Genetics, Philosophy, Science / Tech

The Ethics of Cognitive Enhancement

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.


Toby Young is a British Journalist and is associate editor of The Spectator. Follow him on Twitter @toadmeister.

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


  1. David Turnbull says

    What would increased average IQ accomplish? There would still be exactly as many ‘stupid’ people and ‘smart’ people.

    • Your comment seems to follow the same logic as “why trying to increase the life span of individuals? There will always be people who live for longer and people who don’t”.

      • David Turnbull says

        You’re right. I edited my original post which included:
        As a retired physicist I’ve spent my life surrounded by those who could arguably be called high IQ individuals. I’ve seen no reason to think that a world populated by these people would be any better. They share all of the failings of ‘low IQ’ people.

        • Maybe if you spent time outside your bubble you would understand.

          • David Turnbull says

            Maybe if you read the whole thread, you would understand.

          • David Turnbull says

            I’m assuming by that comment that you think that as a physicist I lived in a bubble. If so, then may I politely assert that your stereotyping shows that you are the one in the bubble..

  2. What about people with a high IQ who are too unmotivated and uninterested to apply their talents in any practical way? Less IQ but a lot more common sense and practicality might be more beneficial to society. Common sense Gene, motivation Gene, Altruism Gene? You get my drift…

    • Me and my philosophy friends were discussing that issue a few weeks ago, and one of them brought up a good point: What benefit is it to people who don’t really need it, and more importantly how would it affect their sense of self? Does the plumber need an IQ of 180, and how would they feel knowing that they have such a high IQ impact their self-esteem? My friend believes that it would have a net negative effect on society *as it is currently constructed* because there would be all these genetically smart people stuck doing things that are obviously below what they are capable of.

  3. Sure, why not running experiments with babies?

    “High intelligence: A risk factor for psychological and physiological overexcitabilities”

    What if after careful, multi-generation breeding, we end up with a depressive, over emotive, suicidal nutcase who masters quantum physics, political sciences and humanities, all at once? Like Michael Jordan, but with a PhD in astrodynamics and mentally unstable?

    No way.

    Why can’t scientists make good use of their spare time?

    I want wings & infra-red vision. Can I clone myself for organ transplant? If I kill my clone, is it murder?

  4. Alex,
    Good point, but to some extent also the point of the article.
    I think it’s a given that genetic enhancements, especially for intelligence, will be developed; the time to consider the “what ifs” is now, not after the enhancing becomes a fact.
    Here’s another thought to throw into the mix:
    I believe it’s true only up to a point that intelligence is the best predictor of success; there’s diminishing returns as IQ rises and, I understand, a downward trend after a certain point.
    Why? I think to date, most people are pretty bad at raising very smart kids. The natural inclination is to praise them for being so smart. This turns into a disability as eventually they shy away from tasks that stretch them – because the praise has been all about how easily they do things. If we’re going to have a lot of very smart people running around, we need to get much better at raising them.

    • I’d like to see a source on your diminishing returns on IQ. Specifically I want to see where you see a downward trend.

      As per Richard’s book, at the highest end of the scale you stop seeing great returns, but there is no downward thrust.

    • That’s hardly the point of the article, IMO, but that’s just me. Cloning, and transgenesis are far bigger issues that will hit us very soon, if not already. China will be the first country to break this ethical barrier.

      Also, you make the assumption that IQ enhanced individuals will care about us, or anything for that matter. Why would a human care about monkeys? Besides putting them in zoos.

  5. Excellent companion piece to the Haier interview. You say: “This isn’t eugenics as it’s commonly understood, since participation in this process would be voluntary.”

    Fair enough, but the common conception of eugenics is shaped by its worst manifestations. Darwin and Galton used “eugenics” to refer to the study of how genetics can be used to improve human welfare, broadly construed. Health, intelligence, even aesthetic beauty are all contenders for desirable modifications.

    Bioethicists have distinguished coercive from non-coercive eugenics, and one of the mainstream views today is “liberal eugenics” — a term coined by Nicholas Agar. Julian Savulescu endorses this view, as do many others.

    For those interested, I just published a defense of the Darwinian/Galtonian view of eugenics:

    The best overall resource on this debate is Allen Buchanan’s book, Better than Human:

    Julian Savulescu defends liberal eugenics here:

  6. I have thought and worked deeply with the issue of high intelligence for over 40 years simply because my IQ is extremely high, 183 on the last test i took. My work in that area was necessary just to get a grasp of who i was in relation to the rest of my culture. That difference in mental functioning continually led to difficulties in both relationships and communication which took years to understand and create work arounds for. I strongly disagree with the focus of your article. I have met many high IQ people as well as been closely involved with many people of much lower IQs, inevitably so. I can’t in any way say that high IQ people have any greater moral development than lower, often quite the opposite. Further, the high IQ very often formulate complex internal maps of the structure of reality that, because of their high IQ, they are certain are correct when in most instances they are not. Generally, they suffer from a severe lack of humility; they very often cannot accept outside feedback about the structures they believe are true or about their orientation as human beings. High IQ is simply an attribute, like physical capacity or height or tonal sensitivity. Among the high IQ, due to the cultural support for it, it often becomes the attribute that is developed while the other necessary attributes of truly becoming human are neglected. They often believe that only dissociated mentation is important. They have a preference for reductive thinking, an orientation which allows a great deal of control. They are usually very bad at holistic thinking which depends on the development of feeling (not emotion) rather than thinking as the dominant approach. They, very often, are uncomfortable with the fact that no matter what humans learn about the universe we remain, as we will always remain, only children counting grains of sand at the seashore. Because the brain is merely an organic computer focusing identity and function within that organ leads to morally free behavior. I have written extensively on this in some of my books, as have others, notably John Ralston Saul. I have also met many people with much lower IQs, in the 80-90 range that are brilliant in their fields, simply because they are utilizing other approaches to life than intellect. The poet William Stafford liked to ask difficult questions: Would you rather have a highly intelligent friend who was cruel or a low IQ friend that was deeply kind? Which would make a better politician? A better scientist? A better healer? Although binary thinking is always problematical such questions serve to illustrate an important point: high IQ is no guarantee of the most important human qualities, qualities that we do need to have functional community, that we do need to successfully inhabit this planet. My work over the past 40 years and my own personal experience can not in any way lead me to support the thrust of your article. It is deeply misplaced. In saying this i do not doubt your intentions but your perspective is too limited and has not taken into account scores of other factors that undermine your orientation.

    • Jachin says

      I don’t know if I necessarily follow your logic. First, it must be established that personal experiences do not count as evidence. Therefore, to complete the point you have argued, evidence must be offered that shows that high IQ individuals are susceptible to undesirable behavior (i.e. rudeness,arrogance, etc.). Secondly, I think that you present a false dichotomy. You essentially suggest that the focus of the article is wrong, because it insinuates that a higher IQ world is equivalent to a better world. Instead, you say that being nice needs to be focused on. However, I think that you assumed that higher IQ individuals are “meaner” and therefore we would lose an element of “niceness” in our society. Yet, there is no reason to believe that will happen. Consider the high IQ countries in the world. With the exception of China, almost all of them have high standards of living. Individuals are more likely to be altruistic in a well-off society, which makes the lives of lower IQ people more tolerable. The quality of life of lower IQ individuals, as well as the standard of living of these people, is higher in high IQ countries, even though the individual is further below the average. I disagree with the methods presented in this article, but I think that attempting to raise the average IQ is a noble pursuit, since the negative repercussions would be associated with the cost of the program. I don’t forsee a significant problem by raising the IQ average by 10 points or so.

  7. Alan Zuschlag says

    Cognitive enhancement is certainly a worthy goal, but raising IQ without addressing certain genetically determined behaviors is potentially counter-productive. Poor impulse control, inability to concentrate for longer periods of time, and violent tendencies are arguably socially disruptive traits that may be found in greater concentrations in lower IQ populations, but they aren’t necessarily the result of a lower IQ. Enhancing that one trait while ignoring the others could lead to worse outcomes. Yet identifying the genetic basis for those traits is likely to be even more societally fraught than identifying those responsible for varying degrees of general intelligence.

  8. Jachin says

    I believe that the problems presented here are worth considering, but I am suspicious of the trade-offs presented. The Q/heritability hypothesis still has a large problem . Consider the Jews. Jewish immigrants, arriving in the mid to late 1800’s in the United States, scored abysmally low on IQ tests administered by both the army and independent studies. After around half of a century, however, Jews were scoring much higher than the average. They has also attained much higher education and income at this time (Thomas Sowell). This story is not unique to the Jews either. Many major ethnic groups came to Americain poverty, having attained little education and even less status. This contributed to low IQ scores. Yet, in later years these groups had attained many achievements, in education, business, the arts, and academia. There is a common pattern in these groups, however, and it is that their cultures supported all of these endeavours. If one makes it a goal to raise IQ, one must work on the culture of the individuals whom he wants to perform.

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  10. Fish says

    I’m not immediately sold on the idea that high IQ = better, in general.

    I expect it comes from the idea that, with a higher IQ, one can emulate a lower IQ (one of Turing’s axioms), but it’s not obvious to me that this applies in brains.

    And linked to the above, I’ve heard of findings (which I can’t find right now) showing that increased IQ does not correlate with increased happiness at the individual level. If this is true, then in my view it does raise ethical objections to increasing the IQs of embryos.

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