QuestionIs it ethical to genetically engineer higher intelligence?
Hopes&Fears answers questions with the help of people who know what they're talking about. Today we ask if it's right, or even advisable, to tweak the human brain's capacity for higher intelligence.
Genetic engineering is the stuff of science fiction, from the superhero movies (Guardians of the Galaxy) and video games (Bioshock, Resident Evil) our culture is obsessed with, to masters of the genre like Ridley Scott and Philip K. Dick. But our increasing scientific capabilities and knowledge of genetic engineering can no longer be dismissed as the insane ramblings of an obscure UFO religion.
In a recent Wired article, which discusses the revolutionary (and highly controversial) gene-editing technique CRISPR-Cas9, ethical concerns abound. Although "researchers have already reversed mutations that cause blindness, stopped cancer cells from multiplying, and made cells impervious to the virus that causes AIDS," the "technique is revolutionary, and like all revolutions, it's perilous." As writer Amy Maxmen explains, the breakthrough "could at last allow genetics researchers to conjure everything anyone has ever worried they would—designer babies, invasive mutants, species-specific bioweapons, and a dozen other apocalyptic sci-fi tropes." Given these advances, the ability to engineer higher intelligence could also be possible in our lifetime. But is it ethical, and moreover, desirable?
John H. Evans, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology, University of California, San Diego; Author, Contested Reproduction: Genetic Technologies, Religion and Public Debate
As a sociologist I do not promote my own ethical views of questions such as whether it is ethical to engineer people to be more intelligent. Instead, I describe and explain the debate that others are having. A basic ethical issue in this debate, incredibly important yet mundane, is safety. Could this be done without negative consequences for the person being engineered, their descendants, and ultimately the entire species? The next basic issue is whether such a change is meant to simply give advantage to the children of the wealthy people who could pay for this (we can assume that this won't be covered by Obamacare). This would take our contemporary inequality that's enacted through culture and hardwire it into our genes. Your ethical response to this facet will depend upon what advantages you think should accrue to the descendants of people with money in this society.
Assuming that these baseline concerns have been satisfied, the debate gets more interesting. I cannot begin to do justice to this question in such a short space, so I will instead simply note that the debate on this issue over the past 50 or so years has been between people who assume that it is good to redesign people to fit our current ideas about what traits are valuable and those who think that the various frailties of the current version of the species are, literally, what makes us human.
Cytoplasmic transfer is a controversial IVF technique involving the eggs of two women (hence, “three-parent embryos”), so that babies inherit genetic material from three donors. There are estimated to be 30 IVF babies born by this technique worldwide, the first group of which graduated high school last year.
Greg DeAngelis, Ph.D.
George Eastman Professor and Chair, Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences; Associate Director, Center for Visual Science, University of Rochester
I think it certainly will be possible to engineer performance enhancements to the brain. The ethical issues are substantial and complex. With regard to engineering people of a generally superior level of intelligence, I don't think that we are very close to that. Given how much we still do not understand about fundamental principles of operation of the brain, compared to other organs, I think that genetic manipulations that improve general intelligence are probably a longer-term proposition, and will clearly have to be considered with great care.
That said, I think that there are other domains in which it will be possible for these kinds of approaches to have a positive impact on brain function. It is possible that gene editing manipulations could help harness the brain's natural plasticity and improve the it's ability to recover from injury? There may also be classes of developmental brain disorders or diseases that could benefit from targeted genetic therapies. Thus, overall, I think it is ethical for science to consider approaches to engineering improved brain function. However, there are many possible ethical pitfalls and misuses of this technology, so it is going to be critical for appropriate safeguards to be put into place.
Susan Kelly, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Medical Sociology, Senior Research Fellow, Egenis (Centre for the Study of Life Sciences), University of Exeter
CRISPR, "the unique organization of short, partially palindromic repeated DNA sequences found in the genomes of bacteria and other microorganisms," is able to move genes, so we would need to know what gene, or more likely genes, would be likely to produce the result desired. Rather than pick a pole on the utopian/dystopian future debate, I would suggest that this kind of thinking leads people to believe in more control of human reproduction than is possible.
Even if it were possible to "engineer higher intelligence," that implies a level of control over the nature of one's offspring that is unrealistic. Even if it were decided that gene editing an embryo to contain genes for intelligence was permissible, this would probably occur during the preimplantation phase of IVF. The success rates of IVF are quite low, so the probability of achieving a pregnancy via this method are currently slim. However, someone will want to do it. One still wouldn't be able to control the myriad other things that could "go wrong" in reproduction, or throughout their offspring's life. So, this question is based on a belief in an unrealistic level of control ove the outcome, especially keeping in mind that there is likely not a single gene for higher intelligence, nor is it likely to be deterministic but rather probabilistic and environmentally shaped.
People have been engaging in selective mating for quite a long time, as we select mates on the basis of characteristics such as intelligence, wealth and health. We don't think this is unethical. But I do think it is unethical to raise the expectations of prospective parents that they can definitely control the characteristics of their offspring, and to benefit financially from such raised hopes.
Ian Boyd, Ph.D.
Professor, School of Biology, College Gate, University of St. Andrews
This is a much more general question than one just about "higher intelligence," which I would probably call "machine learning." It is about how we integrate the assessment and mitigation of the risks associated with innovation into the structure of society. Some risks are real and some are imaginary, or at least they are risks of perception rather than actuality. Discriminating between these is difficult because people create risks in their own minds based upon beliefs that they are reluctant to then change when challenged by contrary evidence.
I don't think there is any doubt that machines are already doing things more intelligently than people. Machines are much better at forecasting what the weather will be like tomorrow than people are, for example. Machines are probably better at flying aeroplanes than people and, most of the time, it's a machine that is flying the planes we are in. By some measures, when we take a flight we step inside a machine that is more intelligent than us. We place our lives in the hands of machines all the time, and these machines will only get better and better at what they do.
The kind of algorithms that are now being developed are likely to allow machines to examine massive amounts of data for emergent properties that human intelligence simply could not compute. The human brain is itself an amazing structure, but it is severely limited by not being scalable, i.e. it's not really possible to connect one brain to another to multiply the computing power and intelligence of people. We try to do this through processes like teamwork etc., but it's a pretty poor substitute for truly scalable machine learning. Machines are totally scalable. I do not see a clear distinction between the progress made to date in the development of machines that can perform autonomous functions and future progress; in other words, I am not sure when one decides that a state of "higher intelligence" has been reached and that this then has to be controlled. We are on a continuum of progress, and we need to assess each step for the risks it poses and mitigate risks as they emerge.
There is a slightly daunting side to the question, though. That is, by developing more intelligent machines, we are also learning about what intelligence really is and allowing us to measure ourselves against what might be possible. A likely outcome of this is that we discover that we are not really very intelligent at all. It may be that our own future evolution will depend on how well we integrate ourselves with machines. Certainly, when I am programming a computer, I see the memory and functionality of the computer as an amazing multidimensional extension of my own brain.
Seven reasons to say "no" to genetically modified humans
Profound health risks to future children
Thin medical justification
Treating human beings like engineered products
Violating the common heritage of humanity
Undermining the widespread policy agreements among dozens of democratic nations
Eroding public trust in responsible science
Reinforcing inequality, discrimination and conflict in the world
Source: Center for Genetics and Society
Jennifer Kuzma, Ph.D.
Goodnight-NCGSK Foundation Distinguished Professor, School of Public and International Affairs; Co-Director, Genetic Engineering & Society Program, North Carolina State University
I think there are some situations for which engineering human beings (e.g. through embryo gene editing or gene therapy) may be appropriate, particularly in preventing or treating disease that greatly affects the ability to lead a productive, healthy, and happy life, or quality if life in general. However, I do not think that intelligence is a trait for which genetic engineering should be applied.
First, intelligence is hard to define and measure. There are many forms of intelligence, and diversity in intelligences seems good for society—we need social, emotional, artistic, mathematical, and other intelligences. If we were to engineer intelligence, which type would be the focus? Would the engineering of some types affect other types, make the others seem less desirable, and/or create a world of second-class citizens?
Second, for the sake of justice and fairness, the opportunity to be engineered should be provided to everyone, not just the rich, connected, or otherwise privileged. However, it is doubtful that the technologies will be accessible to all, as currently, certain enhancements are available only to those with resources (e.g. cosmetic surgery or private education).
We are a free-market society with a neoliberal approach to technology. Even if we were able to change our market and social systems to provide engineering for everyone, higher intelligence would no longer be an enhancement, but would become a requirement for a "normal" life. This situation would compel people to engineer themselves and thus take away their autonomy.
I can see only two situations to even consider engineering traits for intelligence (e.g. by gene editing and gene therapy) and that would be for those people born with birth defects that cause them to have much lower-than-average intelligence (as traditionally measured by IQ) or for those injured so as to lose their previous intelligence. But even then, would those people's other forms of intelligence (social and emotional) be negatively affected? And how could they give proper informed consent for the engineering treatment if they do not fully understand it? In summary, I think that engineering intelligence is not a desirable path for society, and this technical ability should be one genie kept in the bottle.
Benjamin Gregg, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Department of Government, University of Texas at Austin; Author, Human Rights as Social Construction, “Genetic Enhancement: A New Dialectic of Enlightenment?,” and Human Nature as Cultural Design: The Political Challenge of Genetic Engineering (forthcoming)
There are two questions here.
First, is it ethical? The answer to this question depends on the ethics you invoke in answering it. Any answer is likely to involve one or the other of the many conceptions of human nature.
If human nature is something natural, such as an aspect of a wholly naturalistic understanding of the evolved species homo sapiens, then engineering any part of it, including human intelligence, is not unethical from the standpoint of natural science because natural science has no moral content, indeed no meaning whatsoever.
But over the last ten thousand years, thisworldly nature has been interpreted non-scientifically again and again, for example from the otherworldly perspectives of religion and metaphysics. These perspectives invest nature with distinctly non-natural properties. The Jewish Book of Genesis, written in the 6th or 5th century BCE, invests the natural universe with divine design and purpose. From that perspective, engineering the human being may be regarded as violating a sacred design (but presumably only for those who share this very particular worldview).
Modern biology has yet to discover a human nature. But modern secular political communities, such as liberal democratic nation states, need to socially construct a range of human natures for purposes of social organization. Above all, one or the other notion of human nature helps ground the normative legitimation of a system of laws and to guide some forms of public policy.
For example, the German Constitution, Article 1, declares that "human dignity shall be inviolable." The term dignity may be interpreted as allowing the engineering of human intelligence or it may just as well be interpreted as not allowing it. Either interpretation will base itself on a particular conception of human nature. That conception will be law not because it is true—propositions about nature can be true or false (as a matter of objectivity) whereas propositions about how people should be treated can be just or unjust (as a matter of intersubjective social construction).
In sum, whether it is ethical to engineer human intelligence depends on what ethical system you deploy to answer this question. There are many ethical systems in history, in the world today, and new ones no doubt will be developed in the future. All of these are incompatible with each other to various degrees, and agreement on any one is in principle possible, but exceedingly unlikely today. The basis of such agreement would be a political act of a global embrace of a particular cultural understanding, for example like the widespread conviction today that slavery is unacceptable on any grounds.
The second question concerns desirability. Again, any answer to this question depends on one's particular point of view (no "objective" or "neutral" view exists). From whom might it be desirable or undesirable? For the individual? For his or her community? For humankind? For the planet? In each case, both yes and no are plausible answers. For intelligence in any environment is double-edged: it has no inherent moral compass and can facilitate just behavior as well as unjust, decency no less than barbarism.
Consider the individual: greater intelligence means heightened capacity to imagine and realize goals— but could just as well damn the recipient to the continual frustration of a world that will not bend to his or her will. Consider the community: heightened intelligence promises a more productive, creative, and thoughtful populace—but could also result in more aggressive, selfish persons better able than unenhanced citizens to take advantage of fellow citizens. Consider humankind: might a species of greater intelligence better find its way to a peaceful world of just communities—or to an intellectual, social, and material "arms race" among competing groups? Consider the planet: would a species of higher intelligence be a better steward of the fragile planet it shares with other species—or one more rapacious, because its heightened intelligence unleashed heightened needs and the will to realize them even at the planet’s expense?
This exercise merely shows the obvious: that the knife that can save a life can also take a life. Less obvious because necessarily hypothetical are unintended consequences. The very fact of their not being intended marks such consequences as risks. Some risks follow simply from the powerful, exceeding complex interdependencies of various variables. While some risks pay off, others don't. Is heightened intelligence worth that risk? We cannot yet know.
Further, engineering costs money and, at least initially, only wealthy persons would be able to afford the enhancement. In this way, engineered intelligence would exacerbate existing social and economic disparities if, as seems likely, greater intelligence confers advantages in the various spheres of life in which people compete for advantage—spheres in which some are perpetual losers.
In short, whether it is ethical and desirable to engineer higher intelligence depends not on the heightened intelligence as such, but on the complex weave of social, political, economic, cultural and ecological factors that compose human communities. These factors constitute the environment in which bearers of engineered higher intelligence behave. Consider just two factors: wealth and influence. Money is power and people struggle mightily against each other to gain more wealth and wield greater influence, both as individuals and as groups and as nation states. If, as seems likely, heightened intelligence confers advantages, at least to some recipients, at least some of the time, at least in some circumstances, one can imagine a socially destabilizing struggle to control access to it—a struggle with winners, losers, and "collateral damage." But not necessarily.
Again, any estimation of the problems and prospects of human intelligence, whether engineered or not, will depend on some conception of human nature. If human nature is, as I suspect, mainly a social construction, the two questions I consider will find quite a range of answers in a context of deep, intractable, and abiding disagreement both within communities and cultures as well as across different ones. Clearly the questions need creative thinking and analysis—and legislation on regulation—beyond anything anyone has yet produced. The need for such thinking is more pressing than ever because when we talk biomedical enhancements, we are no longer talking science fiction.
In a 2014 study, Motoko Araki and Tetsuya Ishii of Japan's Hokkaido University looked at the rules governing genetic engineering of human embryos in 39 countries and found that 29 of them had instituted bans on such research. Of those, 25 had legally binding bans. Another four had guidelines in place banning the practice but laws that were not exactly enforceable. In the remaining 10, the rules were "ambiguous." Araki and Ishii identified the US as a special case: there is no outright ban but the rules are highly restrictive.
Source: Business Insider
Marcy Darnovsky, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Center for Genetics and Society
There are so many problems built in to your question that it's hard to know where to start.
First, what does "higher intelligence" mean, when many experts argue that there's not a single kind of intelligence? Second, if you accept some kind of single measure of general intelligence (e.g. as denoted by IQ), then we're looking at a case of "missing heritability"—the many investigations to date haven't turned up a gene or set of genes that account for much (for a description of one such effort, see The Stupidity of the 'Smart Gene')
But as the BGI project described in that post demonstrates, supposedly smart people are wasting a lot of time and money on a wild goose chase for "smart genes"—and feeding the misguided idea that "we" are close to being able to genetically engineer smartness.
To the extent that such stories become culturally accepted—even in the absence of any success in genetic "enhancements" of any kind—we risk exacerbating the already shameful levels of social inequality with which we live.
If by "engineering higher intelligence" you mean efforts to produce genetically enhanced humans, it's not only unethical and dangerously unacceptable, but illegal in dozens of countries. The development of gene editing tools has led to speculation about genetically modified people — but going down that road would likely lead to a world of greater inequality, discrimination, and conflict.
The Stupidity of the ‘Smart Gene’, The Huffington Post
ILLUSTRATION: Leonard Peng