October 07, 2016
Genetic Engineering To Lower Risks And Assure Child Outcomes

In a nutshell: editing offspring DNA at the embryo stage will eventually offer so many advantages that lots of people will cave in on some advantage. Don't want to make your kid smarter? Make him or her better looking? Don't want that? How about a throwing arm competitive in major league baseball? Opposed to that? How about avoiding passing along your terrible allergies, need for braces, terrible eyesight, tendency to get depressed or perhaps anxiety attacks or eating disorders? Lots of ways to be persuaded to step over the line once the tech becomes safe.

If asked whether one would genetically engineer one's offspring today many people would answer "No" to the hypothetical question. But today choosing genes for your babies is not a real option. When it becomes a real option I expect that people who have strong desires about what their kids should be like are going to opt for genetic tinkering.

Some parents are going be driven to offspring genetic engineering by risk aversion. That might sound strange. Tinkering with genes in embryos is now an incredibly risky undertaking. But look ahead to the day when this can be done safely. Parents will look at all the disease risks and other genetic risks they might give to their offspring and they will want to avoid it.

Consider the implications of behavioral genetics. One of the core finding of behavioral genetics is that for a large number of cognitive attributes (e.g. risk of drug abuse; assorted cognitive disabilities; personality attributes) genetics plays an important but not sole role in their cause. But another core finding is that the effects are the additive result of a large number of genetic variants, each with small effect. This is important because each additional genetic variant that pushes in a particular direction increases or decreases the odds of the baby growing up to have a particular attribute (whether it be extraversion, psychopathy, schizophrenia, general smarts, or other).

Well, since so many genetic variants contribute to psychopathy, schizophrenia, addiction risk, autism, hyperactivity, and lots of other cognitive attributes parents will mostly want to avoid the odds are that in 2030 the vast majority of prospective parents who get genetic testing will be informed of many genetic variants they have that run some risks of some undesired outcome. Given good gene editing technology most parents will be given options for edits to cut risks.

i started out talking about a specific class of risks: cognitive risks. But there many others. Some (but importantly not all) kids have to get glasses, braces, acne treatments, anti-allergy treatments, and assorted treatments for various other health problems, some even life-threatening. The vast majority of these risks will have genetic variants associated with them. That's more potential genetic edits and more temptation to genetically alter embryos before implantation.

Plus, parents want good looking and smart kids. High striving ambitious parents will want to make their kids as driven and smart as possible and possessed of great stamina. But lots of less ambitious parents will just want their kids to be at least as bright as them and better looking if possible. If mom was made fun of in high school for her looks she won't want her daughter to suffer the same fate. So risk aversion will drive people toward choosing genes for looks too.

I'm thinking for many parents risk reduction will be a bigger motivator than the desire to produce a super kid. But sports fans will want highly athletic kids and high achievers in intellectual careers will want their kids to fly as high as they do.

By 2030 couples will be able (at least in some legal jurisdictions) to upload their genetic info to a very powerful genetic analysis web site. The web site will provide a report and an interactive interface for exploring the risks and potentials for various combinations of chromosomes they could give their kids. They'll be told some of the worst combinations of chromosomes they could give their children. This will tend to drive them toward IVF, genetic testing of embryos and embryo selection.

Then when genetic editing becomes reliable they'll be told which genetic edits would be most beneficial for a growing long list of reasons. Some parents might resist genetic edits for appearances because it will seem too unnatural. But some of those same parents will find it a lot harder to resist edits that eliminate disease risk and suffering. Therefore millions of parents will opt for genetic edits. As genetic editing becomes the norm the range of reasons that people find acceptable will expand. Later generations will be more willing to edit than the first generation.

If humanity survives the 21st century then by the end of the 21st century the average human being born will be far more disease resistant, energetic, smart, beautiful, and athletically capable. The highest achieving humans of today will seem pretty run-of-the-mill by 2100.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2016 October 07 04:44 PM 

bob sykes said at October 9, 2016 6:02 PM:

The risks of error are so high (a life destroyed) that only the very highest end surgical teams will attempt the prodedure, and their fees, their insurance costs, and the hospitals insurance cost will be astronomical. This is a procedure for the 0.01%. These people already have a eugenics program in place, i.e., the Ivies, so why bother.

The Puritans in charge of our country will outlaw the methods anyway.

Lot said at October 10, 2016 8:40 PM:

I don't think the cost will really be that high. At there is still the "simple" method of just creating 10-50 embryos, going a partial 23andme style sequencing of them, and implanting a couple favorites, freezing a few more, and selling/donating/destroying the rest.

Say $15,000 for the IVF and $5,000 to test 20 embryoes, that sounds pretty affordable. And you could either do twins, or use a frozen embryo from the first round and average down the cost further. It might not be the most cutting edge, but choosing the most promising of 20 potential kids sounds like a really big advance.

Keep in mind that a lot of the costs of IVF is because it is now done almost entirely on women with reduced fertility. A woman with normal fertility will not need to be tested and drugged up so much, nor would she likely need as many rounds.

Brett Bellmore said at October 13, 2016 4:16 AM:

"to a very powerful genetic analysis web site"

Gah. Horrible idea. You really want to have some mega-corp data mining your personal DNA?

Probably one of the worst developments of the 21st century is the move to make all sorts of services "server based", even when we've got once almost unimaginably powerful computers in our homes. And it's happened for one reason only: So they can get their hands on your data. (OK, two: So they can brick the service any time they want, also.)

There's no good reason why you should have to go to a web site to do this, rather than download a program to do it locally.

Citizen of a Silly Country said at October 13, 2016 12:57 PM:


That's what I've been arguing for years. Everyone is so focused on changing an embryos DNA. That are a lot of potential issues with that, which likely will push it far down the road. However, being able to run a DNA scan on 20 potential kids and picking the one or two with the best ODDS - not guaranteed but dramatically upping the odds - seems doable in the near future and earth shattering.

Will we have a race of super-geniuses running around? No. But if I had 20 kids, you can bet one or two of them would be pretty damn smart, or athletic or whatever. Would my 2 out of 20 kids have 150+ IQ? Almost certainly not, but they would have higher IQs than my wife and I have. Do that with every couple and you've just raised the national IQ from ~98 to - who knows - ~105 in one generation. Do that a couple of times over and you're looking at a funky world. Granted, there will limits to how high those average IQs will grow, but it'd still be remarkable.

Imagine if the average white IQ moved from 100 to 115 in a couple of generations. Black average IQ to 100. Etc.

Of course, there could be downsides as there is with different breeds of dogs. Regardless, the technology is already almost there. In another 10 or 20 years, it will be there, and people will use it. They'll have to.

Nick G said at October 14, 2016 9:36 AM:

I'm far more interested in genetic modification of adults for longevity, immune system optimization, etc. What's the outlook?

Malcolm Kirkpatrick said at October 18, 2016 12:28 AM:

Selecting for "smarter" will spur an endless arms race. More people will accept identification of defects at an early stage (e.g., Down's) and save the nine-month investment. What do we do when we have to trade one positive trait for another (1/2 standard deviation IQ gain means 1/2 standard deviation loss in social skills or longevity?

filrabat said at November 11, 2016 7:47 AM:

How about genes for empathy, sympathy, compassion, kindness, etc. above all? Intelligence, strength, courage, even aesthetics (of which looks are part) are just as useful for evil* purposes as for good ones. Josef Mengele, Drug cartels, and demagogues all are intelligent in different ways. Yet nobody this side of sanity would call these people admirable. Same goes for strength. Even the 9/11 attackers had to have the courage to die from flying planes into buildings (or if you prefer to restrict to military targets, the Pentagon). Again, nobody this side of sane supports the acts of the 9/11 hijackers, even if they did have a certain kind of courage.

This is a huge elephant in the room of such discussions. Power without compassion is like a gun in the hands of an angry preschooler. That's what focusing on superior physical and intellectual survival traits without a comparable upgrade in concern for others' well-being is - the vision of a pre-schooler dressed up in adult language and intellect.

*By evil, I mean deliberately initiating hurt, harm, or indignity against another; not because of anything the person did or said but simply for the sake of gratification - for yourself or your allies)

Tj Green said at November 17, 2016 3:51 AM:

It would be interesting to create a human where all the identified damaging mutations were removed.

James Bowery said at May 2, 2017 10:19 AM:

It's going to be a while before pleiotropic effects, let alone environmental regulation of gene expression, are understood to the point that these deliberate mutations are without substantial risks of deleterious side effects.

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