January 06, 2008
Short Attention Spans And Genetic Engineering

Once offspring genetic engineering becomes technologically possible should governments subsidize the use of biotechnologies to improve the genes given to babies of poor and dumb people? Some people recoil at the thought of eugenics. I'm not one of them. I expect eugenic genetic engineering to be extremely cost effective, such are the huge pay-offs for having a high functioning mind. This doesn't just apply to levels of intelligence. A review of what we know about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) serves as a reminder of some of the ways that problematic brain development causes problems for all of us.

In children, ADHD may interfere with paying attention in school, completing homework or making friends. Difficulties experienced in childhood may continue into adulthood. The symptoms of ADHD in adults may lead to potentially serious consequences. Surveys have shown that when compared with their non-ADHD peers, adults with ADHD may be:

  • Three times more likely to be currently unemployed
  • Two times more likely to have problems keeping friends
  • Forty-seven percent more likely to have trouble saving money to pay bills
  • Four times more likely to have contracted a sexually transmitted disease

People who are more likely to contract a sexually transmitted disease are also more likely to transmit one. People who have more problems with keeping employed end up using more welfare services. They cost us money. Turn their offspring into kids with longer attention spans and the kids will cause less trouble in many ways. They won't disrupt classrooms or become juvenile delinquents. They'll work more of the time and at higher paying jobs. So they'll contribute more in taxes and toward economic growth.

A University of Massachusetts study found that adults with ADHD had 3 times the likelihood of selling illegal drugs and over 4 times the likelihood of having problems managing money.

The UMASS study, conducted from approximately 2003 to 2004, examined lifestyle outcomes among three cohorts of adult patients: 146 clinic-referred adults with ADHD, 97 adults seen at the same clinic who were not diagnosed with ADHD, and also a third general community sample of 109 adults without ADHD. Specifically, the UMASS study found that the adults with ADHD when compared to the non-ADHD control group were approximately three times more likely (21 percent compared to 6 percent) to sell drugs illegally. Additionally, the UMASS study found that 67 percent of adults with ADHD compared to the control group (15 percent) had trouble managing money.

Another study conducted at The Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee found similar results. ADHD adults were over 3 times more likely to initiate physical fights, destroy property of others, and break into buildings.

The Milwaukee study, ongoing since 1977 (with the most recent follow-up conducted from 1999 to 2003), is an observational longitudinal study that looked at secondary lifestyle outcomes of 158 children who had been diagnosed with ADHD and, as adults, either continue to experience symptoms or no longer have the disorder at the age of 27, compared to a community control group of 81 children without ADHD who were followed concurrently. The Milwaukee study found that the adults with ADHD were approximately three times as likely when compared with the community control group to initiate physical fights (30 percent compared to 9 percent), destroy others property (31 percent compared to 8 percent) and break and enter (20 percent compared to 7 percent).

So reduce the incidence of hyperactivity and you'll be less likely to get beat up, less in need of long commutes from safer suburbs into higher crime cities, and less likely to get robbed. What's not to like?

Scientists already have evidence from sibling studies and other studies that ADHD has a large genetic component. (also see here) We'll first need to discover which genetic variants contribute to ADHD.

Knowing all this would you support or oppose government subsidies for offspring genetic engineering aimed at reducing the incidence of hyperactivity and poor ability to concentrate?

The same question holds for boosting offspring intelligence. Would you support or oppose government subsidies to raise intelligence? The payoff from boosting offspring intelligence would be quite large. Economies would surge as the genetically engineered kids reached adult age and joined the work force. Their higher productivity would do more to raise living standards than anything else we could do short of developing artificial intelligence. So do you want higher living standards, lower crime rates, and less social pathology? Or would you prefer that humans continue to receive their genetic inheritance in a natural way through random combining of chromosomes?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 January 06 07:51 PM  Bioethics Debate

HellKaiserRyo said at January 6, 2008 11:31 PM:

"Once offspring genetic engineering becomes technologically possible should governments subsidize the use of biotechnologies to improve the genes given to babies of poor and dumb people? "

Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!

HellKaiserRyo said at January 6, 2008 11:36 PM:

Well, some libertarians think it is an infringement of property rights to redistribute money to support those agendas, but I found this funny:

"Another study conducted at The Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee found similar results. ADHD adults were over 3 times more likely to initiate physical fights, destroy property of others, and break into buildings.

...' The Milwaukee study found that the adults with ADHD were approximately three times as likely when compared with the community control group to initiate physical fights (30 percent compared to 9 percent), destroy others property (31 percent compared to 8 percent) and break and enter (20 percent compared to 7 percent).'"

BBM said at January 7, 2008 8:21 AM:

You wonder, though, if there is not some hidden evolutionary advantage in ADHD-type afflictions (similar to the advantage gained in malarial environments by having sicile cell trait). Perhaps mildly affected people are more likely to be creative, for example.

We have to be careful in perturbing complex systems in the absense of through knowledge of the system.

HellKaiserRyo said at January 7, 2008 8:27 AM:

I do not think there is any advantage for low g, let's make it as high as possible.

Thorny said at January 7, 2008 10:26 AM:

The enthusiasm for this idea all seems quite one dimensional and seems to blind people with the sparkle of perfection. Most people who endorse these programs assume that they personally will somehow benefit from the manipulations using foggy declarations of satisfaction much like a father that attempts to live through his son. They don't seem to consider the fact that once something becomes commercialized and ubiquitous, it in effect becomes cheapened. I know that offspring tampering is inevitable, simply due to the demand. Everybody wants a child that will parlay themselves to the top of the financial heirarchy. But before you start envisioning your intellectual empire ask yourself what you are truly endorsing. All that you are endorsing is a system. We already have a benchmark nation with relatively high IQ people. Japan carries a target approximation if you are looking for an example of the future. The society is organized through academic testing leaving the masses at the bottom to bask in non-luxurious mercy jobs.

You have to consider that all the "normals" without offspring genetics will be in dire competition with our new creations. Even so-called intelligent people of today could be marginalized to butlers in the shadow of our enhanced brood. Personally the offspring genetic movement, I believe, is based off of pure egotism. The whole my family is stronger, smarter, and prettier than yours. What good are genetic improvements that the purchasers themselves cannot reap the benefit of? If you were to meet, say, a robot that performed almost all human endeavors greater than the current crop would you argue for the robot to replace all humans? Also assuming that the program went exactly as planned, as in no super psychotics, where do the parents of the program end up? Or are they doomed to the retirement community of civilzation bickering about their ungrateful children... or will we wrench out that trait from our children too?

Lono said at January 7, 2008 1:41 PM:

I have read - but unfortunately don't remember the source here - that ADD and ADHD may have had a significant advantage in hunting.

ADD and ADHD people (like myself) tend to have the ability to hyperfocus particularly when adreniline is increased - and they thus tend to enjoy many high intensity activities such as Driving, Skiing, "extreme" sports, Bow Hunting, etc...

Action Video Games can also often create a similar effect for ADD people.

Although I do find certain jobs challenging due to their repetitive nature - I feel I would not trade my ability to hyperfocus for an ability to be consistently focused over time.

(and I have taken Ritalin and experienced what you norms must take for granted - overall the experience was uncomfortable for me however)

So - yes - there are advantages to being ADD and it would probably be foolish for the Human race to make themselves too homogeneous since a large genetic variety provides for better survival odds over time for the species.

kurt9 said at January 7, 2008 1:51 PM:

The problem is that most parents do not want smart kids. They want kids who are just like them, warts and all. So, only the existing smart people are going to be motivated to make their kids as smart or smarter than themselves.

Anyways, I think the development of this designer baby technology will take longer than many of us here expect. Many of the genes relating to cognitive function are still not understood and the trade offs associated with manipulating them are even less understood. Genetic enhancement of the other personality traits is even more difficult because these traits are optimized at intermediate values.

There is also the risk aversion factor. No parent right in the head is going to try any of this stuff with their kids unless they are absolutely certain that it is safe. Such risk aversion with regards to kids is especially true for the high IQ parents who are likely to be the only ones interested in this technology in the first place. An example of this is lasix surgery for vision correction. Parents (and doctors) are much more reluctant to recommend this for their kids than they are for themselves.

I think its going to be a good 20 years before we really see this technology in practice.

Randall Parker said at January 7, 2008 6:15 PM:


Sure, alleles that occur at such high frequencies very likely conferred some advantage in terms of reproductive fitness. But consider sickle cell anemia and beta thalassaemia. Their mutations are totally inconvenient (to put it mildly) today unless you happen to live in a malarial region. So what you need to ask: Has ADHD outlived its usefulness?

One can see how ease of distraction could have selective benefit. Instead of focusing only on what is in front of you you'll be more likely to notice predator animals or other humans sneaking up on you.


Those below average among the Japanese live in one of the physically safest countries in the world. Their low crime rate is astounding. So you can walk around at night in a poor Japanese neighborhood perfectly safe. Compare that to the neighborhoods where poor Americans live: Dangerous places. It seems obvious that the Japanese are genetically far less prone to crime than other ethnic groups.

The normals: Well, they will have to get cell therapies and gene therapies that enhance them. Normals will lag in intellectual abilities though because it'll be harder to enhance an existing mind than create a new mind with the smartest genetic variations. Still, some IQ boosts of normals will become possible.

Look at the smartest and best looking and best behaved people of today if you want to know what a genetically enhanced society will look like. It will have lower crime, lower rates of accidents (smart people have less accidents), less poverty, less social pathology, and other desirable traits.

Robots replacing humans: I'm so glad I do not work in a factory. I am glad that machines do many menial and boring and repetitive tasks for me. Though I'm worried about artificial intelligences that will outcompete us and who will feel far less of a bond to us than genetically engineered kids will feel.

BBM said at January 7, 2008 8:28 PM:


So what you need to ask: Has ADHD outlived its usefulness?

That's my point. We don't know. The ability of some individuals to hyperfocus may be adaptive for society as a whole even if some individuals suffer from some of the drawbacks of ADHA.


Randall Parker said at January 7, 2008 8:58 PM:


1) Parents do not want kids dumber than them. Well, some of their kids are dumber and some smarter. If they just prevent regression to the mean that will boost IQ in smarter kids.

2) I can't imagine why you think parents don't want kids smarter than them. Parents are proud of their bright and accomplished kids.

3) Risk aversion: The first generation of improvements will be done by embryo testing and selection. No need for genetic tinkering. Existing in vitro fertilization (IVF) and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PIGD) can be used for this purpose. We just need to know which genetic variations to test for.

4) Declining costs of DNA sequencing will bring revelations in the next few years on genetic variations that contribute to higher IQ. I would be surprised if we do not see embryo selection via PIGD for smarter offspring within 10 years.

Randall Parker said at January 7, 2008 9:12 PM:


The ability of individuals to hyperfocus is more characteristic of those with Asperger's Syndrome. I think Lono's hyperfocusing under "thrill" conditions isn't doing much for the economy. It is while sitting in a cubicle staring at mathematical equations, mechanical designs, digital circuits, or computer programs where the hyperfocus capability comes in handy.

Is it really that hard to figure out whether we benefit as a society from having people who are more likely to be violent, criminal, unemployed, drop out of school, have problems maintaining friendships, etc? I don't see it myself.

I think the effects of people being Aspies are much more complicated to work out in comparison. What I want to know on Aspies: Do they have greater intellectual abilities for doing reasoning as a trade-off where they have less ability to do some forms of emotional processing or of understanding others? Are Aspie brains basically a form of specialization of intellectual labor? I suspect that's the case. My guess is the rest of us derive a big net benefit from the Aspies.

kurt9 said at January 7, 2008 9:21 PM:


1) No parents want kids who are dumber than they are. However, most of them do not want kids who are significantly smarter than they are either. Kids who are significantly smarter than their parents may end up not sharing their values and beliefs. This can be very frightening to parents who are not of a pro-intellectual social culture.

2) What you say is true for the kind of WASPish environments that you and I were brought up in. This is certainly not true for the underclass. The underclass just has kids (e.g. girls get knocked up). There is no forethought or planning with regards to having kids at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder.

3) This is certainly true. IVF combined with PIGD is certainly the simple and safe method for getting smarter kids. However, actual genetic engineering of kids (real designer kids) is a long way off. My comments about risk aversion are certainly applicable with regards to this.

4) I agree with you that IVF/PIGD kids are no more than 10 years off. However, I do not consider this to be "designer" kids because you are not actually designing them (de novo genetic design). So, I stand by my point with regards to actual "designer" kids.

5) I expect "exowomb" technology within the next 10-15 years. I think IVF/PIGD/Exowomb to be the true revolution in reproduction. You do know that both sperm and ova can be made from stem cells don't you?

In short, there are plenty of developments in reprogenetics to drive the christian right psychotic.

Randall Parker said at January 7, 2008 9:38 PM:


Certainly the dummies will continue to make worse choices than the smarties. So make biotech available for boosting offspring intelligence and smart people will embrace it more eagerly than dumb people. As a result we can expect to see an increase in the standard deviation for IQ as a result of reproductive biotech.

Another point about risks: IVF + PIGD will eventually lower risks by allowing people to avoid starting pregnancies with genetic variations that will cause birth defects and other developmental defects. So I expect IVF and PIGD to eventually be seen as the safer way to create babies.

Real designer kids: I expect some small number of risk takers to start creating genetic designer babies years before it is prudent to do so. Some will do it to create super athletes. Others will do it to create brainy and beautiful kids.

Lono said at January 8, 2008 10:34 AM:


A quick Google on ADD and Hyperfocus will show that Hyperfocusing is a common aspect of ADD and of a different nature than the "savant" like skills sometimes associated with Aspergers Syndrome.

Although hyperfocusing is most easily associated with thrill conditions I also hyperfocus when developing challenging code or when researching information on the internet - which can give me a more "practical" advantage in the world economy.

I tend to think of my Hyperfocusing as an extremly useful survival skill - both keeping me more informed - and more alert - than the average American citizen.

Am I the most productive citizen? - Maybe not in the Chinese sweat shop sort of way...

Am I extremely innovative and creative in my approach to problem solving? - Yes, and Hyperfocusing plays no small role in this process.

Therefore I clearly believe it is naive to classify all genetic or behavioral diversity as a disorder - to be modified or genetically purged - simply because it falls too far from some statistical homogeneous norm.

In fact I often find the drone like sheepishness of the statistical normal population to be a far greater obstacle to Human social and scientific progress.

HellKaiserRyo said at January 8, 2008 12:23 PM:

"In fact I often find the drone like sheepishness of the statistical normal population to be a far greater obstacle to Human social and scientific progress."

That's what should be eliminated... I want everyone to have the ability to savor the finer things in life like the ability to understand abtruse mathematics.

Bob Badour said at January 8, 2008 4:57 PM:

ADD and ADHD are autistic cousins. It may not be possible to select against ADHD without eliminating aspergers and high functioning autistics too.

Randall Parker said at January 9, 2008 6:05 PM:


Creativity that does not translate into marketed innovations is wasted. Maybe some small fraction of those with ADHD find ways to make big creative contributions. But they are mostly smarter. The dumber ADHD people aren't going to make creative contributions.

Maybe if one has ADHD one really needs high IQ in order to manage to think thoughts all the way thru quickly before getting distracted.

It might be the case that extremely high IQ ADHD people are very creative. But I suspect one can genetically engineer creativity into smart people without using ADHD as a part of the toolbox.

Do you think you make good use of your creativity?

Lono said at January 12, 2008 12:13 PM:


I think you have a point that below average intelligence and ADD/ADHD don't mix well - although perhaps this combination makes for "hyperfocused" atheletes or soldiers which can still be of great benefit to society.

I think there is an important difference sometimes between contributing to the economy versus contributing to society - as they do not always go hand in hand - but that is a entirely different debate.

As my wife and I are, (and presumably our children will be), ADD, I can only call upon my own experience - but I believe many ADD affected people are forced to learn quick and effective problem solving skills early in life to survive in the world economy.

(as we cannot call upon some of the same iterative learning skills that are second nature to other children)

Does this mean that ADD promotes High IQ scores - I don't truly know as my wife and I regularly score in the upper percentiles of such tests - and this could be coincidental.

I certainly believe the innovative problem solving skills we were forced to develop to compensate for our "disorder" have served us well in both our academic and workplace endeavors.

So yes - I definately believe I have utilized my "hyperfocusing" to maximize my creative potential - however clearly I am a biased observer.

I think it is very important, as we go forward with genetic engineering, that we be extremely careful when addressing and treating serious and disabling disorders - that we don't simply eliminate traits due to their minority phenotype status in the population.

And I think this is the trap that many Eugenists have fallen into in the past - turning their "lofty" ideals into monsterous and barbarous acts in practice - due in no small part to their narrowminded definition of the ideal.

Bob Badour said at January 12, 2008 3:40 PM:
narrowminded definition of the ideal

Reminds me of "breed standard" in dog breeds. Fashion means we are going to engineer some seriously fucked up people in the future (among other things.)

Chris said at January 14, 2008 10:59 PM:

Someone needs to read:

Beyond This Horizon, by Heinlein

Ashley said at May 16, 2008 6:37 PM:

first off i have ADHD, and in no way do we have a low IQ, both me and my brother have habit for scoring much higher on test then our classmates, and we dont study, never have and probly will never need to.

And like many others i've been forced to take the pill, and for the life of me i cannot under stand why you norms think your so better, for gods sake how do you stand to only be able to do one thing at a time, its a bloody waist of time! realy, while you norms can hardly mange to fold your shorts and watch tv, i can watch read a book play a video game(sims), do my home work and be long done in time for supper.

and by the way my friend, in the 5th grade i was reading beyond the 12th grade level, and i had only just learnd to read in the 4th grade(a fault of the shcool board for pushing me off into a class of drooling morons, because i could not sit still and i distracted the 'normal' kids oh woe)) and 8th grade i passed algabra with a B, and i had been 'home shcooled' since the 4th grade? and i hadnt touched a math book since then? oh and the Fcat? i get 4s and 5s on both math and reading. and on another test that just came back not to long ago, i scored collage level, i was just 10th grade when i took that.

and you know that kid that ticked the teacher off? the one that was never seemed to be paying any heed to what the teacher was going on about all day, but when the teacher asked the student the question at any random point, the kid would give the rightt anwser? i bet you rember them yea, chances were they are ADHD. think we got the low IQ?

And me and my brother have never, and would never want to brake the law, but call me 'special' and you might cause me to rethink that. 'special' is just a polite way of saying retarted. my brother on the other had will just walk away, so your 'study' does not stand to well, since it stands more on the morals of the person.

Humanity is not ready to handle genetic breeding, as bob said, their will be seriously fucked up people, were just not that ready for that power as a whole.

some one tried the like before remeber? getting rid of the 'bad' so the 'good' breeds would monopolize the field? HITTLER ring any bells? killed jews, nomads, gays, hell he killed any one who wasnt blue eyed blond haired, and tall.
and if your about to go on about ' well its not the same thing, were not killing any one." you can just shut your yapper now. your just beating hittler to the punch line, cuz i promise you if hittler would have had that kinda power he would have had genetic breading farms, and if any of his creations came out wrong he would have killed them just as you will, only he wont be able to turn around and sue the doctors as you would do.

fact of the mater is, we need the diversity, and we need to adapt and evolve. not be reprogramed like computers. if you wanna be a computer then by all means, kill your self and keep your fingers crossed that next time a god/goddess sticks you in a new body that they heed your wishes and jam your but in a comp, maybe a apple computer, their identical.

ADHD out lived its purpose? you gotta be kidding me people, you have to know how to put a good thing to use, let me put it this way, in horse talk, every one understands horses yes? lets put our sturdy, slow going, plow(farm) horses as the 'norms' who do the perdictable thing day in and day out. and the quick moving, giddy race hourse as the ADHD people. understand? good. what most people are trying to do with the race hours is throw a rope round the beast neck and make him march in a stright line with out heed to whats going on around him in a empty plot of land. and vice versa, let throw our old farm horse in a fast track with a thousand things going on, horse running besides it, people ever way you look, and one one your back, you see my point now? your race horse is gonna say 'shove it' and go off and do as it pleases, and your plow horse is gonna flip out and bolt.

each body has its place in the world. for one i think ADHD people more fit for some jobs and norms for another. you give me a kitchen and people to cook for, or children to take after you'll learn then ADHD is a godsend, its the things you narrow sighted norms cannot see, for the lot of you have a box and you will never think out of it, but ADHD kids will never mange to think inside the box.

That hunter mind set we have, its saved you farmers asses more then once through out the years. and what do we get? you call us 'special'. you wanna know where our places are now, since suddenly you think our Genetics are usless. think again my friend. heres a list, Cops, Fire-Fighters, Chefs, Millitary, Video-game, any kind of artist, music careers, damn near any thing that keeps us moving and away from paper work and 9-5 day and day out, i could go on and on till i trun blue in the face but i hope you get the point and i got shit that needs doing,

So just think a little before you go willy-nilly on creating "perfect" people, and destroy some thing that was probly more benifical then you thought.

iron308 said at September 1, 2008 5:45 PM:

Like it or not, many governments will encourage this type of genetic engineering and I suspect that it will have the same very negative result as all the past attempts at perfecting human society.

Sunshine said at October 18, 2008 12:20 AM:

Randall Parker, I cannot believe how silly you are. Didn't your mother ever tell you that just because someone is different, it doesn't make them wrong or bad. And it certainly doesn't make them something to be exterminated.

I find your desire to play God reprehensible. Do you, in your short-sightedness, wish to become like the Cheetah? It is having trouble surviving now, because the number of available alleles have been reduced in current generations. They will not survive, and neither will the human race if we begin to use science to generate only "perfect" human beings. There is a reason God makes us the way he does, and until you become omnipotent you should not dare to take such risks with the world's population. How arrogant you are!

ricky skaggs said at December 11, 2008 11:39 AM:

Without people with ADHD we wouldn't have the discoveries of Einstein or Edison. Our school system fails people with ADHD. Quite often they have remarkable gifts. Keep up with the hate cause thats all you have.

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