The Ethics of Cognitive Enhancement

The Ethics of Cognitive Enhancement

Toby Young
Toby Young
6 min read

Editor’s note: this is a companion piece to The Neuroscience of Intelligence: An Interview with Richard Haier.

I first met Richard Haier at the annual conference of the International Society of Intelligence Researchers (ISIR) in Montreal last July. I told him I was hoping to write a book about the public policy implications of the growing weight of evidence that intelligence is genetically based and he said he had already written a book in which he touched on that subject. He then gave me a copy of The Neuroscience of Intelligence.

Not only is Haier’s book an excellent summary of the progress we have made to date in understanding the science of intelligence, it also looks ahead to a future in which various technologies arising out of our improved understanding may be developed to enhance IQ and considers some of the ethical questions that gives rise to.

Haier makes no bones about his own enthusiasm for cognitive enhancement. “Higher intelligence is better than lower intelligence; no one seriously disagrees,” he writes in Chapter Five. “All intelligence research speaks to the goal of enhancement, either directly or indirectly. This is a worthy goal; just ask the parents of a child with low IQ or a cognitive disability. It is also a primary goal of all parents for their children whether articulated so bluntly or not. There may be some people who do not care to be smarter, but I do not know any of them.”

I, too, am in favour of boosting IQ, but am a little more paranoid about advertising that fact, at least when it comes to interventions that go beyond the standard environmental inputs, none of which have proved very effective. As a journalist interested in this field, I had been invited to this year’s ISIR conference to give a talk about the various controversies that intelligence researchers have provoked, sometimes unintentionally, and offer my two cents’ worth on how to avoid doing that in future. (You can read the transcript of the lecture here.) In retrospect, I may not have been the wisest choice as I subsequently became embroiled in a controversy myself when I wrote a blog post for a British education charity about the limits on what schools can achieve when it comes to raising cognitive ability. Andy Ngo wrote about that episode for Quillette here.

As you would expect, the most controversial proposals are those that involve reviving eugenics in some form – although that word is so toxic these proposals often aren’t described that way by their exponents. A few years ago, Vice ran an article about a project being pursued by the Beijing Genomics Institute, later BGI, to sequence the genomes of the world’s smartest people. The plan is to identify the alleles linked to high IQ which will then enable parents to have smarter babies. One of the super-smart individuals who has provided BGI with a DNA sample is Geoffrey Miller, the evolutionary psychologist. He explained to Vice how the process would work:

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 analyse 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.

This isn’t eugenics as it’s commonly understood, since participation in this process would be voluntary, and it’s possible to make a progressive case for this kind of intervention, as I tried to do in Quadrant a couple of years ago. Given that IQ is the single strongest predictor of socio-economic status in the world’s most advanced economies, I argued that this technology, once it comes on stream, could be made available for free in those countries to couples with low IQs from disadvantaged backgrounds. In this way, you could reduce the gap between the mean IQ of the children of the least well-off and those of the most well-off and that, in turn, might reduce the income gap between them in later life. As a classical liberal, this appealed to me since it was a way of addressing the problems thrown up by increasing inequality in some of the world’s richest countries without raising taxes. It also appealed because it mitigated the risk that when an effective process for boosting IQ does become available it will be taken up by the cognitive and socio-economic elite to entrench the considerable advantages already enjoyed by their own children.

This proposal attracted some interesting responses, the most thoughtful being from the sociologist Peter Saunders who expressed scepticism that there would be much take up of this free medical procedure by the have-nots. But it didn’t stimulate as much discussion as I had hoped, probably because the progress scientists are making in identifying the gene variants linked to intelligence is slower than originally anticipated when the human genome was first sequenced 14 years ago. The intellectual architect of the BGI experiment is Stephen Hsu, a professor of Theoretical Physics and Vice-President for Research at Michigan State University, and back in 2015 he predicted that the process outlined by Geoffrey Miller above would be possible in about 10 years’ time. He has subsequently set up a lab in New Jersey called Genomic Prediction that provides advanced genetic testing for couples having IVF. At present, Genomic Prediction only claims to be able to reduce the risk of its customers having babies with genetic diseases – a procedure that the American Society for Reproductive Medicine has decreed is “ethical” – but in a few years’ time, who knows what might be possible? However, it’s worth pointing out that Hsu himself thinks that enabling couples to select embryos with higher IQs would be “ethically contentious” and says Genomic Prediction has no plans do to it. Some experts in the field, including Richard Haier, regard the 10-year time horizon as optimistic.

One of the reasons for this scepticism is that Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS) involving large datasets are making it increasingly clear that IQ is linked to hundreds of gene variants, perhaps thousands, and individually those alleles only have a tiny effect. Identifying all those variants, and understanding how they work in combination, may take longer than 10 years, although the ever-increasing size of genomic datasets may mean it takes less. Haier is optimistic for the long run:

If you think the hunt for intelligence genes is slow and complex, the hunt for the functional expression of those genes is a nightmare. Nonetheless, we are getting better at investigations at the molecular functional level and I am optimistic that, sooner or later, this kind of research applied to intelligence will pay off with actionable enhancement possibilities. The nightmares of neuroscientists are the driving forces of progress.

In a recent article in the Spectator about Genomic Prediction, the British science writer Matt Ridley argued that very few people would take up the chance to have smarter children even if it became possible. He speculated that there may be health risks associated with selecting embryos with higher IQs – what if some of the alleles linked to high IQ are also linked to poor health? – and pointed out that most parents care more about their children being healthy than smart.

Ridley didn’t explicitly argue that people with high IQs are likely to suffer from ill health, including poor mental health, but the stereotypical idea that super-smart people make for terrible athletes and are prone to autistic spectrum disorders might put some people off wanting to have clever children. In fact, most research about the intellectually gifted suggests the opposite: the top 1% are unusually healthy, both mentally and physically. I think Ridley is almost certainly mistaken about the lack of demand for the kinds of services offered by companies like Genomic Prediction once they have been found to be effective.

In The Neuroscience of Intelligence, Haier speculates that progress in neuroscience research may lead to the development of effective drugs that enhance intelligence. He discusses some of the ethical issues thrown up by this possibility – unequal access to these drugs might have implications for distributive justice, for instance – but isn’t too troubled. “If, as I believe, more intelligence is better than less, is there not a moral obligation in favour of enhancement?” he writes. In this, he is echoing the views of Julian Savulesco, the Uehiro professor of Practical Ethics at Oxford University. Far from being squeamish about the ethics of genetic enhancement, Savulesco believes we have a moral obligation to do it provided we can satisfy ourselves it would have a positive effect on people’s lives.

When I spoke to Haier in Montreal, he expressed the same disappointment I feel about the lack of public debate about these issues. Even if it takes more than 10 years to identify the gene variants associated with IQ, it still won’t be long in the grand scheme of things before we have to make policy decisions about how best to use that knowledge. The reason for this lacuna, of course, is the refusal by most public intellectuals and policy wonks in the West to accept that intelligence is largely genetically based, even though, as Haier writes, “the evidence is overwhelming and compelling”. For the most part, they are left-of-centre and it is still a shibboleth of the left, in the teeth of all the evidence to the contrary, that differences in intelligence are rooted in environmental differences. Most left-wing intellectuals remind me of Christian fundamentalists who oppose the teaching of evolution in schools: they are desperately trying to cling on to their theological beliefs in spite of science showing them to be untrue. Until this liberal creationism is discarded, we are doomed to wander into the future without a clear roadmap.

See also: The Neuroscience of Intelligence: An Interview with Richard Haier

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