A controversial US scientist, who predicts a future where IVF couples can decide the IQ of their children, insists his vision will become a reality by 2029.
Stephen Hsu, co-founder of Genomic Prediction at Michigan State University, told the Guardian: ‘Accurate IQ predictors will be possible, if not the next five years, the next 10 years certainly. I predict certain countries will adopt them.’
It is a grey area, but the technology is there, though it is still far more complex and involved than fixing hereditary diseases.
Experts are tentatively hoping that no one will take the first leap as ethicists try to draw up guidelines to prevent a second wave of eugenics, the controlled breeding of desirable traits which Nazis attempted to employ.
But since the bombshell announcement from Chinese scientist He Jiankui last fall, admitted he had editing the DNA of twin girls to cure them of HIV, the global community of ethicists and geneticists is grappling with how to prevent another.
Meanwhile, Genomic Prediction is steaming ahead, offering parents the first ever ‘scorecard’ of their embryos, which show their possible baby’s risks of diseases, defects, stature, and (a rough estimate of) intelligence.
‘Maybe the bottom 1 percent embryo will grow up to be a great person … even be a scientist, but the odds are against it,’ Hsu said of the ‘low IQ’ embryos.
‘I honestly feel if we can calculate that score and find a real negative outlier there’s an ethical responsibility for us to report that.’
His words ominously echo those of the fathers of the eugenics movement in the UK and the US – which inspired the Nazi culling of the Jews.
For example, Francis Galton, who coined the phrase ‘eugenics’ in 1883 and promoted it, said: ‘A stop should be put to the production of families of children likely to include degenerates.’
Charles Davenport, a respected biologist in the late 1800s who taught eugenics at Cold Spring Harbor, believed we should encourage the procreation of Germans, who he saw as ‘thrifty, intelligent, and honest’ over Irish, who he deemed to have ‘considerable mental defectiveness.’
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes ruled in 1927 that ‘three generations of imbeciles are enough’ when he agreed that a woman, Carrie Buck, should be sterilized for being deemed ‘feeble-minded’. It has since transpired that Buck was framed so that the state of Virginia (and others) could be justified in forcibly sterilizing tens of thousands of people based on their perceived intelligence.
Editing or selecting embryos is not robbing people of their right to have children, but ethicists warn it is an attempt to curate that decision.
It is not possible to tweak every aspect of our looks and intelligence – only some of it is hereditary and written into our DNA.
And, a decade ago, the idea of even tweaking some of it was preposterous, or at least a very distant prospect.
IQ and appearance is determined by a mosaic of genetic factors, and we have never had the technology to piece them all together to even arrive at a point where we could edit them.
But recently that has started to change; scientists can now analyze how any gene impacts any kind of outcome to understand how it could be changed.
Genomic Prediction is actively working on speeding up that process, particularly with a focus on the traits that ethicists are so concerned about.
Hsu insists that, while it is currently not allowed in many countries including the US and the UK, we will soon come around.
‘The IVF pioneers … were called monsters, Frankenstein doctors; it was predicted that these babies would have health problems,’ Hsu told the Guardian.
‘I am actually reassured by that. IVF is completely normalized now. Everyone who is pointing their finger at [Genomic Prediction] now should go back and read those articles.’