There’s been some discussion around Charles Murray’s recent claim that a lot of people would probably try to make their kids smarter with gene editing if it were reasonably cheap. There’s been some foolish points, some reasonable ones, but not many with much imagination. So I thought I’d point out some possibilities. Hat tip to this old discussion between Jerry Pournelle and Greg Cochran for inspiration and some ideas.
Suppose, as a basis for discussion, someone somewhere tries to edit genes of gametes or embryos to improve the child’s eventual intelligence. What might happen?
- It’s hard to change lots of locations, so edits get done on the highest-effect loci. One or more of them turn out to have heterozygote advantage but nasty recessive effects. People would probably be smart enough not to give the kids torsion dystonia or Tay-Sachs, but we might see brand new exciting Mendelian disorders, and kids with six different ones simultaneously.
- Off-target effects from the gene editing are reasonably common. Embyro screening catches most of the problematic ones, but not large chromosomal rearrangements that leave things intact. Balanced translocations where the genes are all there, but you might have a chromosome arm hop to another chromosome. The edited kids are fine. Their children all have things like inherited Downs or Kleinfelters.
- Rapid adoption of the technology means most children in a generation have been gene edited. 25 years in, we find out almost all of the Changed are infertile or have extremely disabled children. Lots of possibilities: population crashes, mass adoption of Unchanged children, etc. Maybe one company was smart enough to screen for structural variants and that subpopulation takes over the world.
- We weren’t quite looking for what we thought we were. We sort of get increased intelligence, but with something else riding along.
- We use polygenic risk scores for educational attainment for editing, end up getting kids with higher conscientiousness and conformism, losing our population of irascible old assholes.
- We use childhood IQ, get much more rapid childhood development.
- We use adult IQ, get much slower childhood development, with 25 year olds still in middle school.
- There’s side effects we weren’t expecting.
- Bigger heads: more troubles in birth, higher C-section rate. 5 year olds with neck braces to help their neck muscles hold up their heads.
- Shifts in common personality types: conscientiousness, extraversion. The funny kind of strangeness you see in mathematicians.
- Ideological changes. The smart kids are wild radicals, pushing society into a new form every five years, or staid conservatives, enforcing complete rigidity on everyone.
- Funny shifts in components of intelligence. Maybe we see big increases in mathematical intelligence or verbal intelligence but not vice versa.
- The smart kids get alienated from everyone else, including their families. Parents stop doing it, and we get a long term schism in society between the Changed and the Unchanged.
- The polygenic risk score we use works better in some populations than others. One group gets much much smarter, the other doesn’t move much. Social unrest and division ensue.
- It’s expensive, so expensive that it’s inaccessible to most people. The rich and powerful make their kids smart. Dynastic politics ensue. They ban the technology for the peasants to avoid competition. Dynasties stay much more stable because there’s no longer any regression to the mean.
- First-rate powers are risk averse and ban it. A third rate power decides to roll the dice and Indonesia or Uganda or Ecuador becomes the new power center of the world.
- There’s incompatible sets of edits that can’t be made on the same genome.
- Different sets of gene edits push you in different directions: you can make your kid wildly creative or a brilliant mathematician but not both.
- Companies deliberately or accidentally engineer gene edits to be incompatible. Maybe Google merges two chromosomes so that their edits can only breed with other Google-compatible edits. We speciate into multiple similar but genetically incompatible species based on which company did your grandpa’s gene editing.
Just a morning’s thoughts. Any other ideas?