December 17, 2006
Razib And Armand Leroi On Future Of Eugenics

Gene Expression blogger Razib has written some thoughts on evolutionary biologist Armand Leroi's expectations for the future of eugenics (labelled neo-eugenics to try to distance it from eugenics advocacy of previous eras)

  • "40% of infants with any one of 11 main congenital disorders were aborted in Europe."
  • "... in 2002, 20% of fetuses with apparent birth defects were aborted in G8 countries--that is, between 30,000 and 40,000 fetuses."
  • "In Western Australia, neonatal mortality rates due to congenital deformities declined from 4.36 to 2.75 per 1,000 births in the period from 1980 to 1998. Half of that decline is thought to be due to the increase in abortions of abnormal fetuses...."
  • In Taiwan, screens for thalassaemia mutations have caused the live-birth prevalence of this disease to drop from 5.6 to 1.21 per 100,000 births over eight years

To greatly reduce the rate of mutations in births requires widespread screening and a willingness to abort based on the results. Or genetically screen IVF embryos before implantation. In the longer run we will gain the ability to do gene therapy to repair genetic defects in embryos. But due to the risks involved and likely regulatory resistance I expect that's decades away from routine procedure.

If all embryos were screened and if women halted all pregnancies which have genetic defects the percentage of births with genetic diseases avoided would be pretty low.

  • Based on the number of known mutations Armand calculates that it should be possible to predict disease to a reasonable confidence in 1 in 252 embryos.

Notice the emphasis on known. Of course many more unknown purely harmful mutations will be found in the coming years. So the incentive to screen to avoid harmful mutations will rise.

Also, we will come across many more mutations that provide benefits under some conditions (e.g the sickle cell anemia mutation which confers malaria resistance) but at painful costs. Expect quite divisive controversies on which genetic variations are harms and which are benefits.

Some argue against all attempts to prevent the birth of babies with genetic diseases. Others argue against specific methods (e.g. abortion) to avoid such births. Still others argue that abortion or pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD - used before implantation of embryos created with in vitro fertilization) are acceptable only to avoid true genetic defects.

The argument for restricting the use of, say, PGD only to avoid genetic defects immediately runs up against the question of what is a genetic defect and what is a genetic disease. The genetic variation for sickle cell anemia was selected for because it conferred resistance to malaria. It was not a defect for those who it helped to survive malaria infection.

I predict we will find many genetic variations that confer some benefit at some cost. Sometimes the benefit will be irrelevant under modern conditions (e.g. sickle cell anemia for someone living in temperate climes or with benefit of drugs). But that won't always be the case. Real thorny ones will involve trade-offs that come from genetic variations that provide both high costs and high benefits.

For example, imagine a genetic variation that boosts IQ at the cost of greater chances of feeling depressed if one encounters tough times. Or imagine a genetic variation that allows one to live longer but at the cost of making one more lethargic. People will argue to select for or against all manner of genetic variations.

Cost and benefit calculations will depend in part on one's values. But one's expectations of future technological advances will also figure into the question of what is a cost and what is a benefit. Suppose some genetic variation increases a woman's chance of breast cancer in her thirties but also will raise her intelligence. That might well be the case for the BRCA gene variations that contribute to cancer risk. A person might plausibly argue against selecting out such variations on the theory that 30 or 40 years from now cancer will become easily curable.

To screen most effectively requires use of in vitro fertilization (IVF).

A major caution about massive genetic preimplantation screens is that they would be preimplantation. That is, some sort of IVF would be needed. It seems implausible that this would be widespread, but Leroi points out that IVF procedures already make up several percent of the pregnancies in Western nations. The cost of a typical IVF procedure is that of a medium sized car, and crucially, the cost of many diseases over one's lifetime is far greater (IVF would be like "insurance").

As the number of genetic variations one wishes to avoid rises so does the need for IVF and genetic screening on multiple embryos. But the greater the number of genetic variations to avoid or to selective for the greater the potential benefit.

As we learn the significance of large numbers of genetic variations the primary motivation for gene selection will be to get desired features rather than to avoid genetic diseases. The desire for higher intelligence will make IVF become the preferred way to create babies for one reason: People will embrace IVF to make smarter babies. They'll also embrace it to make better looking children. The prospect of better smarts and looks will cause prospective parents to embrace IVF and genetic screening with a passion.

Armand's piece points out several important issues. First, the new eugenics is already here. Second, the new eugenics will become more powerful as information gathering via genomics becomes more omniscient, and medical interventions in fertility become more omnipotent. Third, there is variance in the extent that different individuals and groups are willing to avail themselves of the opportunities offered by the new eugenics.

Smarter and higher economic class people will embrace eugenic technologies more rapidly and more enthusiastically. The smarties will select for smarter children with attributes that will make them more successful. Therefore I predict a widening of the gaps between the most and least successful segments of societies and of the gaps between societies.

Elites will promote subsidies and propaganda campaigns to encourage the cognitively less able and poorer people to also use eugenic reproductive technologies. But even when the dumber folks opt to use genetic screening they'll make less optimal choices for their offspring.

I would add a fourth point to the three points Razib enumerates: Those who will avail themselves of methods to select offspring genetic endowments will make different average decisions as members of different societies, races, religions, and other groupings. This will tend to cause a divergence of the human race into groups that will become more genetically dissimilar. Genetic variations that cause differences in methods of cognitive processing will have the greatest political impact as groups clash due to genetically caused differences in values and in understandings of the world.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 December 17 08:00 PM  Bioethics Reproduction

John S Bolton said at December 18, 2006 2:01 AM:

Presumably genetically-caused differences in values and understandings, means something like higher IQ will push you towards valuing different activities, and getting more understanding for a unit of effort; not that we will find alleles
specifying any particular values or ideas.
This is one of the greatest areas of rapid progress being made today.
Hyper-delicate sensibilities, extravagantly indulging squeamishness over (eek) Eugenics,
as if the National Socialist regime in Germany was about breeding for IQ,
must not be allowed to monkey-trial our scientific progress off its natural track.

Caledonian said at December 18, 2006 6:34 AM:

I'm afraid I can't consider the sickle cell anemia gene to be a meaningful example of a cost-benefit tradeoff. Its benefit is self-limiting - once the gene has spread to a sufficient fraction of the population, the costs to homozygous bearers begins to outweigh the benefit to heterozygous bearers. In a population composed mainly of heterozygous individuals, not having the gene becomes an advantage, because it guarantees that one's offspring won't develop sickle cell, while having one copy likely means that one-quarter of one's children will fail to reproduce right off the bat.

The gene has no future.

Doug said at December 18, 2006 10:16 AM:
...the dumber folks...
Commentary favorable to any sort of eugenics is a context in which polite speech is probably also politic.
Kurt said at December 18, 2006 11:15 AM:

This should be contrasted with Steve Sailor's latest posting at Vdare ( with regards to the dysgenenic trends in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Compare and contrast.

Randall Parker said at December 18, 2006 5:54 PM:

John Bolton,

IQ gets the most attention. But I also think independent of IQ there are genetic factors that influence values. See, for example, my post Twins Study Finds Adult Religiosity Heritable.

Or look at extroversion/introversion. Introverts are probably much less likely to be corrupt or otherwise criminal because they are embarrassed by the idea of being held up to public ridicule and to have people think ill of them.

Or look at empathy. People who are more empathic are more likely to want to help others or even to help pets and other animals.

Will we see the human race split into genetic groups including unempathetic amoral rational calculators against highly empathetic people versus even another group that has a strong sense of justice but are libertarian individualists?

I'm thinking we may see more pure types and fewer people who straddle divides between major types.

John S Bolton said at December 19, 2006 1:09 AM:

I meant actually abstract values and ideas, not so much predispositions and items like fear of snakes which have a good chance of being heritable.
It looks like higher percentages conceived by ART are likely now,
especially when the couples can specify much more than formerly.
Some of the ads you get here, say that donor photos are available sometimes.
It could be that a major obstacle to greater use of such services, is that people
don't realize how closely they can specify, for example, that a donor resemble a parent who would be stood in for.
The services should go further, making computer-generated images of what the child would look like.
Divergence of characters:
Yes, if one population were 30 IQ points above another, assortative mating should keep them separate indefinitely.
If a female were 2 SD's above average on EQ or predisposition to empathy, would she be able to live with an average male?
Probably yes.
An equivalent divergence of tolerance of aggressivity would make two separate populations.
When genetic predispositions push towards divergent status systems, this will tend to make separate breeding populations.
Suppose one group has alleles pushing for 'proto-militarism' so to speak,
and another for proto-pacifism and intellectualism or IQ combined,
the hierarchies of status between the two groups, and where they would be found at ages of marriage, are so different, that the two groups would perhaps interbreed very little.
An inexhaustible subject for speculation, but one which will keep getting restimulated by new discoveries coming thick and fast...

The Superfluous Man said at December 19, 2006 6:29 PM:

"Some argue against all attempts to prevent the birth of babies with genetic diseases. Othes argue against specific methods (e.g. abortion) to avoid such births."
There's an interesting pragmatic ethical argument to be made, that say, for every two fetuses maligned by defect X, one will be aborted. If we consider preimplantation genetic diagnosis & selection to be bad but abortion to be even worse (to be precise, 1 abortion is worse than 2 PGDs), the availability of PGD is preferred.

Somewhat OT, but no one is serious about reducing illegitimacy via (what seems) the easiest way possible, long term birth control, on the scale of 3-5 years, cf. Jadelle and Implanon. The right is wedded to abstinence, and the left would cry Nazi eugenics. Its reduction would probably have a eugenic effect. Project Prevention is the closest to doing this, but they only deal with crack addicts.

Randall Parker said at December 19, 2006 7:52 PM:


I agree that long term birth control would have eugenic effects. Injectable or implantable contraceptives that would last for years would make long term birth control more practical. Sell parents on the idea of getting their daughter an implant at age 15 that lasts 5 years and the daughter could always get it removed when she turns 18.

Barbara Harris is doing a great thing with Project Prevention (and I just complained to one of its bigger donors that the web site doesn't work).

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