May 08, 2016
Rising Competition From The Genetically Engineered

I assert: Genetic engineering of human offspring will start some time in the 2020s. It will take off sharply in the 2030s. The rapid rate of advance of CRISPR gene editing technology combined with the rapid rate of decline of genome sequencing costs will make this possible. People will jump on offspring genetic engineering because they want kids that will excel at something. The range of desired areas of excellence is quite large (ballet dancing, novel writing, software development, painting, music composition, musical instrument playing, investing, managing, etc). The challenge: what to choose for the genetic endowment of your kids.

Frustrations of mass offspring genetic engineering

The desire for super kids will lead to frustration for many, even if their gene selections do exactly what's advertised.

Why frustration? Consider making babies capable of excelling at sports. Imagine basketball fans who want to have a kid who excels in the NBA (ditto other pro sports such as golf, tennis, football, and baseball). The people who decide to make a super basketball player will be frustrated by the results because others will be doing the same. Sports is made up mainly of losers. That won't change even as the level of play rises. Will someone in the late 2020s be able to select genes that make a basketball player better than Michael Jordan? Sure, get his DNA, identify what makes him great, fix all the harmful mutations, and add some mutations that other great basketball players have that he doesn't have. But lots of people will do that. Making a sports winner really isn't the best strategy for prospective parents. There are just too few winners in sports and way way more losers. Offspring genetic engineering will not change that.

Shorter careers at the top

What's worse: careers in sports will get shorter. Suppose you choose the best known genetic variants to make a sports star baby in 2028. Well, every year the babies will get better. Kids born 2032 will grow up to be better athletes than your baby born in 2029. Each year the best known gene choices will get better and people making a baby a few years later will make better players than you did. So 15-20 years latter increasingly better players will show up to compete every year, knocking off the previous best. Winners won't stay winners for long.

Domains with much larger teams are safer bet?

Humans compete in other domains such as in business. We will see the same effect of rising performance in other domains as well. But in many other endeavors much larger groups of people collaborate with a single company employing thousands of people to develop a product or service. The result is not quite so much winner take all. Someone making a baby in 2028 or 2035 should think about making a high performing baby for one of these areas involving collaboration in larger groups.

Big internet, pharmaceutical, chemicals, and manufacturing companies employ tens of thousands of engineers and scientists. They want the best. But they can't replace all the 25 and 26 year olds with 23 and 24 year olds. They need too many people to do that. They also hire people who are quite a bit less able than the best because they need too many to restrict their selection to only the best. So producing the best future engineer baby in 2028 seems like a safer bet than producing the best pro sports baby.

You can think about other domains of human endeavor the same way. Ballet dancers have short careers. Their careers will get even shorter when the genetic quality of ballet dancers hitting the market is rising every year. Even if you want to produce a baby with great ballet (or gymnastics) potential better make sure they've got the mental chops to get into medical school or engineering school too.

Advice for 2035 baby makers

So what's my advice for the baby maker of 2035? First, you really need to do offspring genetic engineering or your kid is going to be a loser. Accept the need. Know that your wide type DNA isn't going to cut it in the labor market of 50-60-70 years from now.

Second, go to the expense to eliminate every pure harmful genetic variant you (and possibly our mate or donor) have from a cell line. We all have hundreds of purely harmful genetic variants. Then think about niches that are not appealing to others. What could your kid be great at that most people don't want to do? That's a really tough question because who knows what demand the labor market will have in 2060 or 2070? Still, its the right question to ask. Avoid the most obvious choices where the crowds will stampede.

What makes specialization especially difficult: intellectual abilities seem closely linked. All the components measured in general intelligence tests are positively correlated. But it is likely to be the case that some genetic variants will be found to confer specific abilities and that there will be some trade-offs between abilities. Look for trade-offs that few will find appealing that result in aptitudes in areas that most prospective parents won't consider. Off the top of my head I think of higher functionality in weightless conditions or perhaps neurological attributes that would make it easier to directly interface your nervous system to a computer.

What to look for: work is unappealing to the vast majority of humans but pays really well and is enjoyable by a small number of people. I think of forensic scientists who investigate crime scenes and

Share |      Randall Parker, 2016 May 08 03:29 PM 

Brett Bellmore said at May 10, 2016 3:00 AM:

I think the real frustration of genetically engineering your child for a specific niche will be when your optimized basketball player grows up to be a physical therapist. A really tall physical therapist who keeps hitting his head going through doorways. Because you neglected to genetically engineer him to WANT to be a basketball player. You left him with free will, and he exercised it. Good thing, too, when basketball stopped being so popular in 2025.

Stick to traits that are generally beneficial, with maybe a few that aid you in one domain, but don't hurt you in others. Excellent hand-eye coordination is an unalloyed good. Height, not so much.

And don't try to predict the job market in detail decades out. If you were capable of that, you'd probably be better off engineering him to be a really good trust fund baby, because you'd be rich.

What would be a really, really advantageous trait? Having your brain be able to handle more "chunks". In the land of the seven chunk people, the twenty chunk man is king.

Seriously, life is not getting simpler, and people have an upper limit on the complexity of the thoughts they can entertain. Give your kid the capacity to cope better with complexity.

Bajax said at May 10, 2016 2:44 PM:

I see a future where all these engineered sports stars start to have health problems we didn't foresee the instant they pass their peak years. With such an optimized physique, a combination of traits so unlikely they'd never occur in nature, and other supporting systems simply wouldn't be adjusted for it. Strong muscles and long legs might put unprecedented strain on the joints, making these supermen's knees and ankles give out at 30. Tripping during a 30 mph sprint might sprain the ankle of a modern man, but at 45 mph it may very well snap the bone completely. The heart may not be built for that kind of exertion, the lungs may not be able to supply enough oxygen. China would pile all of its olympic ambition upon a litter of children, raise them to be top athletes, only to find they pass out if they get slightly out of breath.

Intelligence I don't see being any different, only it would be mental illness we'd have to worry about. Unlocking those extra neural connections may create a couple we didn't plan for.

> Because you neglected to genetically engineer him to WANT to be a basketball player
Temperament is genetic too. I'm sure there are genes for competitiveness they're going to find.

Bajax said at May 10, 2016 2:50 PM:

There may come a day when all new-born humans are simply seen, and only behave, as extensions of the will of their parents. Homogenous hordes of humanity, all reacting, behaving the same way. Democracy will utterly break down-- whoever has the most babies has total political control, and there'd be nothing to stop them voting in their own best interests, or against the interests of others.

We may be the last generation to be born with something that seems to approach free-will.

STH said at May 11, 2016 6:38 PM:

One consequence of the ability to genetically enhance offsprings is that the choice of a spouse may not be as important as it is now, because any deficiencies in the genetic make-up of the person that one marries can be corrected in the children by genetic intervention. Men like sweet and pleasant, good-looking women, but may still opt for a more highly-educated successful woman because such a match would be more eugenic for his offspring. Indeed, women are even more mercenary in this regard; successful women have difficulty getting married because they look for even more successful men. While much of this hypergamy is status-driven, a good portion of of it is the desire for high-achieving children. Genetic engineering can in fact democratize mating selection, because the cost of selecting a non-optimal spouse need not be passed onto the resulting children.

If the past is any prologue, men would likely choose a good-natured, good-looking waitress over a brilliant but uptight female executive, because they can often get more life satisfaction from the former rather than the latter---without the attendant cost of genetic regression in their family lineage.

Whitney said at May 11, 2016 9:06 PM:

I think the real frustration will be "unintended consequences"

David Gobel said at May 15, 2016 6:59 AM:

I see children becoming rarities by 2035. While this isn't a future I want, this is a future That is already happening. Just as marriage is in a deflationary depression, so family itself however constructed is in a deflationary depression and thus children are not a foregone conclusion (see child droughts in Russia, Japan, Italy and others) Even today, the loss of law purposed to preserve gestation stage humans in the here and now shows that economic forces predict acceleratingly diminishing value in and thus quantity of offspring. What this predicts is in-vivo editing/debugging/optimizing/parallelizing of already living humans on a vastly larger scale compared to optimization of unwanted/unneeded/competitor offspring. In addition, there is an economic quiet (but growing louder) war between the sexes in advanced countries. Combatants in a war tend to separare themselves from one another (see Japan). Just to be clear, this is not a world I want, but is a world that seems already to be happening and more acceleratingly likely unless a "mule" event happens.

David Gobel said at May 15, 2016 7:01 AM:

Children will be rare in 2036. While this isn't a future I want, this is a future I anticipate. Just as marriage is in a deflationary depression, so family itself however constructed is in a deflationary depression and thus children are not a foregone conclusion. Even today, the loss of law purposed to preserve gestation stage humans in the here and now shows that economic forces predict acceleratingly diminishing value in offspring. What this predicts is in-vivo editing/debugging/optimizing/parallelizing of already living humans on a vastly larger scale in preference to optimization of unwanted/unneeded/competitor offspring. Just to be clear, this is not a world I want, but is a world that seems more and more likely unless a "mule" event happens.

Brett Bellmore said at May 16, 2016 2:50 AM:

This strikes me as unlikely hyperbole. People continue to have children under any circumstance short of extreme famine. People have children in North Korea and Somalia. Europe is undergoing demographic collapse, but it would be an exaggeration to describe children as "rare" in Europe. America is barely under replacement.

And 2035-6 is too soon to expect technological changes such as gene editing to have much impact on society. Even if gene editing is adopted with extraordinary rapidity, that's less than 20 years from now. The first generation of gene edited children, outside of a few controversial experiments, will barely be toddlers by then. (I'm not counting gene editing to remove genetic diseases, as that won't have dystopian implications, and involves a small fraction of the population anyway.)

James Bowery said at May 16, 2016 6:21 AM:

Other ideas:

Figure out what the superintelligences (or at least the one's likely to dominate the superintelligence wrs) will be most appealing as pets, and engineer for that.

Engineer for public sector rent-seeking. In this regard, being black, Jewish (emphasizing Ashkenazi high verbal IQ), lesbian (perhaps trans-gendered that has also gone full trans-sexual bull dyke with a large penis so you get the alpha-male appeal on top of being a Christ-like/Holocaust victim moral authority) is a pretty good starting point for further optimization.

I could go on but you get the drift...

James Bowery said at May 16, 2016 6:22 AM:

"will be" -> "will find"

Abelard Lindsey said at May 16, 2016 9:09 AM:

I see children becoming rarities by 2035. While this isn't a future I want, this is a future That is already happening.

Assuming we get the SENS and Telomerase activation therapies (the latter is a reality now) by the 2030's, why is this a problem?

Randall Parker said at June 11, 2016 11:37 AM:

David Gobel,

I am thinking the upper classes will have very large families because they will be able to afford the offspring genetic engineering needed to have super kids and it will be very appealing to the upper classes to have super kids. No longer will reproduction be a roll of the dice. Lots of risks will be removed by embryo selection and genetic editing. So at least among the upper classes fertility will soar. So will the brilliance of their children. No more regression to the mean. Perhaps a lot less wealth dissipation in the 2nd and 3rd generations.

Randall Parker said at June 11, 2016 11:41 AM:


Once we have embryo genome editing we get a big change on a man's preferences in a spouse. But the first step of embryo selection guided by genetic testing will push men toward being more picky about a spouse, not less picky.

But genetic engineering really relaxes requirements for a spouse's cognitive abilities. Also, it pushes preferences in the direction you suggested: toward wanting an agreeable, pleasant, and subservient woman. We might see some couples even doing genetic engineering to create females of this sort.

akarlin said at July 24, 2016 2:59 AM:

Here's a fascinating and rather relevant optimization problem.

What age does a man and a woman today who wants to start a family have to be for it to be more effective for him/her to wait 10-15 years for your predicted human bioengineering boom, as opposed to beginning reproducing now?

And how does the solution vary with respect to that man's and woman's current wealth and intelligence?

Randall Parker said at August 27, 2016 9:14 PM:

I think we are within less than 10 years of being able to get much better babies by embryo selection. The many orders of magnitude drop in DNA sequencing costs in the last 20 years brings full genome sequencing near $1000. At this price the alleles for many beauty, health, intelligence, and personality traits are becoming findable. I'm expecting a huge flood of findings in the next 5 years.

So then create 10-15 embryos and implant the one with the best combination of attributes. Also, choose a woman or man to mate with who will give you a better chance of finding great embryos.

So I think an 18 year old woman should wait. A 30 year old woman should not wait. I do not know where the dividing line is. But somewhere between 18 and 30 year old women today.

We are further out from being able to do CRISPR-Cas9 style editing on embryos. That one is harder to call.

dlr said at November 18, 2016 4:04 AM:

David Gobel said "Children will be rare in 2036. While this isn't a future I want, this is a future I anticipate."

If wanting/liking having kids is even mildly heritable then kids will be the opposite of rare in 2036. After two or three generations of people who 'don't want kids' or 'don't like kids' using birth control and/or abortion to eliminate themselves from the gene pool, we will be left with a population with, uniformly DOES like and want to have kids. And every generation that birth control/abortion is available the preference will grow stronger. Those who like having kids A LOT will have 3 or 4 ( or 5 or 10) and those that don't like having kids that much won't have any, or only 1 or 2.

It seems highly likely that liking and wanting kids is at least mildly heritable: most other desires and propensities are. And for all we know, it is highly heritable. Either way, we will soon end up with a population that uniformly is disinterested in birth control and abortion. Because everyone who uses them reliably eliminates themselves from the gene pool.

There is no doubt at all that liking/wanting kids is at least partially under the influence of culture and circumstances. People at all levels imitate the more successful members of their culture in their life choices. But women, most of them, have an inborn interest in caring for and playing with babies. This interest varies in intensity from person to person. It is possible that the desire for children is entirely culturally mediated, or dependent on early childhood experiences, and that there is no genetic component at all. But, that just means that entire cultures are going to be replaced, instead of entire gene lines. No matter what the mechanism is, the future is going to be full of people who really like having kids. Which means it is going to be really full of kids.

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