February 19, 2013
Offspring Genetic Engineering Debate

In a recent public debate Nita Farahany and Lee Silver argued for allowing parents to genetically engineer their babies while Sheldon Krimsky and Robert Winston argued against. The pro-genetic engineering faction was seen as winning the debate.

Before the debate, 24 percent of the audience supported the idea of prohibiting genetic engineering of babies, while 30 percent were against. Forty-six percent were undecided. After each side presented its case, 41 percent of the audience voted for the motion, "Prohibit Genetically Engineered Babies," while 49 percent sided with the experts arguing against it making them the winners of the debate.

Any country that bans offspring genetic engineering will fall behind in intelligence, health, and various physical capabilities as compared to countries that allow it. I therefore expect national security intellectuals to come out in favor of offspring genetic engineering once it becomes possible. The military and economic consequences of not raising a larger fraction of the populace up to what are now exceptional levels of ability will be too great and too risky. Countries that ban genetic engineering of future generations will even lag far behind in average beauty. Given the ability to give their babies genes for enormous beauty, intelligence, social skills, health, and longevity a substantial portion of parents will do so. The benefits will be too large to ignore.

Think about an offspring genetic engineering counseling session between parents and a reproductive technology doctor 20 or 30 years from now. The doctor will be able to show parents accurate simulations of what their kids would look like given various random combinations of chromosomes from each parent as well as what those kids could look like with small genetic tweaks. Ditto for projections of intelligence, drive, stamina, and some disease risks.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2013 February 19 10:18 PM 

MarkyMark said at February 20, 2013 12:15 AM:

I think that there is also the initial but soon to fade "yuk factor" at play. I remember when i first saw the "ear mouse" - a mouse with a human ear grown on it's back. It was so unnatural and so discusting I could hardly look at it. Now I've no problem and if I needed it would happily accept any animal grown part. As long as there are some genetically selected kids somewhere they will become accepted and part of the tapestry and the floodgate will open. The battle will be over what we select for rather than the fact of selection.

observer said at February 20, 2013 3:13 AM:

What's the expected lag time between the tech for engineering these improvements in embryos and the tech for applying them retroactively to adults? All of the smart people reading this website are going to become comparatively stupid even if we do manage to beat aging and live into the second half of the century. 20-30 years after birth (probably in the 2050s) these kids will be out-competing us. I am guessing the lag for retroactive therapy is longer than 30 years, but that important issue seems to be less discussed than designer babies are. For our own good we ought to pursue genetic improvements to adults with all speed as soon as embryo engineering is fully underway.

Carson McCraig said at February 20, 2013 8:27 AM:

Hyper-intelligent people are counterproductive both to themselves and society. U.S. National security intellectuals, at least those that are not hyper-intelligent might even promote genetic engineering in places like China to further destabilize their society. Smoothly distributed normality is what will save Mankind. The only normal for genetic engineering will be comedy of error.

observer said at February 20, 2013 8:41 AM:

Fortunately for us all, Carson McCraig can still escape to remote parts of Papua New Guinea where he won't have to worry about the hyper-intelligent or any of their inventions. I hope for his sake that he doesn't look too tasty.

SOBL1 said at February 20, 2013 11:02 AM:


For anyone denying the urge for this, just consider what the average person thinks when they first find out they are having a kid that they planned. Forget the doctors showing what is possible, what will the sales consultants and marketing firms pitch to parents? No sales pitch is greater than a risk free, gorgeous, brainiac child; it's the utopian vision that every pregnant woman has that is only spoiled by the eventual development of their child.

dscott said at February 20, 2013 12:53 PM:

It's all academic. Any genetic increase in intelligence would easily be erased by consequence free attitudes encouraged by the culture that child was born into. Nature is self correcting when it comes to any ability whether physical or mental. Nature can be very cruel that way. No matter how technically advanced a civilization may be, the greater the degree of perceived advancement encourages a sense of immunity against the laws of nature and thus nature takes its inevitable course to lay low the arrogant and self important.

In fact, I might even dispute what constitutes exceptional as accepted in a culture. That which is considered exceptional may in fact be a evolutionary dead end. Time has a way of changing what is considered exceptional.

JP Straley said at February 20, 2013 2:09 PM:

Just wait until unenhanced children grow to adults and have to compete with enhanced peers. They will have a little chat with their parents and say, "Why didn't you help me when you could?" And their children will most certainly get genetic help.

dscott assumes that nature is the venue for selection among humans. Sorry, dscott, society is the venue, and if managers have a choice whether to hire high performance or low performance, especially if there is little price difference, they will show a great preference for someone that can think a little bit. Oh, you say there have to be some jobs that are repetitive and boring....that's not true either, those jobs are going to be automated.

Nanonymous said at February 20, 2013 5:15 PM:

Just think of the coming racial disparities in the ability to buy genetic engineering... Positive feedback loop, a.k.a. chain reaction.

Mthson said at February 20, 2013 10:50 PM:

Nanonymous, after early-adopters pave the way, I think it's certain that society will provide genetic engineering to the lower classes.

NAM (non-Asian minority) parents will tend to make their children look like Jessica Alba or Paula Patton, so I think racial differences (within the 1st world) are going to overall decline, not increase.

Dscott: Unusual long-time-horizon and detail-orientation have been invaluable for individuals for hundreds of years.

Jehu said at February 21, 2013 11:33 AM:

Here's a plot any authors might steal...
Person who is horrified by the idea that genetically enhanced children will render all non-enhanced children obsolete within a generation or two decides to derail the technology in the only way likely to actually work.
He sabotages the process such that the enhanced children die horrible, excruciating deaths around 8 or so with very few indications prior to then. He also has a ready to go anti-enhancement propaganda campaign prepared.

That's honestly the only real way this can not happen assuming that the center holds. You'd need the optics to be just that bad. Otherwise, even if the process only gives you, say, on the average:
5 points of IQ, 2-3 years of additional lifespan, and 20% less sick days/general downtime
its going to be adopted to such a degree that it will be felt to be almost coercive to those against it.
Even a protocol of the form---pick 1 or 2 of N, where you get to look at the probability distributions of each of the likely N will probably give you more than that.

Randall Parker said at February 21, 2013 8:14 PM:


First off, dumb people aren't smart enough to realize how much they are missing out on by not being smart. Second, there will be more opposition to taxpayer subsidies than to allowing it in the first place. Third, since it will involve embryo selection there will be religious opposition (at least in the United States) to anything that involves embryos getting created but not implanted.

JP Straley,

Yes, if you don't enhance your kids you are setting them up to be losers.

Carson McCraig,

Top research scientists and top engineers are hyperintelligent people. Some really smart people aren't motivated to make a lot of money. Some other really smart people are motivated to productively make lots of money. Still other really smart people are motivated to be parasites.


I can totally see pitches along the lines of "give your kids the genes that Harvard's 10% have". Or "these are the genes your kid needs to get into CalTech or Stanford". I can even see Yale and Princeton reaching out to their students and alumni to encourage them to do more offspring genetic engineering than Harvard's students and alumni. Get those competitive juices flowing.

Given the extent to which Chinese families are willing to invest to their offspring academic success imagine the uptake rate in China. Ditto Japan and South Korea.

If the US outlaws it the American upper class will reproduce abroad. Then the smaller countries that currently sell citizenship for a price of hundreds of thousands of dollars could offer a deal: Get your offspring engineered in our country to have at least 140 IQ at, say, $300k and your kid will get citizenship and a passport in our country. Upper class parents would spend to raise their kids out of the reach of Uncle Sam. The country offering the deal would get all this money flowing in and it would get a citizenship with great earning power (and therefore big tax revenue generators).

Carson McCraig said at February 21, 2013 8:25 PM:

Sorry Observer, even pristine Papua has their unfortunate share of hyper-intellects.


All I had to do was Bing "papua&hype".

Very impressive super high tech. non lethal weaponry.

Papua is out it seems. How about UC Berkeley?

Mthson said at February 21, 2013 10:13 PM:


Those are good points. But I think group differences in intelligence are a nightmare scenario for many people, so once reprogenetics is proven, there will just be more energy in favor than against.

I think "Finally make humans equal... actually for real, unlike the last 2,000 years" will be a more powerful argument than whatever it will go up against.

Carson McCraig,

UC Berkeley gets ranked as one of the most dangerous universities in the country. The city of Berkeley is unfortunately sandwiched between two dystopias, Oakland and Richmond, so it's one of the most dangerous cities in the San Francisco bay area. At least the students there will learn something about life in between their culture studies classes.

Nanonymous said at February 22, 2013 8:48 AM:

I think it's certain that society will provide genetic engineering to the lower classes.

Very doubtful. We can't even afford to provide medical care that is comparable between rich and poor. And genetic engineering will NEVER be cheap. Nature and biology are messy - no way around it. And rich will never voluntary give up their status - that too would be against the Nature.

Phillep Harding said at February 22, 2013 4:58 PM:

IMO, The only genetic engineering likely to be made available to low income, low status citizens, would be to make them more tractable slaves.

Randall Parker said at February 23, 2013 12:17 PM:

I think the key to ensuring your own access to genetic engineering is to make a lot of money, invest some of it abroad, and be ready to move abroad for a while.

bbartlog said at February 24, 2013 12:31 PM:

Even without genetic engineering, you could achieve very substantial gains just with preimplantation screening. And in fact I would expect preimplantation screening to be far more accepted (in addition to being easier, i.e. closer to readiness). By choosing among possible embryos of their own parents can still say that the baby is entirely their own descendant, and furthermore I would expect it to be perceived as less risky. And given the variation possible among siblings I expect you could get most kinds of normal variation (height, IQ, confidence and so on) that would be desired.

Randall Parker said at February 25, 2013 7:31 PM:


Genetic engineering will not make people equal for a variety of reasons:

- Some people will make mediocre, bad, or terrible choices for their offspring.
- The available set of genetic modifications will keep growing.
- People will optimize their kids for different reasons.
- Some people will reject the technology. Look at the Mennonites and Amish.
- Some will make babies the old fashion way just because they've got a time horizon of about the next 5 minutes.


Preimplantation genetic screening will amplify differences between people. It will actually draw people together who've got the best potential for the most desired combinations of genetic variants.

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