China is surging ahead with a research project aimed at identifying millions of genetic variations in order to boost intelligence. With little surprise, the swapping of human genes doesn’t merit much attention from the anti-GM crowd; but tinker with a bean or a grain of corn — and get ready for hellfire.
The Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI), possibly the largest genetic research institute on the planet, is trying to unlock the alleles that determine human intelligence — and while that's not genetic engineering, it's no mere academic study either. The project is billed as building-block research for the distant future; but the Chinese hope they are close to reaching an unprecedented level of preimplantation embryo analysis. Forget picking eye color — the Chinese are reaching for IQ manipulation.
The BGI Cognitive Genetics Project has collected DNA samples from 2,000 “smart” individuals across the globe. Here is how BGI advertised online for contributors:
“We currently seek participants with high cognitive ability. You can qualify for the study if you have obtained a high SAT/ACT/GRE score, or have performed well in academic competitions … You may also qualify via exceptional academic credentials or technical accomplishments, which you will have a chance to specify in the survey. Automatic qualifying criteria include: An SAT score of at least 760V/800M post-recentering or 700V/780M pre-recentering; ACT score of 35-36; GRE score of at least 700V/800Q; or revised GRE score of at least 166V/166Q; A PhD from a top US program in physics, math, EE, or theoretical computer science.”
Vice interviewed Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist and one of the 2,000 DNA contributors to the BGI project. Miller was asked how the research will be applied:
“Once you’ve got that information and a fertilized egg that’s divided into a few cells, you can sample one of the cells to figure out the expected intelligence if it’s implanted and becomes a person.
“Any given couple could potentially have several eggs fertilized in the lab with the dad’s sperm and the mom’s eggs. Then you can test multiple embryos and analyze which one’s going to be the smartest. That kid would belong to that couple as if they had it naturally, but it would be the smartest a couple would be able to produce if they had 100 kids. It’s not genetic engineering or adding new genes, it’s the genes that couples already have.
“That same research does open up the door potentially to genetic engineering in the future. But that would take a lot longer to make practical. Actual use of the technology to do embryo screening might take five to 10 years, but it could be just a few years. It depends on how motivated they are.”
The Vice story takes a sensationalist angle, but in a nutshell, the Chinese are searching for the on-and-off switches of human intelligence. Which allele combo might produce a genius? The gene research is not genetic engineering of humans, but the ethical bounds of trait selection are muddled and hazy — and that is the path being carved. The fight over eugenics in a test tube is not that far down the road.
As China's research advances toward building a better baby, anti-GMO campaigners in the West are ever vigilant: raging against the machine of Big Agriculture in the U.S. and bravely making plans to rip up another field of transgenic corn in Europe.
Only a year ago anti-GM activists protested against Chinese children being used as “guinea pigs” in a golden rice trial. But as for concern over Chinese laboratories on the trail of genius children — not a peep of protest and no howls of alarm.
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