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.
I've previously argued that going to Mars and trying to live there is a dumb idea for the foreseeable future. Notwithstanding assorted recent comments by Elon Musk this is still true. The best treatment of Musk's proposal for a big trip to Mars comes from The Martian science fiction author Andy Weir in his comments to Ars Technica. I think Weir went too easy the obviously ridiculous low cost estimates made by Musk and didn't address many of the problems with a Mars colony. But he makes excellent points. Read the article if you are interested. I like Weir's point that solar panels weigh too much to cart all the way to Mars. Better to take a nuclear reactor.
I've previously made several points on what we ought to do before trying to make a Mars colony. But there is a key underlying point I'll repeat here: Our modern complex and advancing civilization is only possible because of a high degree of specialization of labor. Go somewhere else with a very very very small fraction of humanity where, hey, there isn't even an atmosphere and guess what? You give up orders of magnitude of specialization of labor and live dreary and very circumscribed lives. Complexity collapses and huge benefits are lost. Plus, the colony would be dependent on supplies from Earth. So no insurance policy for decades to come. Just shorter and more boring and claustrophobic lives. I mean, why do that? It is crazy.
Musk says humanity needs a second home as an insurance policy against such things as a massive asteroid hitting Earth. First of all, we do not have enough tech to make a Mars colony self sustaining. Meanwhile these existential threats are still out there. So how about doing something about them? Hey, how about an asteroid defense system? It has a big advantage over a Mars colony: in the event of a killer asteroid heading our way it saves billions of lives rather than just a few thousand colonists. I'm really for not dying. How about you Some other insurance policies we could do for ourselves on Earth include things we could do to reduce the impact of a VEI (volcanic explosivity index) 7 or 8 volcano.
Do you really want the human species to live on a second planet too? Then support the development of tech that enables more products of civilization to be produced by small numbers of people. In particular, support the development of biotech that would enable Mars colonists to use genetically engineered microorganisms and plants to produce a large variety of foods, drugs, textiles, and other materials needed to give a Mars colony a decent standard of living. Also, support the development of biotech to repair radiation damage done to colonists on their way to Mars. That biotech would also help rejuvenate humans down here on planet Earth where we are all aging and accumulating damage in every cell in our bodies.
File this under: posts Randall writes when he's irritated by famous people and the news sites who jump on their proposals because they are eager for a story.
Update: One way to think about a Mars colony is it is a challenge for how to make a society with all the benefits of a complex industrial base with far fewer people. How to do this? Genetic engineering to make every colonist and their children geniuses would help because it would reduce the number of people needed to know a greater number of specialized skills. So would artificial intelligence. So would nanodevices that can replicate a large number of designs and ditto genetically engineered microorganisms that can produce a large range of goods.