April 04, 2015
Regulations For Offspring Genetic Engineering

CRISPR-Cas9 has made the prospect of offspring genetic engineering seem a lot more real. The prospect of genetically much altered future generations is no longer in the distant science fiction future but rather in the "some of the people reading this will live to see it on large scale" future. So lets think about how governments will respond.

In different countries the populations, elected officials, monarchs, and dictators will react to biotech for gene editing the germ line (embryos and cells that eventually become embryos) in different ways:

  • Outright ban.
  • Allow only for prevention of genetic defects.
  • Mandate editing to eliminate genetic defects.
  • Allow a restricted list of alterations and ban other uses.
  • Mandate a specified list of genetic edits.
  • Allow any alteration that keeps the result a recognizable human.
  • Anything goes.

The mandate to prevent genetic defects might be combined with the mandate for specified list of genetic alterations. Massive amounts of DNA sequencing and a lot of analysis of the data is going to turn up thousands of genetic mutations that are mildly harmful. Some governments (Singapore comes to mind) could mandate that you not pass along any of your own hundreds of mildly harmful mutations to your offspring.

What additional kinds alterations does that leave for a government to mandate? Quite a few. Think of any reasons a parent might want to make their kids different and add some more. Governments are going to tend to focus on social, criminal, and loyalty considerations.

For example, suppose scientists discover lots of genetic variants that contribute to psychopathy. Well, the government of Singapore could mandate that a couple who between them has quite a few genetic variants that each contribute a little toward psychopathy should be limited on how many of these variants they can pass along to offspring. That sounds reasonable to me with reservations. Why? The right sorts of psychopaths can be very effective chief executive officers. They can make the decision to kill a project or manufacturing plant that lots of normal managers become too emotionally attached to.

Some more competitive governments might mandate genetic editing to put a floor on intelligence. Want a first class high tech economy? Allow no kid below 120 IQ. The first government to do that will have the highest per capita income economy in the world 50 years later if not much sooner. Perhaps some smaller East Asian governments will either adopt IQ mandates or perhaps offer a cash bonus for each set of edits that boost IQ 1 point.

We also come to obedience and faith. A government like the one in North Korea could figure out which genetic variants make people gullible believers in propaganda and mandate that those must be put in embryos of future North Koreans. Or a government that sees its role as protector of the faith could mandate genetic variants that make people more predisposed to feel good about embracing a religious faith.

My expectation is that differences in regulatory response to germ line genetic engineering technologies will cause the populations of the world's various countries to diverge in a variety of ways that will be immediately visible when you travel the world. For example, you will be able to recognize the countries where genetic editing for beauty is allowed. You will also be able to recognize the countries where genetic editing for height or athletic prowess is allowed.

While governments won't all adopt the same regulatory regime for offspring genetic changes even if they did the impact on future generations would vary greatly by country. A country with a lot of hard core world football fans is going to get a lot of babies highly optimized for that game. A country whose population puts great value in getting into top colleges and mastering hard science and engineering subjects will go for IQ-boosting genetic edits with or without government mandates or incentives.

What will governments do? Most elites are very competitive, wanting every advantage they can give to their kids, So the elites will feel strongly motivated to persuade governments and populaces to allow the use of genetic editing tech creating future generations. Therefore I expect quite a few governments to allow this tech. But some governments could allow it 10 years before other governments do. Early adopter countries will get big economic competitive advantages that will last for years as their first generation of enhanced kids enter the labor market. This will become a national security issue as some nations fear about being left behind and dominated.

East Asian countries seem like good candidates for early adopters. I expect the US Food and Drug Administration to make approvals in the USA take much longer. Will the EU adopt a single standard? Will some non-EU European governments go ahead of the EU? Some people will travel to get treatments for their embryos. Early adopters in the West will probably go abroad.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2015 April 04 04:54 PM 

bmack500 said at April 14, 2015 7:13 AM:

I would imagine currently living people too, would want to edit their genes. I would; though likely some things can only be conferred during formation in the womb.

Micha Elyi said at April 14, 2015 2:09 PM:

Scientists Call for a Summit on Gene-Edited Babies
Nobel Prize winners raise alarm over genetic engineering of humans.

MIT Technology Review, 19 March 2015

anonymous said at April 14, 2015 2:20 PM:

You missed one:

- Require a 'GMO' label for persons who are genetically engineered. Artificial changes, changes that would otherwise be impossible, are being made to the entire human gene pool.

Larry said at April 14, 2015 3:01 PM:

Genetics is complicated. To be sure, there are some single-site alleles that cause unambiguously deleterious effects, prime candidates for "gene-cleaning". But to do even that, you have to have a known healthy replacement, preferably several (otherwise you start developing a monoculture). And lots of alleles are multi-site, and then there are sites that are used by multiple genes.

We are still a long way from anything but the most basic gene-cleaning. And the people who are scared of GMO crops will go ballistic over GMO people.

GeoWash said at April 14, 2015 3:04 PM:

Randall, curious to know if you seriously believe this: "Allow no kid below 120 IQ. The first government to do that will have the highest per capita income economy in the world 50 years later if not much sooner."?

Any certainty that this would be the most likely outcome?

I'm not even sure such a society would necessarily be a very peaceful one.

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