator you can't understand. From communist to anarchist, everyone will accept that there are ways (laws) for dealing with predators. Animal predators, out in the city, are usually shot. Human predators are jailed or sentenced to death. (I expect folks to become much more armed when some people do become velociraptors. So what?)
I think that if you can make your body anything, the people would like to be a mermaid, a centaur or anything similar, come out and do it. This will face opposition already, but it's much easier to swallow than a velociraptor. The latter simply isn't human anymore and will therefore be treated as such.

Divus Masterei said at March 11, 2005 4:29 PM:

"Regarding uploads: the ability to copy one's mind into a synthetic brain will cause some severe problems. One can easily imagine a sort of arms race between different identities competing for influence. Some will try to acquire wealth in order to get the computing capacity needed to create many copies of their brains. Competition for resources will probably become much greater when copies of sentient entities can be made quickly."

Uploading simply ain't gonna satisfy us all. Some of us desire to increase capacity as far as possible, to scale-up if you will to the limits allowed by the laws of this world. The limitations in the end may not be there, it may only be a matter of energy/matter resources available, in which case one could accrue resources, and thus increase the capacity of the mind indefinitely(or at least for a very very long time).

"Not sure if he loves you? Genetically reengineer him to make him more committed to long term relationships."

What's the need? You can physically modify any other partner, I don't see the problem, you can also make yourself fall in love with whomever you desire. I don't see why one'd tolerate a partner that doesn't want to be modded as far as healthily possible for the enjoyment of both and consentually agreed by both, same goes for oneself. I see new lovers coming to an agreement, each making a few concessions and whatnot, into suitable modifications or lack of that they'd like each other to have. After all if a particular individual refutes you there's an infinity of others, that if you desire can be akin to that one physically/personality wise, or you can simply change what you seek/love.

Dimitar Vesselinov said at March 11, 2005 7:50 PM:

Fundamental limitations on 21st century biotechnology

"All important substrate emergences, or phase transitions, appear to require both primarily bottom up, and secondarily top down control processes."

" 'Genetically engineered humans,' redesigned for increased performance, now appear to be the 'atomic vacuum cleaners' of the 1950's—fantasies that will never come to pass, for a host of complex reasons."

"We are stuck with our genetic legacy code, and we won't be able to significantly reengineer it until we move to an entirely new computational substrate."

"It appears that the era of genetic exploration in human organisms is largely over."

"In summary, biology, while it will still yield a host of socially valuable benefits in coming decades, is essentially a saturated substrate. We will gain a host of new knowledge from the biological sciences, but we won't use that information to redesign humans, in any significant biological sense. There won't be time or reason to do so.

Infotech, not biotech, now appears to be the constrained developmental future for local intelligence."

Ramez Naam said at March 12, 2005 1:07 AM:


I agree with you on just about everything you said in your last response. I suspect groups will create hereditable traits that pull them farther out of the mainstream. And in many of those cases there'll be a self-reinforcing meme-gene complex - a set of beliefs that a tribe holds dear and uses technology to further inscribe into their offspring. (Interestingly, this make a good rebuttal to those who fear that human genetic engineering would lead to homogenization of the species.)

I think what we're debating is just the relative likelihood or timeline of this scenario vs. others.

My thesis is that while the scenario above is likely to play out eventually, that before we get to the that point we'll have adults trying out some of the same modifications on themselves. This will happen because both individuals and society have fewer qualms about individuals taking risks with themselves. And so there will be more such motivated individuals and they'll be more likely to find scientists and physicians who will help them.

For instance, it's fairly likely that there are athletes who are currently investigating using gene therapy to permanently upregulate something like IGF-1 or EPO levels to get a boost in their athletic performance. Yet I doubt that many parents have seriously considered it. Same thing for anti-aging techniques. A large number of adults might be willing to sign up for parts of Aubrey de Grey's SENS program, but they'll probably want to see it tested in themselves before they wire it into their kids.

There are also a couple other barriers here. Genetic engineering of the unborn is only technically easier than somatic cell therapy if performed at a very early stage. Realistically that means performing it as part of an in-vitro fertilization cycle. IVF is physically and emotionally painful, usually takes multiple cycles, and costs in the neighborhood of $20k in the US.

IVF isn't a /technical/ hurdle to genetic engineering of the unborn. It's just a motivational hurdle. It means that parents have to either be already going through IVF for fertility reasons, or they need to have planned out the engineering they want to do ahead of time and be willing to go through the extra time and expense for it. (Of course that hurdle will drop over time too.)

Of course this isn't black and white. Some minority of parents will be willing to put in the time, energy and money to have the child they want. They'll be willing to take somewhat larger risks with their kids. And technically that will be easier to accomplish. In that population, we could see genetic engineering of the unborn start happening any time now. Certainly we're already seeing PGD.

But as far as mainstream adoption goes, I suspect more people are willing to take large risks with themselves, especially in their apparently-immortal 20s. As a result I suspect self modification - to improve appearance, to boost mental capacity, to stave off aging, and maybe even to alter personality - will move faster than embryo-modification.

(Last analogy - illicit drugs. A lot of adults are willing to ingest various compounds to alter their own mental states. A large portion of the population seem to find these experiences rewarding. Only a very very small minority of these people would force them onto their infant children, though.)


Robin Hanson said at March 12, 2005 7:08 AM:

Randall, yes empathy exists and is encoded in part in genes, but no, empathy and altruistic punishment are not required for, and pychopaths are compatible with, a free society. Our basic mechanisms of social organization are general enough to deal with a very wide range of individual preferences. While our institutions are often tuned to take advantage of altruism and empathy where it exists, such as perhaps lowering the costs of formal law enforcement, variations on such institutions could also function in the absense of those features. Any standard textbook on law and economics, for example, gives many of the basic ideas.

The compatibility with sociopaths is proven by the fact that we have always had such creatures and we still function. If there were a higher percentage of them, our institutions could adjust to deal with them more aggressively.

Randall Parker said at March 12, 2005 11:03 AM:


If a larger fraction of the population becomes psychopaths then there will be more victims of psychopaths before each psychopath is caught. But the assumption that they'd all be caught eventually is unrealistic.

There are two kinds of psychopaths detectable as such by brain scans and one kind is extremely good at not getting caught. Adrian Raine at USC (see the previous link) has showed that “unsuccessful” psychopaths have an enlarged corpus callosum and an asymmetrical hippocampus. Whereas “successful” psychopaths (i.e. psychopaths who have never been jailed) have an enlarged corpus callosum but not an asymmetrical hippocampus.

In my view this result points up the very real possibility of future vicious genetically engineered criminals who would be extremely skilled at not getting caught.

This result also argues that there is already an element of society repeatedly victimizing others (whether legally or illegally) without getting caught.

nemo said at March 12, 2005 11:10 AM:

Robin Hanson wrote:

The compatibility with sociopaths is proven by the fact that we have always had such creatures and we still function. If there were a higher percentage of them, our institutions could adjust to deal with them more aggressively.

Unless "our institutions" become infested with sociopathy themselves.

What are the chances of a successful "The Boys From Brazil" scenario? Or what are the chances of a society becoming like the Ik tribe studied by Colin Turnbull, where mothers laugh if their infants crawl into a fireplace?

I'm not contradicting your point, only pointing out that there are both fictional or gedanken alternative scenarios, as well as real and well documented alternative scenarios.

toot said at March 12, 2005 11:29 AM:

In the comments above, whenever the writer wishes to suggest a trait to be instilled in the young that all readers would accept as being desirable, they seem to choose "a love of nature." I hope that I am not alone in seeing irony in the fact that this entire discussion is about the possibility of bizarrely subverting the very essence of nature.

This strikes me as being an area where we should be careful what we wish for. Assume for a moment that a we had access to the technology to produce a child entirely according to predetermined specifications. Or that we could somehow arrange to produce a mate similarly determined. Would we love these predetermined creatures in the same way we love the products of chance with whom we currently mate and that we currently produce as children? Would we be satisfied, in turn, with the love of a creature that has been engineered to love us? The situation reminds me of Dostoyevsky's account of the temptation of Christ that appears in "The Grand Inquisitor" section of "The Brothers Karamazov," where Christ is offered and refuses the power to make all men to be as Christ wants them, much in the fashion being discussed here. Dostoyevsky seemed to impute wisdom to such a refusal. I wonder what he would think of all the above.

Randall Parker said at March 12, 2005 12:24 PM:


I agree that people will start modifying themselves pretty quickly. As for when they start modifying embryos: I think it depends in large part on when it becomes safe to do. But the problem is how to prove that it is safe? That will be hard to do because it will take many years to follow some leading cases to see how they turn out.

If genetic engineering that uses the intron technique for delivering gene modifications to precise destinations is shown to be safe in treating diseases then I could imagine it being used on sperm progenitor cells (there is a more precise name for that cell type that eludes me). Rather than risk toying with a fertilized embryo it will probably be safer to intervene at a far earlier stage. So I'm expecting to see that sort of genetic engineering in cases where particular sequences are known to be purely harmful and a person is tested and shown to have such a sequence.

The other really big thing holding back offspring gene therapy is the current lack of knowledge on what most of the genetic variations actually do. The ability of a person to know all their deleterious genetic variations (and some theoretical estimates put the number of purely deleterious genetic variations per person at 500+) will much more strongly motivate prospective parents to seek out ways to do genetic engineering of their planned offspring. I just expect people to be shocked shocked shocked when they learn that they are going to give their baby 500 harmful genetic variations and can be told what each of those genetic variations do. (and the reason we all have so many harmful mutations is that natural selection can't select them out as fast as they are generated due to the size of the genome)

The development of cheap DNA sequencing technology strikes me as a necessary precursor to mass genetic engineering of offspring. Though Hap Map research will help get us part of the way there. So maybe the knowledge that will motivate the desire to want embryo genetic engineering will come sooner.

Robin Hanson said at March 12, 2005 2:44 PM:

Randall and nemo,

Yes, more phychopaths would probably mean more uncaught phychopaths, which is bad for sure, but that is very different from a collapse of society, which is what was claimed. When phychopaths are rare, the chance that any particular unfortunate action was really caused by a phychopath is low enough that we usually ignore it. As the chance gets higher, such events become more suspicious, and we would investigate them with more energy. This is like the fact that people who live in a city trust those they pass on the street less than those who live in a small town. So law enforcement is more expensive in the city, and pychopaths succeed more there. But society still functions.

That all said, there would certainly be a case for imposing a tax on the creation of creatures which are more likely to impose negative externalities on others. If the existence of creatures with less altruism makes various social processes more expensive, then it makes sense to tax the creation of those creatures to compensate.

Kurt said at March 12, 2005 2:47 PM:

There is another reason why I expect adults to transform themselves before they start doing the same for their offspring and that is that parents tend to be more conservative with their kids than with themselves. This is especially true with regards to medical treatments. The RK and Lasex eye surgury is a good example. When RK first came out in the 80's, many eye doctors themselves underwent the treatment, but were much more reluctant to recommend it to their kids. Same goes for smoking (do as I say, not as I do).

In high school, I had a friend whose father took up sky-diving, but would not allow his son (my friend) to participate. He was also very critical of the fact that we were into mountain climbing and rock climbing.

It is natural for parents to be much more risk averse with their kids than with themselves.

Also, altering one's self is much less politically controversial than the genetic design of one's kids.

Adult gene therapies are on their way and so is the stem cell regenerative medicine. I do not expect the first "designer babies" to be born until 2030 or so. That gives us till 2050 until we have to worry about competing with them. Also, I think that gene therapy combined with stem cell regenerative medicine will allow for adults to modify themselves in any manner that might be applied to designer babies.


I just got your book.

Randall Parker said at March 12, 2005 3:32 PM:


I'm liking Ramez's book More Than Human so far. He writes very well and has done a lot of research to dig up suitable material.

Randall Parker said at March 12, 2005 4:30 PM:


My guess is that psychopaths produce high costs and that those costs are non-linear as a function of what percentage of the population they are. Go from a population of, say, 1% psychopaths to 10% psychopaths and society would become extremely worse. My guess is that society would break down long before reaching 50% psychopaths.

As for your position about taxation of irresponsible and hazardous reproduction:

That all said, there would certainly be a case for imposing a tax on the creation of creatures which are more likely to impose negative externalities on others. If the existence of creatures with less altruism makes various social processes more expensive, then it makes sense to tax the creation of those creatures to compensate.

Okay, suppose some alleles contribute to the risk of having psychopathic children. Once DNA sequencing becomes cheap and all the alleles that contribute to violence, psychopathy, and other threats to the rest of us become known should a taxation scheme apply regardless of whether the person with the anti-social offspring used genetic engineering to produce their evil spawn?

In other word, once the technology is developed to allow people to avoid having a number of types of pathological children should people have a legal obligation to avoid having children who are bad to the bone?

Also, suppose a couple know they carry genes which, if combined randomly using natural mating, could produce psychopathic children. Suppose knowing this they have sex, out pops a kid 9 months later, and then 20 years later their psychopathic kid kills some people. Should the parents be charged with negligent homicide?

Similarly, should people have an obligation to avoid producing retarded offspring? Robert Plomin (a researcher who searches for genetic variations that contribute to IQ differences) thinks he has findings that show most retardation is not the result of developmental accidents. He claims most retardation is just the coming together of a lot of naturally occurring alleles that code for sub-normal intelligence. In other words, it is inherited.

More generally, should greater knowledge lead to greater obligations (whether enforced by taxes or outright bans) to avoid foisting dangerous or retarded or otherwise burdensome offspring on society?

toot said at March 12, 2005 4:50 PM:

More generally, should greater knowledge lead to greater obligations (whether enforced by taxes or outright bans) to avoid foisting dangerous or retarded or otherwise burdensome offspring on society?

Hmmm! Doesn't sound like a Libertarian crowd.

Bob Badour said at March 12, 2005 5:14 PM:


Have you considered the possibility of 20 year old women taking treatments that alter the epigenetic environment in the womb? For instance, evidence suggests the gestational environment affects the onset of homosexuality.

Would an adventurous young woman take a pill or vaginal suppository if she were told it would make her have healthier, smarter children?


I do not believe Randall suggests that society would break down with an increase in sociopathy. I believe he suggests that western liberal democracy would and certainly any hope for a libertarian dream world would. He seems to suggest that a decrease in altruistic punishment would lead to an increase in criminality and victimization, which would also drastically alter the western liberal world many of us enjoy so much.

A society of sociopaths is still a society. Not exactly a kinder gentler society, however.

nemo said at March 12, 2005 5:14 PM:

Randall Parker wrote:

[Excellent questions on limiting bad outcomes, concluding] More generally, should greater knowledge lead to greater obligations (whether enforced by taxes or outright bans) to avoid foisting dangerous or retarded or otherwise burdensome offspring on society?

I think these address the visible psychopaths, those that be detected even though sometimes with difficulty. Recall that Ted Bundy murdered for years before he was caught.

But consider the less spectacular case of what we ordinarily call sociopathy: no empathy for others, complete dedication to getting one's way, and respect for law only in the sense of avoiding consequences. Couple that with high intelligence, at least high enough to usually avoid high profile crimes like murder, and high enough to plan carefully, cleverly, and mercilessly.

If some large enough number of such humans were produced, perhaps even by design of one or more such humans, what is to prevent them from infiltrating and compromising the very institutions that would be responsible for making and enforcing the laws to limit them?

Recall that even harshly enforced laws rarely prevent any illegal activities entirely.

Imagine a "Boys from Brazil" sort of scenario, in which a cohort of evil humans are produced and organized, possibly from birth, to take over social and government leadership, quietly and without drawing attention to their ultimate purpose.

What good would laws be agains such an onslaught?

Might not some strange beast slouch undetected toward Washington, London, Moscow, Beijing, etc., to create a world-wide dystopia within a generation?

Fly said at March 12, 2005 6:25 PM:

Randall: “Regardless of what portion of the contribution to homosexuality is genetic we will find ways to tweak early embryonic development to nudge a brain down one pathway or another to produce a desired sexual orientation.”

This is a good point that I believe many who focus only on genetic engineering miss.

Once we understand human development, we should be able to intervene and tweak the process. Add a little testosterone here, add a little choline there. Add a neural growth enhancer to accelerate language acquisition during the “babbling” stage. “Baby formulae” will take on new meaning.

Ramez Naam: “My thesis is that while the scenario above is likely to play out eventually, that before we get to the that point we'll have adults trying out some of the same modifications on themselves. This will happen because both individuals and society have fewer qualms about individuals taking risks with themselves. And so there will be more such motivated individuals and they'll be more likely to find scientists and physicians who will help them.”

I agree. Also the technology will continue to advance. The only way to keep up will be to modify adults.

Robin Hanson: “The compatibility with sociopaths is proven by the fact that we have always had such creatures and we still function. If there were a higher percentage of them, our institutions could adjust to deal with them more aggressively.”

Ever increasing technology empowers individuals to harm ever greater numbers of people. A sociopath could engineer a deadly virus and threaten to release it upon millions of people if his demands weren’t met.

Our institutions might have to “deal with them” by making certain sociopaths aren’t born. I believe that is Randall’s point. Society may have to enforce rules on what personality types will be allowed.

Randall: “But the problem is how to prove that it is safe?”

If the alternative is death or severe diminishment in quality of life then the choice is easy. The early adapters will those for whom the rewards significantly outweigh the risks.

With rapidly advancing biotech the early mistakes may be easy to correct twenty years later.

We need good models for predicting phenotype from genes. The models don’t have to be perfect, only better than the natural system that results in many miscarriages and birth defects.

Randall: “natural selection can't select them out as fast as they are generated due to the size of the genome”

And the relatively small number of offspring per woman. With their large litter sizes rodents keep a “cleaner” genome. It isn’t as bad as it might be. Many bad mutations are eliminated during the sperm competition phase.

toot said at March 12, 2005 7:49 PM:

"With rapidly advancing biotech the early mistakes may be easy to correct twenty years later."

So if biotechnology creates a Hannibal Lecter, it may be easy to correct the mistake twenty years later. Is that twenty years after discovering he is a Hannibal Lector or will we be able to recognize it in infancy? It is easy to say that every problem arising from technology has a technological fix, but it may not be so easy to develop the fix before the problem causes a good deal of trouble.

The gist of this discussion seems to be that biotechnology will provide the means to change ourselves in any way that pleases us. The question might be asked, will whatever we become upon being so changed be pleased with what we have become? Or put another way, if we can contrive to make a being such that his or her neurons whose activity is perceived as happiness are always stimulated or firing, will that individual ever perceive happiness? It seems to me to be a variation on the question, can there be good without there being evil, or can there be mountains on a planet on which all places are equally high.

Kurt said at March 12, 2005 11:43 PM:


I am half way through your book and it is an excellent read! It hits all of the relevant issues in a concise manner. Congradulations! I hope that it sells well.

I had always wanted to write such a book and it appears that you have written the book that I was wanting to write. My book would have been more like in the "Megatrends" style and it would have focused on the economic benefits of post-mortality (I don't like the term immortality) and how it can solve the social security crises.

I am now selling biotech instrumentation and I can tell you, biotech is definitely a "tool-driven" technology just like semiconductors. If it isn't already, it will follow a "Moore's law" progresssion just like electronics did.

I will also tell you that medical tourism is already a big business. If neurological enhancement is banned in the U.S., millions of Americans will be flying to Asia every year for such enhancements. There is no way the U.S. government could stop this without turning ourselves into a fascist dictatorship. A dictatorship that I would do everything in my power to destroy. I'm sure that millions of others would back my sentiments.


Your issues may or may not be relevant, but they are purely a matter of individual free choice. The relevant issue is not if they are real, but does a government have any business to impose them on free individuals. The obvious answer is absolutely NOT.

One man's belief system is another man's gibberish.

Joshua Allen said at March 13, 2005 12:44 AM:

Madison, Randall:

Comments about "wouldn't waste ten years repeating multiplication tables", "IQ enabled him to compensate", or "compulsions can be treated" raises an interesting point. One problem of technology is that it can mask weaknesses which otherwise would have to be treated. Even without biotech advances, it's already a problem for our age. Mental problems, anxiety disorders, etc. seem to proliferate in societies where treatment options are most available (you could argue that it's genetic, as these people wouldn't be medicated for long enough to breed in other societies, but that's too simplistic IMO) When most kids don't need as much time to learn multiplication, what happens to the kids who still need the time? Or when most people can use IQ to mask schizophrenia, perhaps the genes for schizophrenia spread more widely, and the cases which are not masked are much worse. In short, I am arguing that genetic meddling will lead to even greater volatility than we see with normal medical advances. It's not at all clear that the greater volatility will lead to an upward trend.

Randall Parker said at March 13, 2005 1:13 AM:

Joshua Allen,

Certainly medical advances are allowing many more people with genetic defects and weaknesses to survive and reproduce. But I expect the ability to do genetic engineering on the germ line (i.e. eggs, sperm, and embryos) to allow the elimination of most genetic defects. So the genetic variations that contribute to schizophrenia will become rarer.

Then there is the separate issue you raise about differences in intellectual ability. Will the worldwide standard deviation in IQ become larger? Certainly some populations will be able to avail themselves of germ line genetic engineering many years before other populations are able to do so. Some governments will place greater limits on IQ enhancement genetic engineering. In some countries the bulk of the population will be too poor to afford germ line genetic engineering or ignorant about it.

I expect to see a gap between generations. Today I'm well above average in IQ. But I'll probably be well below the average IQ of the average American born in 2040.

Joshua Allen said at March 13, 2005 2:10 AM:


One could argue that laws which depend on the goodness of heart of the citizens are no good at all. A possible outcome of a less remorseful, less empathic society is that the powers-that-be design laws to protect against people like themselves. Sociopath rulers likely would have no incentive to make your stuff easy to steal (although inequities are more likely to happen). Less sociopathic people are more likely to trust the intentions of others, and therefore build much weaker systems, IMO. OTOH, more paranoid leaders could mean more totalitarian government, and a need for higher IQ among the citizens just to be able to game the system enough to survive. However, on net balance, I have to agree with Randall. You want smart sociopaths probing the system to make it stronger (hopefully from a safe jail cell) and you want citizens with a genetic bias toward being social.


I wonder about IQ in 2040 though. Stats showing that higher IQ negatively correlates with marriage in western women, for example. The breeding patterns of westerners do not show much section for IQ at all (the bottom half of IQ breed at much higher rate, smart people usually don't, and smart men marry stupid women). China, on the other hand, seems to be positively selecting. One child policy chops off the surge of low-IQ breeding, and shortage of women means that even the smart women get mates, and only the smartest men do -- and of course where there is no concept of politically correct, the system is rigged to select the brightest, and it's very difficult for stupid children to gain social status. I totally agree that biotech will quickly accelerate the differentials, but it will probably be sometime after 2040. And with the way economic, demographic, and technology transfer trends are going, it might not be a western revolution. Things get really interesting from a demographic perspective. Suppose hypothetically that Han Chinese are the most fervent adoptees of the early technology to boost children's IQ, have the most access, and get a 1 or 2 generation jump -- this would alter global culture and DNA permanently, since even as other cultures caught up in IQ, it's a numbers game after that (and depends on rates of intermarriage, for example).

Fly said at March 13, 2005 8:45 AM:

Joshua Allen: “Suppose hypothetically that Han Chinese are the most fervent adoptees of the early technology to boost children's IQ, have the most access, and get a 1 or 2 generation jump -- this would alter global culture and DNA permanently, since even as other cultures caught up in IQ, it's a numbers game after that (and depends on rates of intermarriage, for example).”

In the long run, it may not matter which race or which society first boosts its population’s IQ.

A gene allele might be beneficial and contribute to an ethnic appearance, e.g., small nose. If so, all groups would tend to favor the “small nose” allele. (Either that or forego the advantage.)

If a gene allele that contributes to an ethnic appearance has no special benefit, then it shouldn’t matter which gene allele predominates.

Genes would no longer be linked to parentage. So it shouldn’t matter whether your parents were Chinese or American.

The first culture to boost IQ might dominate the world for a short time. However, the culture for a population who’s average IQ is 30 points higher is likely to be very different regardless of cultural heritage. Such a society might find pre-boost cultures equally unsuitable whether they are Chinese or American.

(High IQ people already share a global culture that is largely independent of national origin and different from the common culture of their nation.)

I am less concerned that a nation such as China or Japan would dominate than I am that a failed nation such as North Korea would aggressively use such technology.

Advancing science and technology expands the available pool of economic resources. With boosted IQ’s, more people would be doing more research and engineering and that should lead to more resources for everyone. Fully utilizing the whole world populace should make every nation wealthier. (It would also lower the danger posed by failed states.) So there could be selfish reasons to make certain that all nations advanced.

Kurt said at March 13, 2005 11:20 AM:

There is another economic argument in favor of genetic enhancement that is rarely mentioned yet deserves to be mentioned. That is the economic principle of comparative advantage. If some people enhance themselves (higher IQ, no aging) and others, for whatever reason do not, even the unenhanced will derive a net benefit from the enhanced because of the increase of total economic productivity of the system. This is because the enhanced will specialize in economic activities that places a great demand on their intellectual capabilites, leaving the other fields for everyone else. There is net increase in creation of wealth and the wealth does dessiminate throughout the system. An example of this is the enhanced guy who makes a killing from developing a new tchnology who then hires a contractor to build a new house.

The concept of comparative advantage is one of the most fundamental concepts of economics and is taught in every economics and business school in the U.S. (and much of the world).

Randall Parker said at March 13, 2005 12:16 PM:


As the economic value of the cognitively most able has soared the ability of the least able to hire the most able has plummeted. We see this in health care for example. How can middle aged poor people afford to spend $200 each month for medical insurance (and that with a $5000 yearly deductible)? How can they also afford to buy medical insurance for their kids?

Comparative advantage? Yeah, I get Ricardo. But are you sure that always works? Look at graphs showing wage trends broken out by decile over the last 40 years. Sorry I do not have a URL for this but the bottom 10% have suffered declines in inflation-adjusted wages. What I see happening is that the smart people are developing machines that are cheaper to use than unskilled labor. There are still unskilled labor jobs but only because salaries have fallen.

Are you aware that in inflation-adjusted terms the current US minimum wage is about half what it was in the late 1960s?

I guess economists look at all this and see rising living standards in China and India and therefore the situation looks rosy to them. But speaking as a nationalist who is worried about trends within our own borders I'm increasingly concerned with the present and future ability of the dumber segments of our society to have anything of value to offer the labor market.

Kurt said at March 13, 2005 1:34 PM:


What you say is indeed true. The comparative advantage theory does not aways work. However, do you think that these people be better off if there were less smart people in the world?

My point is that if people are able to increase their IQs (and EQ as well), there would be a net total increase in wealth production and this is never a bad thing. This wealth will trickle into the system one way or another, in the form of new jobs and new business opportunities. Growth begets growth.

The bio-luddites (whether rightwing or leftwing) suggest that if some people are able to make themselves smarter, that this will somehow cause other people to become poorer in real terms. I see no reason to believe this at all.

Indeed, this bio-luddite economic argument can be turned against them. Consider the possibility if neurological enhancement technology is banned in the U.S. It is doubtful that it would be banned in places like India and China and, if banned there, it is doubtful that such a ban could be enforced, considering the chaotic nature of these economies and societies. If Chinese and Indians can boost their IQs and EQs and Americans cannot, what do you think that will do to the American economy, particularly technology manufacturing?

Kurt said at March 13, 2005 1:46 PM:


You might want to consider the possibility that the reduced economic returns to low skill people (starting in the early 70's) does coincide with the explosive growth of government regulation and control over the economy (not to mention the inflation of the 70's and the unreported inflation we have now). It goes like this: increased regulation increases the cost of doing business. This increases the "hurtle rate" that businesses must clear in order to remain profitable so that they remain in business, which shifts the opportunities towards the high-skill, high value people. Hense, the people on the bottom get squeezed. I know many "blue-collar" people who have lost jobs because the plant closed or downsized due to new government regulation.

The high cost of medical insurance and medical treatment itself in the U.S. is largely due to excessive regulation and the oligopolistic nature of doctor licensure. It is not a marketplace failure per se.

Also, consider the posibility that high-skill labor is valued more than low-skill labor because it is rarer. Perhaps when we all have IQs in the 140-150 range, high-skill labor will be much more plentiful and, consequently, have less premium value associated with it. The recent bubble and decline in IT skills is indicative of this?

Robin Hanson said at March 13, 2005 2:38 PM:

While particular modifications might produce pyschopaths, I see no particular reason to expect a much greater tendency in that direction. After all, the selection pressures that created the current mix of altruism, psychopathology, etc. are likely to remain relevant - I see no reason to think that the new equilibrium would have many orders of magnitude more psychopaths.

Randall Parker said at March 13, 2005 2:58 PM:


I agree that a greater supply of upper IQ people will have a wage depressing effect on their labor relative to the labor of the less intelligent. Though my guess is that an expansion of the ranks of the high IQ will not depress labor prices so much because the smarter people will spread out to engage in more kinds of innovating to develop more kinds of products and services. I see this all the time in software development. There are so many kinds of productivity enhancing software that could be developed but there is shortage of people smart enough to innovate.

I also agree that a larger quantity of higher IQ people will accelerate the growth in productivity of the society as a whole both because the smart people will be more productive and also because they will invent more productivity enhancing devices and processes.

Also, a larger economy will mean more money available to help the less fortunate. That is very important. Also, lots of people will be IQ-enhanced out of the ranks of the maladaptive poor. Greater smarts allow people to be more adaptive.

However, if the productivity enhancing devices reduce the need for less skilled labor more than the devices decrease the need for more skilled labor then that will reduce the extent to which the higher productivity economy benefits the cognitively less able.

As for which countries adopt IQ enhancement first: I see this as an incredibly important issue. One of the factions that will be arguing for early legalized and subsidized IQ enhancement in the United States will be the national security types. There are more smart brains in China. This puts us at an economic and military disadvantage.

Randall Parker said at March 13, 2005 3:15 PM:


Once genetic engineering of offspring becomes possible the selective pressures that produced the current ratio of "successfu" psychopaths to "unsuccessful" psychopaths to conventional criminals to "normal" people will no longer have much effect. The environmental selective forces (for lack of a better term) will become far less important than the conscious decisions of people who decide to reproduce.

Here is what is key in my mind: Given the introduction of new and rapidly acting (by evolutionary standards) selective forces there will be big shifts in what gets selected for and against. It is difficult to predict in advance what will be selected for or against. But I think I can be on firm ground when I predict that conscious minds empowered to make a great many separate decisions about the genetic attributes of their offspring will produce very different results than standard old fashioned mating produced.

To get an idea of the scale of what is coming look at the effects of the introduction of cheap ultrasound equipment into the environment in China and India. The changes in sex ratios have been dramatic, reaching as high as 150+ males to 100 males in some areas of India. That will produce follow-on effects in terms of which males manage to produce, likely selecting for higher IQ and more motivated males among other things.

As for whether a higher incidence of psychopathy is in our future due to genetic engineering: Hopefully not. However, I find it more plausible that some people could want to reduce the altruistic punishment instinct or the empathy instinct or perhaps increase the aggressivity or assertiveness of their children. Extroversion is my prime candidate for trait that I expect people will consciously choose for their children at much higher rates than the parents are extroverts.

An increased incidence of extroversion alone would increase the incidence of government corruption. The super-shy introverted Finnish have an incredibly low incidence of corruption in part because they are embarrassed at the thought of getting caught and partly because they do not form relationships easily with strangers to be able to plot bribery and other corruption schemes.

toot said at March 13, 2005 3:19 PM:

Regarding your comment, "After all, the selection pressures that created the current mix of altruism, psychopathology, etc. are likely to remain relevant."

If all the genetic tampering I've seen advocated here were practiced, I see no reason for your optimism regarding selection. Unless you regard taking anyone who steps too far out of line and slamming them in prison to be "selection."

Joshua Allen said at March 13, 2005 6:58 PM:

Kurt, the economists view of "a rising tide lifts all boats" is a rationalization. In pure economics terms, it may be almost true, but you can (for example) post a gain in the GDP of a third world nation by making just a few of its richest even richer and the rest poorer -- it frequently happens. And the big thing the economist ignore is demographic impact. Economists smugly point out that we had a "peaceful" end to the cold war, and one which led to greater economic liberty for the whole world. No atom bombs required. However, did you know that the population of Russia has declined 33% since 1987? The atom bomb killed 200,000 people -- the "peaceful" end of the cold war killed several million, and eliminated the births of several million more who certainly would have been born otherwise. In demographic terms -- in terms of spread of culture and DNA, it was a mass genocide. Some of this was due to emigration, but the bulk of population decline was caused by a 30-year drop in life expectancy, higher infant mortality, and lower birth rates.

Now, some people might argue that "it's OK if my children never survive, and my whole race dies out, because race is obsolete and it's better for the greater good of the human race anyway". But such people are a slim minority, and destined to be wiped out by the demographic surges of people like the Han, who actually care greatly about the survival of their children, families, race, and culture. One imagines that most of the demographic changes will be just as "peaceful" as the end of the cold war. Is that really the kind of world we want for our children? I don't know...

Kurt said at March 13, 2005 8:38 PM:


I cannot believe your comment about the end of the cold war. I am one of those who rejoyce in the peaceful resolution of the cold war. Would you rather have us had a nuclear war to get rid of communism? I am looking forward to a peaceful solution to the issue of political Islam as well.

The Russians spent the past century turning what could have been one of the wealthiest countries in the world into a junk heap, and they are now reaping what they sowed.

Your arguments about demography and the Chinese can be interpeted as a call for massive genetic enhancement of the U.S. population in order to keep up with the han. I will assume that this is your intent.

michael vassar said at March 13, 2005 11:11 PM:

Joshua; your point is sensible, but your facts are absurd. 33% Not even remotely close. 30 Years? So the USSR had a life expectancy in the high 80s? Not a chance?
Randall; Comparative advantage is totally correct, but doesn't typically imply what it is commonly asserted to. Also, it only applies within certain constraints. If it was universally valid, natural selection would have created universal inter-organismal trade, and while symbiosis is an important part of the story, it is not the whole story.

Scott G. F. said at March 14, 2005 8:17 AM:

Isn't this the first draft of the Matrix and the Terminators?

Saraha Conner is beginning to look around very nerviously.

toot said at March 14, 2005 9:30 AM:

I think of it as being like kids in the biotechnology candy store. Very little concern for the stomach ache that might ensue.

Kurt said at March 14, 2005 3:10 PM:

Nah, there won't be any matrix or terminators. Both are based on SF extrapolations of artificial intelligence, which is not the subject of discussion here. Such AI is unlikely to be realized in the near future (50 years) for a variety of technical reasons too long to go into here. I think its going to be just us (enhanced) biological humans for a long time to come. I would not worry about this.

The biotechnological "candy store" is necessary in that death by aging is a certainty if we don't get the biotechnological goodies, and some of us here may not have a lot of time to waste. If you look around, much of the work in human biotechnology is being driven by people who have a strong desire to stay alive (Michael West, Hazaltine, De grey, and Saul Kent). Staying alive is a very powerful motivator. When one's back is against the wall, one has a tendency to kick butt first, then ask questions later.

Word has it that there is serious money looking into the SENS research plan.

Joshua Allen said at March 15, 2005 1:12 PM:

michael, the facts are pretty clear. Life expectancy is now around 40. AIDS is rampant; Russia fudges the numbers, but it's getting worse every day. There is no reason to expect that Russia will not have worse rates than Zaire within 20 years. Russian culture is to assume that all of the heroin junkies and aids patients "deserve it" because they brought it on themselves; hardly a recipe for a turnaround in the spread of these scourges anytime soon. Conservative estimates show 25% population decline; 33% may be high end. However, even 25% represents millions dead. Russia economy is now comparable to Brazil; their entry to G8 is a charity case. You are burying your head in the sand and have no facts to back you up if you cannot see the mass genocide which was perpetrated.

Kurt, saying that "they brought it on themselves" is how we rationalize all wars. We claimed that the Japanese "deserved" to be nuked, and we stopped nuking them after the gave up. On the other hand, the genocide of Russians is being visted on the childrens children of the generals who "sowed the seeds". I'm not making any value judgment whatsoever, just pointing out that the "peaceful" demographic shifts can be even more brutal than a nuclear war, and a brutal demographic shift is exactly what the secular and liberty-obsessed west has sown for itself. I see little opportunity to reverse these trends, and I'm not advocating any particular course of action. I'm just predicting that western values and phenotypes will not be very prevalent in 300 years, and it will be by erasing, not by "melting".

michael vassar said at March 15, 2005 1:42 PM:
Josh, I gave you the benefit of the doubt and assumed that you were claiming life expectancy in the mid 50s, actual data seems to be 66. 40s? Where do you get your data. Mean age is 37! BTW, I've lived there post USSR.
Brazil is not Zaire.

Kurt said at March 15, 2005 10:15 PM:


Did we start the war with Japan (hint: pearl harbor)? Until the attack on pearl harbor, fully 80% of the American public was furvently apposed to entry into another "European tribal" conflict. Did we start the cold war with the USSR? Was not communism an expansionist meme that needed to be countered? The fact that we successfully destroyed this meme without a war involving nuclear weapons is a credit to us all. With luck, we can do the same to Islam. Today, Japan and germany are prosperous societies. I have lived in one for nearly a decade and visited the other.

You talk of a "brutal demographic shift" in the West. Is this something that tranhumanism cannot resolve? Is not the discussion of transhumanism the point of this thread? Is not one objective of transhumanism the elimination of the aging process? If successful, aging will be as rare in future society as polio is in today's. Why then, would the West or its value system disappear?

Joshua Allen said at March 17, 2005 10:59 PM:

michael: The stats I was looking at were actually projections through 2025. Between 2000 and 2025, US Census predicts 19 million reduction, while UN predicts 22 million reduction. Both show a decline of at least 5 million already. I screwed up the mortality figure, though. Male life expectancy is 59 -- I had read "a 20 year-old man has only a 40% chance of reaching 65" and mixed it up in my memory. So I hope my laziness in fact-checking hasn't detracted from what I think is still an extremely important point -- Russia has been totally screwed by the collapse of communism, to a degree much greater than Japan or Germany in WWII. It is a demographic disaster that is unparalleled in modern times. Please don't dismiss the comparisons to Zaire. Look at mortality rates in children, HIV, distribution of most GDP is in hands of the few, homicide rates, cancer, etc -- Russia does not rank anywhere with the western nations, and ranks below many african nations on these measures. I didn't say Brazil and Zaire compare -- but it is quite possible that Russia's HIV rate will match Zaire and GDP will match Brazil. The point is that Russia is dying a slow death, and this is a fate that America and Europe so far have avoided only through indiscriminate immigration. It's a matter of time until the embers fade.

Kurt: I agree. The winner writes history. If America gets wiped out, I'm sure the winner will be able to explain why we "deserved it". It is hopelessly naive to think that the world is going to let Americans thrive and spread as long as we play nice and don't provoke them. Most demographics can come up with plently of excuses to explain why Americans should lay down and die. And it doesn't matter, since Americans are willingly committing demographic suicide anyway. Americans do not have the will to have babies, let alone aggressively use biotech to breed superior babies. We are already in a demographic slide *without* biotech, and the instant a more aggressive demographic group adopts biotech, it's game over. Extending lifespan makes zero difference. Think about it. Would you rather have a population which increases 50 IQ points average and stays the same average age (same age distribution), or a population which has the same IQ distribution, but increases 50 years in age on average? Hmmm, a population which is dumb, old, and shrinking; or one that is smart, young, and growing -- which one will have greatest influence on the culture and DNA of the world?

michael vassar said at March 18, 2005 12:35 AM:

OK, in the case of Russia the problem is serious, but it's a complex pathology interlinked with communist history and a culture that has always been pathological. I would focus on the abysmal "self-reported happyness" numbers more than even on the deaths. I don't think there is much the US can do, but we could have softened the fall 15 years ago.
I agree that transhumanism is potentially very valuable, but don't really think that the US has any competition other than China. It's not obvious that biotech need be applied only to babies rather than to adults. It's also not obvious that it's worth planning for the distant future. That said, I always encourage the capable to reproduce more. Annoying how Galton and the like bitch but don't reproduce themselves.

Kurt said at March 18, 2005 8:51 AM:

There is no other competitor for the U.S. than China, and China has a falling birthrate as well. Unless we are talking about massive genetic engineering of populations, no one else has the combination of brains and population to really compete with the U.S. This is simply no other potential competitor.

In the long run (50-100 years) aging will be cured anyways and this birth rate stuff won't matter any longer.

GENEarchy said at March 18, 2005 8:16 PM:

"Annoying how Galton and the like bitch but don't reproduce themselves."

Annoying? How so? They've made their contributions. I fail recognize this need for clones.

"In the long run (50-100 years) aging will be cured anyways and this birth rate stuff won't matter any longer."

My-oh-my, love the declarations of certainty! I especially love the above use of the word "cured". What exactly does this "cured" imply? ... ... that we extend life by another fifty years(plausible) or nonsense like five-hundred, five-thousand or fifty-thousand years? Who knows; maybe you'll make it to see the year A.D. *22,005*. Good Luck!!!

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