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Should We Use Genetic Technology to Boost Human Intelligence?

Chinese researcher He Jiankui is now world-famous for having announced the creation of genetically-modified twins that would be resistant to HIV. He said that he edited the genomes of these twins with CRISPR/Cas9, a technology that makes it possible to target specific genes within a living organism. Everywhere, scientists and non-scientists alike reacted with astonishment. Most comments were negative, but not all were critical of gene editing per se.

Julian Savulescu, the Uehiro Professor of Practical Ethics at Oxford who favors gene editing and embryo selection, released a press statement denouncing Jiankui’s decision to perform the experiment on healthy babies instead of on embryos that had fatal genetic diseases and would be certain to die in the absence of the intervention. He also pointed out that gene editing is still experimental and “capable of causing genetic problems early and later in life, including the development of cancer.”

By contrast, Marcy Darnovsky, the Executive Director of the Center for Genetics and Society and a long standing critic of genetic editing, wrote: “In a time of resurgent racism and socio-economic disparity, the last thing we need is for some people and groups to consider themselves biologically superior to others.”

Irrespective of He’s ethics (or lack of them), there is still much resistance to the idea of genetic enhancement, although the degree of resistance often depends on what traits we’re talking about enhancing.

Take intelligence. General cognitive ability, or Spearman’s g, is a trait that has a profound effect on social outcomes, both at the individual level and at the collective level. A technology that enhanced this trait would have consequences that we can barely envisage. To date, no such technology is available. But we had better start discussing cognitive enhancement soon if we’re to be ready to act responsibly when the technology comes on stream.

To be clear, the debate we need to have is whether cognitive enhancement is desirable once technological mastery has been achieved, and once the chosen technique is completely safe. No one is seriously proposing experimenting with embryos now. Since intelligence is a complex trait influenced by many genes, using CRISPR/CAS9 to try and enhance it would be a more challenging task than the technology was originally designed for and could increase the chances of off-target mutations. In addition, there would be unknown risks associated with editing dozens or even hundreds of genes, many of which have effects we’re unaware of. Testing embryos and implanting those likely to have high IQs would be safer, given that the embryos in question would not be genetically edited. However, even that isn’t yet possible since we still don’t know enough about the many genes linked to IQ to accurately predict which embryos are likely to turn into highly intelligent adults. But what should we do once cognitive enhancement has become both possible and safe?

The Weight of History

Before delving into the topic, it is worth addressing the concerns of Marcy Darnovsky who has warned about the “emergence of a market-based eugenics,” among other things. The word “eugenics,” which is freighted with a lot of historical baggage, is often thrown at contemporary advocates of genetic enhancement as a way of discrediting their views. But what do these enthusiasts have in common with early eugenicists?

The eugenics movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries comprised a wide variety of personalities, all of whom shared two central convictions: First, that behavioral tendencies are at least partly inherited; and second, that society will benefit if we increase the frequency of traits like good health and intelligence in the general population. Aside from these two core beliefs, the movement was very heterogeneous. It included conservatives and socialists, feminists and opponents of birth control, and even Lamarckians as well as Darwinians (see A. Buchanan et al., From Chance to Choice, Cambridge University Press, 2011, p.32-37).

Eugenicists also differed on the means to achieve their aims. Some proposed compulsory sterilization laws and bear some responsibility for the introduction of those laws in Europe and the U.S. and the cruel sterilization of tens of thousands. However, the signatories of the 1939 manifesto “Social Biology and Population Improvement“―which aimed to answer the question: “How could the world’s population be improved most effectively genetically?”―only endorsed voluntary sterilization, along with contraception and abortion. The signatories hoped for “the removal of racial prejudices and of the unscientific doctrine that good or bad genes are the monopoly of particular peoples or of persons with features of a given kind.” This should warn us against any monolithic view of twentieth-century eugenics.

Instead of using the label “eugenics” to discredit advocates of genetic enhancement, it would be more productive to ask what precisely we deem unacceptable and why. We should distinguish between measures that were adopted in the name of eugenics, such as compulsory sterilization, and the goal itself, which can be achieved by other means. Today, our understanding of human heredity, and how to influence it, is far more advanced than it was in the early twentieth century. With further research into the relevant technologies, as well as a careful debate on the ethics of genetic enhancement, we might be able to influence human genetic development in a way which is both humane and socially beneficial.

Misconceptions About Intelligence

There are many misconceptions about intelligence, both among the general public and educated people. He Jiankui himself was quoted in the MIT Technology Review saying he was perfectly happy to use CRISPR to eliminate diseases “but not for enhancement or improving IQ, which is not beneficial to society” (my emphasis). On the face of it, that’s an odd claim to make. Intelligence is, to quote a largely accepted definition, “a very general mental capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience.” Far from being a mere academic skill―as Nassim Taleb claimed recently―IQ is positively correlated with many important traits and life outcomes, including altruism, creativity, job performance, longevity, sense of humour, socioeconomic success, and even semen quality (see James Thompson‘s rebuttal of Taleb); it is also negatively correlated with many outcomes that most people would regard as undesirable, including accident proneness, crime and delinquency, impulsivity, infant mortality, political extremism, and prejudice towards racial minorities. (For more correlates, see A. Jensen, The g factor, Praeger, 1998, p.300 and E. Dutton & M. A. Woodley of Menie, At Our Wits’ End, Imprint Academia, 2018, p.11).

Not all variations in these life outcomes can be explained by environmental variables such as socio-economic status (SES). IQ is a better predictor of personal SES than parental SES, although both are important, and IQ is both an influence on and is influenced by SES (see S. Ritchie, Intelligence: All that matters, John Murray Learning, p.43-47). In addition, for those born in families that are already below the poverty line, IQ significantly predicts the likelihood of escaping poverty. More generally, IQ in childhood is a good predictor of upward and downward social mobility.

These correlates mean that if there was some way to guarantee that a child was born with an above-average IQ, that child’s life would be improved, both professionally and personally (myopia is a rare exception), in the opinion of most parents. Intelligence is by no means all that matters, but it is clearly a valuable asset. Perhaps most significantly for parents, higher IQ is associated with greater happiness, even after controlling for other important variables such as SES and health. Parents who understand this and want their child to be happy, as most parents do, would not hesitate for long if asked whether they would prefer their child to have a high or low IQ, whatever their child’s goals might be.

A high IQ is advantageous not only for children themselves, but also for their parents, since it constitutes a protective barrier against juvenile delinquency and school failure. Of course, smart children are more likely to ask complex questions frequently and this may be exhausting at times. They are also much harder to fool when you want to (but nobody said you should).

IQ and the Common Good

A high IQ benefits not only those who have it, but often those who live around them. Apart from the obvious advantages of altruism, society clearly benefits from the presence of individuals who are productive, law-abiding, supportive of individual liberties, and resistant to racism and other forms of extremism (to give just a few examples). Unsurprisingly, nations with high average IQs are far more prosperous than those with low average IQs, partly because groups with higher intelligence are more patient, more cooperative, and better informed, which has a decisive impact on how well national industries fare.

One of the objections leveled against gene editing and embryo selection is that they would only be available to wealthy families and that would exacerbate intellectual and socio-economic differences and lead to what Darnovky calls “a society of genetic haves and have-nots.” This is a legitimate concern. However, it’s not a knock-down argument against genetic enhancement. Darnovky may not like it, but we already live in a society where some people have genetic advantages. Therefore, cognitive enhancement could be used to reduce cognitive inequality, depending on how it is implemented.

The genetic process might be quite expensive to begin with, thereby restricting its use to the very rich, but technologies tend to become much cheaper over time. In 2006, sequencing an entire human genome cost around $14 million dollars. In 2014, full genomes could be sequenced for $1000, and in November 2018 Veritas Genetics offered the first opportunity to have full genomes sequenced for $200. In the future, companies offering cognitive enhancement would likely reduce the price of their services as well, thereby making it affordable to the broad mass of people.

Even if cognitive enhancement was initially a service that only the wealthy could afford, many others would benefit from such enhancement, not just the children of the rich. With more high IQ individuals, there would be more breakthroughs in medical research, and also more creative accomplishments, whether scientific, artistic, or literary. According to a 2012 study by Ruut Veenhoven & Yowon Choi, an individual’s happiness level is better predicted by her nation’s average IQ than by her own IQ. Obviously, in the long term, most of us would reject a society of genetic haves and have-nots. But increasing the IQ of certain individuals would only be a first step towards a world of relatively uniform and high intelligence, in which everyone would have a fair chance of being socially, economically, and educationally successful.

For some traits, it is less easy to decide whether genetic editing is desirable. Extraversion, for instance, has both benefits and drawbacks. But no such dilemma exists for intelligence. Both in terms of individual wellbeing and the common good, high intelligence is clearly a beneficial trait. Cognitive enhancement should make it possible to increase it without infringing individual rights or invoking irrational prejudices.

Several polls have found that Americans are in favor of using gene editing to reduce the risk of serious diseases, but not for improving IQ. However, the public has not always been given clear information about intelligence by the media in the last 50 years, so may be basing this preference on false notions. With fewer misconceptions about intelligence, perhaps less people would regard cognitive enhancement as dangerous or undesirable. By increasing their children’s intellectual potential, parents would increase both their likelihood of being happy and their ability to make the world a better place.

If We Do Nothing

Perhaps the reason so many people oppose gene manipulation to boost intelligence is because they’re reluctant to change a child’s nature, particularly when it’s not necessary to save the child’s life or ensure she’s healthy.

In a 2017 poll, the pollsters drew a clear line between two purposes of gene manipulation: “to treat medical conditions or restore health” and “to enhance or improve human abilities.” In real life, though, it is not always easy to tell what constitutes a disability and what doesn’t. An IQ of 65 does not qualify as a disease. Yet it is associated with significant shortcomings in many aspects of life, including difficulty in finding fulfilling employment. If it was possible to raise the prospective IQ of an embryo from 65 to 90 or 95, doing so would likely prevent much suffering.

What about children who are already destined to have above-average IQs? Is there any benefit in manipulating their genes to make them even more intelligent? Yes. In recent years, there have been increasing concerns about a decline in average intelligence in Western countries. The warnings have come from researchers such as Richard Lynn, Michael A. Woodley of Menie, Gerhard Meisenberg, and also James Flynn, who declared at the 2017 ISIR conference: “I have no doubt that there has been some deterioration of genetic quality for intelligence since late Victorian times.”

In 2017, an Icelandic study found direct evidence for a decline in genotypic intelligence: the authors noticed a decline in the frequency of genetic variants associated with educational attainment. They pointed out that “if this trend persists over many centuries, the impact could be profound” (p.E730). This tendency is not often debated in public, but it could indeed endanger Western societies’ ability to maintain economic prosperity, peace, liberty, and democracy, all of which require people who are able to delay gratification, resist simplistic, one-size-fits-all ideologies, and deal responsibly with the freedoms they enjoy.

In addition, we now live in a world where technology is omnipresent, and where numeracy, computer skills, scientific literacy, and economic competence are of ever-increasing importance. Most of the jobs that disappeared in the twentieth century were unskilled jobs, and most of those that will appear in the twenty-first and twenty-second centuries will likely require highly specialized abilities. Without a sufficient level of average intelligence, we may be unable to find enough people to do these new jobs.

But that is not my main concern. From 1850–2000, our world saw immense technological breakthroughs in a wide variety of areas. These profoundly changed society and yielded many benefits, but also gave rise to many new challenges. In his recent book On the Future (2018), Royal Astronomer Martin Rees addresses some of them, including nuclear threats (p.17-20), climate change (p.37-44), the search for alternative energy sources (p.44-57), GM crops (p.66), the increasing resistance of pathogens to antibiotics (p.72), and the promises and risks of artificial intelligence (p.83-90). Rees does not address the decline in human intelligence, but he notices one common cause of humanity’s problems:

there is too little planning, too little horizon scanning, too little awareness of long-term risks. (p.226-227)

This is precisely why intelligence matters. Today’s world is full of possibilities and full of dangers. We humans of the twenty-first century have powers that go far beyond the Greeks or the Romans’ wildest dreams, including the power to end civilization itself. Yet our intelligence is no more developed than it was in 1850, even though numeracy and literacy have improved. Can we preserve ourselves from all the major risks we fear? We may have become, to quote Russian Deputy Minister Dmitri Rozogine, “monkeys playing with hand grenades.”

Gene editing and embryo selection still elicit a good deal of resistance. But in the next decades, humanity will need highly-intelligent visionaries who can see the long-term consequences of political decisions, assess benefits and risks with accuracy, and find solutions to the problems of our increasingly complex world. If we wish to overcome our current difficulties and offer a bright and safe future to our children, cognitive enhancement will surely help.

I do not pretend that all the opponents of these ideas are motivated by fear or ignorance. There may be some valid arguments that I am not aware of, and I would be happy to engage with them. But these have to be serious arguments. Name-calling, ad hominem attacks and attempts to get research scientists defunded or fired can only delay debate on this vital issue. Future discussions should be based on the ethics and the difficulties of future genetic technologies, assessing the benefits and risks, and also an assessment of the risks of not acting. We should acknowledge that even with safe and advanced technologies, it is impossible to predict the impact of our choices with absolute precision. On the other hand, it is not hard to predict what will happen if humanity’s intelligence does not grow to solve present and future problems. We need to start talking about which risk is greater.


Julien Delhez is a Ph.D. student in the department of Egyptology/Coptology at the University of Göttingen. All views expressed here are his own.


  1. tarstarkas says

    ‘we already live in a society where some people have genetic advantages’. So let’s make the disparity even greater. What could possibly go wrong?

    The author also seems to have a fixation on IQ, conflating that one-dimensional measure with intelligence. IQ measures acquired knowledge and the ability to put that knowledge down on paper, not innate intelligence, which is multi-dimensional. He also seems to think that altruism and other measures of empathy and higher IQ go together without providing any proof. In my experience the higher the IQ, the more the owner of that intelligence looks down on those with lower measured intelligence, often to the point of considering them subhuman. He also really really tries hard to whitewash the pretty nasty backstory of the eugenics movement

    Fixing obvious genetic defects in embryos and people to make them healthy is a good think. Creating an overclass of super-intelligence people is not. Science fiction is replete with good examples of the horrors that occur when that happens.

    • dellingdog says

      And you tarstarkss, provided no “proof” for any of your assertions. Rethink your position.

      I don’t mind the itching, but I hate the burning.

      • dellingdog says

        This is the false dellingdog. Accept no substitutes!

    • Look up, “…General cognitive ability, or Spearman’s g“. Tests cognitive load bearing capacity, by maxing out all those specific brain processes without which problem solving would greatly suffer.

      Working memory strength/time (“object” length).
      Pattern recognition – complexity & speed.

      It’s an obvious plus for humanity, whether or not you can see it; admittedly it takes a bit of intellect to do so.

    • Marcus Anthony says

      No, IQ doesn’t simply measure aquired knowledge. That’s why IQ tests of varying types tend to produce similar results. If you read the literature you will see the primary debate is nature vs nurture. Very few theorists outside of ideologically-driven discourses believe IQ is totally nurture. Most put it around 50/50. That there is a genetic component to IQ is as close to being undeniable as anything in science.

      • A. D. White says

        That there is a substantial genetic component to IQ is denied by every Marxist professor.

    • Firitus says

      The “in my opinion” voided the demand to the author of providing you with such “proof”.
      Additionally, the author is careful to emphasize “IQ is positively correlated with many important traits and life outcomes, including altruism, etc”. Being “Correlation” the most important word in that whole paragraph, since we known that correlation does not equal causation.

    • Passerby says

      “‘we already live in a society where some people have genetic advantages’. So let’s make the disparity even greater. What could possibly go wrong?”
      What’s wrong with disparity in intelligence? Some people are good enough at sports to make a living by competing professionally. Other do not. That’s not a problem. We don’t work to end disparity in ability.

      “The author also seems to have a fixation on IQ, conflating that one-dimensional measure with intelligence. IQ measures acquired knowledge and the ability to put that knowledge down on paper, not innate intelligence, which is multi-dimensional. He also seems to think that altruism and other measures of empathy and higher IQ go together without providing any proof.”
      Sour grapes?

      “In my experience the higher the IQ, the more the owner of that intelligence looks down on those with lower measured intelligence, often to the point of considering them subhuman.”
      Was it because the intelligent person look at others’ IQ test results? Or did they simply observe others’ behaviour?

      “He also really really tries hard to whitewash the pretty nasty backstory of the eugenics movement”
      Did you completely miss the part of the article which talks about the issue of throwing the word “eugenicist” at anyone who presents a vaguely similar ideas (even if they explicitly state the implemtation of them would be strictly voluntary) as a way of discrediting them simply because the forced version of the idea was attempted in the past?

      “Creating an overclass of super-intelligence people is not.”
      Nobody’s going to be piloting any mobile suits for a while, relax.

      “Science fiction is replete with good examples of the horrors that occur when that happens.”
      It’s also not an argument.

    • Cameron says

      IQ is not a one dimensional measure. There are many different tests associated with IQ testing that measure a range of things. The first thing you should do before making such statements is to do some basic research.

  2. Publius says

    In livestock breeding, selecting for a desirable trait usually results in increase in mean but decrease in variability. So we will all become “excellent sheep” …

    • Joaquim C says

      And more prone to diseases… with less adaptative traits..

      • David of Kirkland says

        It’s unclear anybody knows how to do this. The biggest issue isn’t having smarter people (presumably it makes or better brain function as genes only give capacity, not knowledge or wisdom), but what happens to the people created who are “mistakes” in the process. If you are okay with terminating the defective creations, or personally paying to care for them, this is a slippery slope indeed. After all, for livestock, they will kill problem children.

      • Chris Morriss says

        There is one obvious opportunity for human gene editing. To restore the ability of the human liver to make vitamin C internally from glucose as most other mammals can. This would improve human health and well-being enormously. The inabilty to synthesise Vitamin C is because we have lost the ability to produce the GULO (gulonolactone oxidase) gene. This did not matter at the time, as the diet of most primates in the wild is very high in vitamin C.
        The genetic defect is common to most primates, so the gene-editing experiments could be performed on monkeys.
        Of course there are ethical concerns here, though far more cruel experiments are performed on lower primates every day.

        • Chris Morriss says

          (Reply to myself).
          I should have said that we have a defect in the gene, so that we fail to produce GULO.


    • Lightning Rose says

      “Boost it” somehow, ’cause the morning papers show evidence every day that we’re hitting Peak Human Stupid!

    • A. D. White says

      That might happen if people were treated like livestock …

  3. somewoman says

    Investing in raising the genetic intelligence of humanity is paramount. The paranoia and fear of doing so that is so prevalent among societies is both sad and dangerous in the long-term. Raising IQ will not raise arrogance or conformity. It will raise problem solving capacity and the correlates of IQ as were mentioned in this article. If possible, it would be the most successful solution for allowing currently “low-skilled” people to remain productive. Otherwise, they will have to remain as burdens on basic income for their lives as robots take over more and more work. Within the next 25 years, the cars/trucks will drive themselves and drones will make deliveries. This will put millions of people out of work who have no other skills. Younger generations with similar intellectual capabilities will remain permanently unemployed all their lives. If you genetically improved their IQs, they could do more highly skilled work, which we will need for more innovation.

    Raising IQ would also reduce some of the negative ramifications of migrations from certain poor developing nations. Right now, it is realistic to expect that african migrants and their descendents will in aggregate never be a net contributer to scandanavian societies because of the vast difference in average IQs of their populations. The africans will always be net welfare users in a western socialist state. But if you raised their IQs, they wouldn’t have to be. The entire continent of Africa could become self sufficient in an advanced global economy instead of dependent on western aid for everything beyond subsistence.

    people look at the risks of raising IQs through genetic modifications and forget to look at the risks of not doing so. Those risks are profound and disturbing.

      • dellingdog says

        This is the false dellingdog. Accept no substitutes!

    • Instead of worrying about a possible future eugenetics we should worry about the present dysgenetics. Today abortion is allowed in countries with higher IQ, and forbidden in countries with lower IQ. Result: mass immigration from 3rd-world countries that never produced a civilisation. IQ differences exist, even if it’s forbidden to speak about them. Human intelligence is the most precious natural resource, and we are squandering it. Either this is fixed, or the world will become a big 3rd world

      • David Turnbull says

        “3rd-world countries that never produced a civilisation”
        Can you name even one without risking betraying your profound ignorance of world history?

    • Your sentiment is clear, & it’s reasonable up to a point.
      I’m not currently aware of any data to support your claim re: African countries.
      This tenuous position, unfortunately undermines your otherwise well adressed submission.

    • Stephanie says

      Dellingdog, somewoman is not being racist by pointing out an objective fact. However, it is likely that seeing lower IQs in Africa as a problem to be solved by genetic fiddling can lead to exactly the sorts of eugenics that we eventually discovered was a bad thing.

        • Stephanie says

          @the real dellingdog, hopefully people don’t take advantage of this open forum to impersonate each other, or it will necessitate the sign in process (and subsequent tracking) that makes other comment boards so dangerous. Shame on the false dellingdog!

    • I question your assertion that: “Raising IQ will not raise arrogance or conformity.”

      The Massachusetts Bay colony was settled by a self-selected population that likely had a mean IQ at lest one standard deviation higher than that in England in the 17th C. The Pilgrims and Puritans were a stratified sample taken from the relatively well to do of their contemporary English middle-class of freeholders and lesser gentry. After 1660 and until 1700, this population was isolated and became, according to David Hackett Fisher, the healthiest, wealthiest and best educated population in the world at the dawn of the 18th C. But they may also have been the most arrogant and conformist population as well.

      Over the course of the 18th and 19th C., the descendants of the original settlers of the Bay Colony forgot where they came from and focused their considerable energy on making money and hectoring their contemporaries about their failings. The contemporary US is very much the end product of the settlement of New England.

    • A. D. White says

      As long as free competition for jobs exists it is doubtful IQ worldwide will be drop. Unless the state becomes the sole employer, as happens under socialism.

  4. mitchellporter says

    The technical capacity to conduct experiments in this direction is probably far more advanced than most people realize. The genetic engineering of mice, to make them better problem-solvers, has been going on for twenty years, and the human genome is not so different to the mouse genome.

    However, there is insufficient time left for a new eugenics to affect human destiny. The methods and concepts of computer science – algorithms, computational complexity – now offer the greatest insight into the nature of intelligence. There remain the contingent questions of what the brain is doing and how it does it, and properly incorporating the role of consciousness into our understanding of intelligence will require some kind of ontological shakeup.

    But the mathematical theory of computation (due to people like Turing and Gödel) is now at the foundation of practical thinking about thinking. It is why computers have become so capable. The algorithms have improved so much, that Google’s Deep Mind could create a program with no chess experience, which then became better than any other chess program on Earth, after playing itself at chess for a few hours.

    And artificial intelligence is now a billion-dollar industry and a geopolitically strategic technology. The big technology companies have whole data centers devoted to deep learning algorithms that sift the accumulated data of government and corporate clients, as well as the population data that they themselves have collected by offering social media services for free. Between the advances of the pure mathematicians, and the fruits of experimentation by software engineers, it seems inevitable that something superhuman in all respects is going to be created, and before any generation of genetically enhanced humans could come to maturity.

  5. thatsmysecretcap says

    The only way for humanity to continue making progress is raising the average IQ. Since the beginning of civilization there has been a rising tide of human usefulness where you have to be above that line to contribute in a respectable way. “Retraining” truck drivers for computer programming is going to fail miserably and when automated driving finally happens, those people may no longer be able to do anything that other people value. Some are tossing around UBI as a solution for this problem. That will be like communism in that it works great on paper and creates a dystopian hell in reality. The best solution is for those people to have been born with high enough IQ+industriousness to do innovative, useful things.

    With a few years of study and practice, I could build a complete Model T from raw materials. Iron ore, natural rubber, animal hide, etc. Build the tools then build the car. I don’t think you could put together a group of 100 people that could work together to build a Tesla from raw materials given the rest of their lives. You’d have to create entire industries from scratch to get the metallurgy right, you need oil rigs and refineries to get the plastic and rubber, not to mention understanding quantum physics to build the integrated circuits. This is the direction that humanity is going and in order to keep making progress, we will need to get better.

    Thanks to modern medicine and welfare, evolution is now going backward. In order to improve we will need to do it manually.

  6. The Revolutionary Phenotype says

    Before anyone even gives their opinion on this topic you need to understand the full ramifications of this technology.

    It will lead to the eventual extinction of humanity, read the “The Revolutionary Phenotype: The Amazing Story of How Life Begins and How It Ends” to fully understand the consequences of this path.

  7. Leap says

    I’m not convinced that making intravenous drug us and promiscuity physically safer is a sign of intelligence (given that this will encourage practices that are socially unhealthy).

    • The Revolutionary Phenotype says

      Exactly you get it. Read the revolutionary phenotype. This will end up causing the extinction of the human species. We will eventually trust machines to decide our genetic coding for us which will result in us getting replaced by something not human eventually.

      This has bad news written all over it.

  8. Stephanie says

    Seems to me that messing with genetic intelligence would very much be monkeys playing with hand grenades.

    I agree that the fact the benefits will be unequally distributed is no argument not to go ahead – the same is true of all technology.

    However, for every new tool, we should decide first if we’d want our enemies to have it. Certainly a society that values the sanctity of human life can use this responsibly, but what of those who would use it to make people less intelligent? Or people who are intelligent, but also highly trainable? What if we could remove empathy? I can see lots of governments using this technology to make super-soldiers, or automatons.

    Even our own ethically-blemished society here in the West will undoubtedly abuse this. We haven’t even allowed ourselves to recognise our youngest as human enough to prevent their murder. What will happen to all the babies who’s genes were experimented on, and are now less than functional? Abortion lays the groundwork for infanticide.

    I think we should focus more attention on evolving ethically ourselves, and containing regimes who are far behind, before we mess with something as fundamental as human life.

    • prince says


      Every advancement and innovation has a risky side and often the good comes with bad.

      The industrial revolution came with massive environmental pollution that took centuries to overcome. The internal combustion engine was used to power the German pantzers that facilitated a war with 70 million dead, computers are used by governments to invade our privacy and collect huge amount of information about us… and the list is very long.

      Still, would you give up on any of those advancements? Should we go back to the middle ages where none of these innovations were in existence and the life where hard, cruel and short (with average life expectancy of under 40)?

      We must never forego our ability to innovate. We move forward and we manage risk.

      If we can overnight make all of humanity 20, 30, 40 points smarter, stronger, healthier, happier – wouldn’t this be just wonderful?

      Clearly this is not the issue at debate. I think we can all agree that this would be a better world.

      The issue is the fear of the transition. What will happen to those who can’t afford it. What will happen to those who live today (i.e. us) who will be left behind and become the “stupid ones”? Will we take a wrong turn? Will people in charge exploit the technology is a bad way?

      We need to manage the transition. We should move forward slowly but deliberately.

      But move forward we must since there is so much humanity can gain here.

      • The Revolutionary Phenotype says


        You are extremely naive. You seem to think all “progress” is good because of surface level benefits.

        It will lead to the eventual extinction of humanity, read the “The Revolutionary Phenotype: The Amazing Story of How Life Begins and How It Ends” to fully understand the consequences of this path.

      • One must also consider Dmitry Belyayev’s experiment with domesticating foxes.

        Since 1959, Belyayev has been selectively breeding foxes for the trait of tameness. After a surprisingly few generations, he got tame foxes that behaved like dogs but they no longer looked like foxes. The point is that selecting the tameness trait entrained and expressed other recessive traits; curly tails, spotted coats and a generally puppy like appearance in an adult.

        I think it is open to question whether one can simply edit a single gene known to be involved with intelligence and simply assume that only result will be a smarter animal. It may be that editing only one gene will not work or it may be that the edited gene will suppress the expression of other genes with unknown consequences.

        Truly, several generations of trials on primates and other intelligent species are required.

  9. Maybe it would help to raise sub normal to normal, but I hardly think we need a world of so called geniuses. Often the smartest kids are bored in school, end up stoners and under achievers, while their average counterparts work hard and achieve much more.

    Beyond that specific argument I would say there are so many conditions that might be treated genetically, so why not start with that – problem solving. That would be the genius thing to do. Creating utopias is for megalomaniacs.

    • prince says

      “Often the smartest kids are bored in school, end up stoners and under achievers”

      This is so factually wrong. Research after research show smartest kids are often those who are the most successful ones in life and those who innovate and make our society, quality of life, and culture better.

      Innovation and breakthroughs are no driven by the average people. They are made by geniuses who can see/think/envision what most other people can’t.

      The more we have of those, the better our world will be.

  10. Bubblecar says

    A fine article and I agree with the author that once such knowledge and associated technology becomes available and fully tested, the arguments in favour of its widespread use are overwhelming.

    I too have yet to hear a convincing argument against such an obvious way of improving human nature in line with our most rationally defensible ideals, on the level of both the individual and the species as a whole. What we really need is very much more investment in genetic research to get all of this moving.

    • The Revolutionary Phenotype says

      Read the revolutionary phenotype. This will end up causing the extinction of the human species. We will eventually trust machines to decide our genetic coding for us which will result in us getting replaced by something not human eventually.

      On top of that you are messing with evolution. This chinese scientist gave a reproductive leg up to the babies above by making them HIV resistant vs the normal population. We have no idea what kind of evolutionary behavioral ramifications this can lead to… usually those with HIV are not exactly the most sexually responsible people to begin with.

      This has bad news written all over it.

      • Bubblecar says

        “messing with evolution”

        Any sufficiently advanced cognitive species is going to take control of its future evolution, rather than continue leaving it to blind cause & effect.

        Obviously this requires a good deal more knowledge and biotech prowess than we currently possess, but this is growing all the time.

        Your fears about machines seem silly. As for being “replaced by something not human”, we’d expect that the future human-controlled evolution of humanity will eventually take us far beyond our current nature.

        • The Revolutionary Phenotype says

          We will become subservient eunuchs as the computers will keep editing our genes to their evolutionary benefit, not ours. You can watch a YouTube video on the revolutionary phenotype to understand how this would come about.

          This is not something we can come back from once.

  11. E. Olson says

    The big problem facing modern society that increasingly needs and values high intelligence is that bad parents (genetically, behaviorally, and economically) are having an increasing proportion of the world’s children, and potentially good parents are having fewer or no children, which is likely the key reason global IQ seems to be dropping. Good parents have good genes (higher IQ among other things) and tend to put more effort into parenting and making sure their children get good educations, and thus their children have both better nature and nurture than the offspring of bad parents who are much less likely/able to pass on favorable genes or put effort into parenting and education. Thus a key issue with such genetic manipulations for IQ or any other traits (athleticism, beauty, health, gender) is whether bad parents will make the effort to avail themselves to the opportunities possible for their children and make good choices if they do (i.e. choosing to make their child a boy who will be a 7+ feet tall potential NBA center instead of being a 130+ IQ potential engineer). Such bad parenting will almost certainly lead to government “social justice” interventions in the form of various mandates and regulations that will no doubt make such genetic manipulations more expensive and require a huge new bureaucracy to enforce the various mandates/prohibitions and administer genetic manipulation subsidy/loan programs. This will also lead to many interesting policy controversies such as what should be banned/allowed: Will it be legal to skip IQ enhancement manipulations (i.e. child abuse) or will minimum levels of enhancement be enforced? Will choosing gender, race, and sexual orientation be allowed? For example will it be legal for black parents to choose a light skinned child, and will choosing a homosexual child be legal, encouraged, or banned? How much physical characteristic manipulation should be allowed? For example, if given a choice will most girls have Barbie doll figures and most boys be built like NFL linebackers, and will it be legal to order an 8+ footer or dwarf child?

    And of course what will result from a change in the distribution of intelligence and other manipulated characteristics? If everyone gets a 25 point IQ boost, the intelligence distribution will be the same as today and 100 IQ will be the equivalent of today’s 125, which will likely reduce many of the negatives associated with low IQ, but will still almost certainly result in continued inequities that drive social justice warriors crazy. Interesting times lie ahead.

    • Farris says


      “ If everyone gets a 25 point IQ boost, the intelligence distribution will be the same as today…”

      My thought as well. If all IQs increased by a percentage (10% for example) so that the 90 becomes the 99, the 100 becomes the 110 and the 110 becomes the 121. The gap remains and even increases. People would become smarter but remain unequal. Similar to making everyone taller. If 6’ becomes the average, that becomes the norm to which people adjust.

  12. Chip says

    Once again, the sciency woo of IQ.
    No, IQ does not explain collective outcomes. There is no evidence whatsoever that the overall welfare and outcome of a nation is the result of its IQ.

    The correlation that we notice at this historical moment is not replicable. That is, it is not shown to be a recurring pattern. Its like saying that nations which listen to rock n roll music tend to have higher productivity than those that don’t.

    All human attributes like strength, stamina, manual dexterity, sociability all have bounds, a range above which they offer no benefit.
    Intelligence is no different.

    • prince says

      Just factless assertions Chip will not win you any debates or change any minds here.

      The author provides many evidential lines supporting the importance of intelligence in improving the outcomes of individuals and groups.

      We live in world that is immensely better than that of 300, 200, 100, 50, and even just 25 years ago. All this improvement is due by incredible innovation taking place in technology, medicine and thought.

      And Chip – all this innovation was not driven by the average person. All evidence will show there is was a genius behind virtually every breakthrough.

      No there is no bound, and there is no limit to ingenuity and its usefulness.

      • Chip says

        Well then we should see the evidence in real life outcomes, shouldn’t we?

        Like, can society wide IQ levels explain historical outcomes?
        Or predict future outcomes?

        Can someone point to a recurring pattern of higher IQ societies having a better outcome?

        • A. D. White says

          There is some evidence that major advances are made in advanced civilizations, not in backward periphery states such a s exist elsewhere in the world.

  13. Jim Gorman says

    Sometimes I despair that we have moved so far from the farm that people no longer understand genetics and how to breed better characteristics into plants and animals.

    The author talks about higher IQ people being better able to envision future consequences and have better life skills including delayed gratification. Doing gene editing IS NOT delayed gratification! Future consequences are difficult to envision when lethal mutations might spread across mankind.

    If we really need higher IQ’s why not do it through a breeding program? Let the government subsidize IQ testing of anyone who wants it. Then allow sperm and egg donation by those tested and classify them by IQ bands. The government can then derive tax breaks, etc. for couples who have children using these donations and payments to the donors. They can also create a propaganda program to induce people to use the donations.

    In the end, we will utilize natural reproduction that will have a much smaller chance of terrible consequences. When humans have the ability TO KNOW for sure how gene editing works, can do so without errors, and what the consequences are, then perhaps gene editing can be allowed.

  14. Mekchizadek says

    While the raising of Intelligence seems win-win, smart people csn be remarkably stupid, as they are able to rationalise their whims. Who pushes post-modernism? Homeopathy? Smart people cannot prevent the onslaught of managerialism in institutions, ossifying creativity. And smart people opposed to modern realities seem defeated by popularism. I conclude intelligence works well in some domains, not in others.

  15. Debbie says

    Can you imagine being a genius in a world of 9 million other geniuses? And you draw the straw that says you get to employ your genius working a menial job? Universal genius-ism will lead to a sharp increase in geniuses committing suicide — maybe even lead to philosophies that advocate erasing humans from existence because pleasure is not sufficiently balanced by pain across a lifetime of human experience. Nah, that would never happen.

  16. Publius says

    It is astounding to me that the author and others feel qualified to talk about this subject without even rudimentary knowledge of genetics.

    There are roughly two possibilities for improvement of IQ in the human population. The first is to introduce something totally new in the human genome, something that did not exist naturally. Once this is introduced and the carriers reproduce, there is no practical or ethical way to take it back, it will be present in the genetic pool of humanity forever. There is also no way to predict its effects in future generations, when genetic conditions might change. For example, there could be drastic loss of genetic diversity because of natural or man-made disasters, other natural of artificial mutations might arise naturally or artificially and interact in unpredictable ways with the IQ artifact, etc.

    The second possibility for improving the IQ in the general population is to rely on the existing gene pool. This implies that we identify the more intelligent humans around and encourage them to reproduce more, and the rest to reproduce less. This is unethical to me and also leads to loss of genetic diversity. Without genetic diversity an event such as a plague is much more likely to wipe us all out.

    Slightly better ethically speaking, we can evaluate or genetically test the quality of the eggs, sperm and/or embryos and select the best from what is produced by each willing couple. Even here I worry that what looks good to us under a microscope and with current knowledge could result is unexpected consequences if adopted wholesale over many generations. First, do no harm.

    • asdf says

      If you learn to test for the best embryos in a batch you could use natural human genes but only select the best of the bunch. This would be a big boost without having to mess with nature too much.

      • The Revolutionary Phenotype says

        No, this is not something you can just batch test. Once you’ve manipulated their genes and set them free, you will forever alter the course of evolution. These people may end up having a reproductive advantage over the general population and end up replacing the rest of humanity. They may pass on other traits that are undesirable but we’re unaware.

    • The Revolutionary Phenotype says

      You are absolutely correct. You should check out the revolutionary phenotype. It shows that we will also trust computers to do our genetic engineering for us which could eventually lead to something non human replacing us.

  17. Joaquim C says

    Like IA bullshit , all this IQ genetics.. Quantum Computing … is a load of crap…
    Von Neumann, Heisenberg and Popper have defined limits… like Newton set broader limits but still valid.
    I’ve an Msc in Eng Mech (Control Systems) IST Lisbon and also a Rancher …

    ”Should We Use Genetic Technology to Boost Human Intelligence?”
    that’s pathetic… at a level like fuzzy logic and neural networks are…

  18. Michael Greenberg says

    If we dont do it, someone else will. Put another way, if the United States doesn’t do it, China will. Then what?

    • Foyle says

      History teaches us that those who beat their swords into ploughshares end up ploughing for those who kept their swords.

      If China’s Han supremacist totalitarian system proves more effective at spreading itself than ours via all means at their disposal – including their active programs for lifting IQ of children (they are essentially amoral by our standards) then they will dominate us over long term. I think that presents a rather ugly dystopian outcome for humanity.

      IQ is unarguably mostly genetic (separated twin studies show ~0.8 correlation) and we all could see the fundamental difference in quickness of classmates from a young age. IQ also has high heritability – average IQ of kids is something like half of parents average + population average so a 160IQ sperm donor will produce kids with ~115 IQ average when bred with population of women with average 100 IQ. That is the easiest route to large scale intelligence increase. It would lift/save low IQ parts of the world in a generation, which after seeing strong correlation between country poverty and average IQ; NOTHING ELSE CAN. Sperm is cheap, there are 10’s of thousands of men with IQ>160.

      I wonder what will be revealed when modern machine learning systems are used to search for patterns in genetic basis of intelligence on sufficiently large and high quality data sets – something that Chinese govt likely has, or could put together quickly if they want to.

  19. Mark says

    The arrogance of this proposal is precisely the weakness of intelligence. History is a survey of very intelligent bad men. Is there a gene for judgement?

    • prince says

      There are very bad smart men throughout history.

      But it is the very smart good people who made our world so much better than it was 300, 200, 100, 50 and even just 25 years ago.

      On the balance, we are so much better because of the genius of a few.

  20. augustine says

    Probably the main reason people fear the possibilities of laboratory genome alteration, besides watching too much Hollywood science fiction, is that its application is by definition centralized or quasi-centralized. Only a very narrow segment of the population– those in the biological and medical sciences– will effectively rule over our genetic landscape, or some portion of it. Questions will be relegated to the qualitative realm or “how to” and “how much” rather than “should we?”.

    This author does not show the slightest sign that he appreciates any debate about artificial genome interference per se, or any sign of engaging the concept of wisdom. While he alludes to human qualities besides intelligence, these apparently are a far distant component of the good which humanity has always sought and is still seeking. Potential, cognitive or otherwise, is posited as the highest and purest objective, neatly sidestepping questions of good or ill that may spring from new (or old) human abilities.

    “But in the next decades, humanity will need highly-intelligent visionaries who can see the long-term consequences of political decisions, assess benefits and risks with accuracy, and find solutions to the problems of our increasingly complex world.”

    I’ll be Caesar or Pharaoh Khafre said basically the same thing.

  21. Farris says

    I’m a little lost on the end game here. If IQ does not correlate with aptitude, then success is probably not guaranteed. Furthermore some are content with industriousness, even though the labor may only result in limited material success. The top one percent whether in IQ, looks, athletic or artistic abilities will always have the easiest path.

  22. A C Harper says

    Alternatively you could increase the effect of intelligence on a society by placing more ‘thinking power’ in our machines and computers, and edit peoples’ genes to make them more agreeable? What could possibly go wrong?

    Until “technological mastery has been achieved” and we can reasonably eliminate the unforeseen circumstances we shouldn’t be in any hurry to poke the genome with a blunt stick.

  23. No, men should be breed for strength and good looks and (if possible) keeping their word.

  24. What if the evolutionary advantages of high intelligence were significantly lower than the esteem put on intelligence by intellectuals?

    Further, if you had a society where everyone had elite-level intelligence, you would have very nasty elite competition and no one to mop the bathrooms.

    • Foyle says

      Currently true – the growing low-socioeconomic idiocracy+theist growth engendered by western welfare systems that taxes intelligent high earners less interested in child rearing to pay poor and religiously motivated ‘baby farmers’ to have lots of kids. Intelligence is most definitely not winning the evolutionary battle in the west! But technology (artificial superintelligence likely in our lifetimes) is developing so fast that a couple of generations of this state of affairs (and all other ‘big’ problems of the world) are not going to matter within a few decades.

  25. Helga says

    Given how many low IQ folk owe their existence to their parents lack of impulse control it’ll be unlikely they’d be on board with this technology. The sheer amount of planning required to use it would be beyond them.

    The only people I can see jumping on board are the same ones currently cramming their hapless sons into tutus or getting their toddler’s taught cello. You’d need a combination of utopian disregard for unforseen consequences, disrespect for your child’s identity as an individual, and sufficient organisation and control to actually carry it through.

    Spontaneous pregnancies need not apply, ever.

  26. Fickle Pickle says

    What about emotional intelligence as described in the book by Daniel Goleman titled Emotional Intelligence Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.

    Edward Teller had a very high IQ. He was also a raving looney psychopath.

    What degree of positive emotional intelligence does the Golden Golem of Greatness have or express, and thereby invoke in others by almost everything he says and does.

  27. Bad, BAD Idea says

    This is a classic example of humans thinking they understand something better than they actually do; right now we know enough to be dangerous, period. And this comment “once technological mastery has been achieved, and once the chosen technique is completely safe,” is impressive in that it makes two bold, bad assumptions in one statement.

    Who decides the definition of “technical mastery” in this case. The adherents to a “free market” approach to gene editing would argue we’ve already reached that stage because… we actually edited the genes of two human beings to modify how their body reacts to certain envinronmental stimuli (the presence of the HIV virus in this case). To assume that one day we’re all going to agree on what this nebulous “technical mastery” concept means in practice, is naive. Such a line of thinking is inevitably going to be dominated by those who put commercial interests above the interests of human integrity and experience.

    Equally naive is the idea that if we just get good enough at the tech one day, freelance gene editing by doctors or whoever, is going to be “completely safe,” whatever that means. The ONLY way we could ever know if something was completely safe, would be to have 100% certainty how every gene interacts with the whole, over a long period of time (i.e. a person’s life), how it may mutate in the presence of certain environmental factors etc. It would require a study so massive as to take decades just to complete it, let alone understand the findings.

    This technology and others like it will never be “completely safe” because we will never be close to a “complete understanding.” Every single procedure will be a roll of the dice. Some will be less danerous than others, but that is beside the point. Even something as simple as changing eye color before birth. Can we be 100% sure that doing so won’t lead to the onset of other developments later in life that impair the person’s vision? No. But the doctors who will advocate for this won’t care because they’ll be long gone, having enjoyed the pile of cash they made in the meantime.

    If my parents’ geneticist modifies my genenome before I’m born, and 40 years later I suffer some type of debilitating condition because of it, where is the accountability? In all probabilty that doctor is dead or long retired and nowhere to be found. Are we going to start locking up a bunch of 70 and 80 year old doctors for procedures they performed much earlier in life.

    Genetical editing is a slippery slope that will quickly become a giant medical, legal, and ethical cluster-f-ck. We should not modify or removal genes, because there will never be a way to know for a certainty that said procedure is safe, the way removing an infected appendix is safe.

  28. Larson Hall says

    The author writes: “But in the next decades, humanity will need highly-intelligent visionaries who can see the long-term consequences of political decisions, assess benefits and risks with accuracy, and find solutions to the problems of our increasingly complex world.”

    Don’t we have Al Gore? Tom Steyer? And the entire passel of “highly intelligent visionaries” who are going to save us from ourselves?

    Seriously, genetic editing is coming whether we like it or not. I, for one, would love to have another 10-20 points of IQ. Or more.

  29. Constantin says

    This article generated quite an interesting discussion in the “comments”. It seems to me that much argument is over the inevitable. The ultra-rich will not wait for anyone’s permission to get every genetic “enhancement” possible, once the technology becomes relatively safe. The question, therefore, is not whether the enhancement should be “permitted” at all, but rather whether it should be made equally available to everyone. It may well be that it would be safer to wait for the “rich” to be our experimental lab rats (to be absolutely sure) :-).
    Another aspect that strikes me is the implied notion that IQ enhancement could be endless – in the sense that it may be equally available to people with an already very high IQ and those with extremely low IQ. I have seen nothing in this article or anywhere else that would support this proposition. It seems much more likely that that genetic enhancement in this regard is much more likely to be applicable and effective on those who did not inherit those specific genetic traits. If so, the technology would be a great equalizer from a social perspective and will mostly benefit the downtrodden.
    Fighting any kind of disease in this fashion, is incredibly cost effective by comparison with any other known method, and could be exponentially more effective than vaccines and the like. To oppose it is, in my respectful view, quite retarded.
    A final thought on this matter is that we keep stirring this pot way too early as the safe genetic manipulation of IQ outside simple parental self-selection is still the domain of science fiction. It is certainly not a real concern for our generation. LOL

  30. Jim Gorman says

    Only if the tool is able to modify one single gene and only that gene, should the tool be considered for general use. Only if the gene being modified can be proved to have no adverse effects either on the individual or the human race now or in the future should the tool be used in general.

  31. Paul Antonio says

    I’ve been reading Quillette for several months now and thoroughly enjoy many of the thought-provoking articles on this site.

    But one thing I’ve noticed in the comments section is the propensity of many readers to express their opinions on IQ, even if the article only discusses intelligence in a tangential manner. The comments, I’ve noticed, usually contrast so-called high IQ nations and cultures with lesser performing regions and ethnic groups.

    The current article, of course, specifically addresses IQ, so the comments herein are relevant.

    I consider myself a reasonably intelligent person — whatever that means — and have a layperson’s understanding of what IQ measures. Nonetheless, I have no interest in willingly undergoing an assessment to determine my “score”. Why? I don’t see the utility of doing so as I go about living in the world around me, namely, building relationships with others, thriving at work, etc. On the other hand, knowing my IQ could boost my ego, or just as easily deflate it.

    Some commentators point out the (low) average IQ scores of sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere as having a direct correlation to low indexes of economic productivity, education, mortality rates, etc. I have no way of determining the validity of these claims but having traveled to five continents, to places like Cambodia, Cuba, and Egypt, I’ve been repeatedly impressed (and humbled) by the “intelligence” of the locals. Their insights were thoughtful, they understood their histories & societies in the context of global systems, and they often seemed to know more about us than we do of them. I’d wager that their main issue is not low IQ but endemic corruption.

    (Perhaps low IQ is directly related to corruption. Who knows? Italy is an inherently corrupt country but also innovators in technology, art, and culture.)

    I live in an area — a bubble, if you will — of well-educated, high achievers. You know, people with impressive IQs. And yet the the inability to solve problems is glaringly apparent around here. Our immigrant grandparents, no doubt less intelligent, built an amazing, vibrant city with few blueprints and top-down committees dictating the number of permits needed to erect a tool shed in the backyard. Today, technocrats decree the opening of bike lanes that are rarely used in some neighborhoods due to geography & distance. Used syringes litter the streets, left by a growing population of the mentally-ill homeless.

    Maybe what we need is less IQ and more common sense.

    And as for genetically-altered intelligence, well, be careful what you wish for.

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