Saturday, November 02, 2013

Don't Complain About The Mud If You Lie Down With Pigs

From CIP's blog, where he is trying to prove that scientists who want to research intelligence face a big taboo.  He quotes a piece about a Professor Hsu who is trying to identify genes for high intelligence.
He hadn't really considered how negative the public reaction might be until one of the study's participants, New York University psychologist Geoffrey Miller, made some inflammatory remarks to the press. Miller predicted that once the project turned up intelligence genes, the Chinese might begin testing embryos to find the most desirable ones. One article painted the venture as a state-endorsed experiment, selecting for genius kids, and Hsu and his colleagues soon found that their project, which had barely begun, was the target of fierce criticism.

Perhaps Hsu had not considered the participants in the study.

Previously in 2008, Professor Miller's research had received an Ig Nobel prize.  Later, one of Miller's tweets ignited a firestorm.
"Dear obese PhD applicants: if you didn’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth."
Mlller claimed it was research.  Per Wiki, "The institutional review boards of UNM, Miller's home university, and NYU, where he is a visiting professor, released statements saying that Miller's tweet was "self-promotional" and cannot be considered research. UNM formally censured Miller in August 2013."

Miller has written and spoken about his fascination and respect for Chinese eugenics, and—remarkably—he recently disclosed that he participated in its next phase. The country currently employs a kind of economic eugenics by allowing wealthy couples to purchase the right to have more than one child. It is rapidly building its capacity for more detailed genetic selection for traits, including intelligence. BGI Shenzhen, which Miller described to Vice as the largest genetic research center in China, reached out to him requesting a genetic sample along with many other people of Chinese and European descent that they determined must have a high IQ. Miller actually complied, donating his DNA, and said in a recent Edge essay that he didn’t realize the full consequences until after he’d made the donation.* I find that more unbelievable than his claim of Twitter research.

Here is what Miller told Vice:

VICE: Hey, Geoffrey. Does China have a history of eugenics?

Geoffrey Miller: As soon as Deng Xiaoping took power in the late 70s, he took the whole focus of the Chinese government from trying to manage the economy, to trying to manage the quality and quantity of people. In the 90s, they started to do widespread prenatal testing for birth defects with ultrasound, and more recently, they've spent a lot of money researching human genetics to figure out which genes make people smarter.

What do you know about BGI Shenzhen?

It’s the biggest genetic research center in China, and I think the biggest in the world, by a considerable margin. They’re not just doing human genetics; BGI is also doing lots of plant genetics, animal genetics, anything that’s economically relevant or scientifically interesting.

Are you in touch with them?

I just got an email a couple of days ago saying that they’d almost finished doing the sequencing for the BGI Cognitive Genetics Project, the one I gave my genetics to, and that the results would be available soon.

What was their selection process?

They seem mostly interested in people of Chinese and European descent. They’re basically recruiting through a scientific conference, through word of mouth. You have to provide some evidence that you’re as smart as you say you are. You have to send your complete CV, publications you’ve produced, standardized-test scores, where you went to college... stuff like that.

How will the research be applied?

Once you’ve got that information and a fertilized egg that’s divided into a few cells, you can sample one of the cells to figure out the expected intelligence if it’s implanted and becomes a person.

What does that mean in human language?

Any given couple could potentially have several eggs fertilized in the lab with the dad’s sperm and the mom’s eggs. Then you can test multiple embryos and analyze which one’s going to be the smartest. That kid would belong to that couple as if they had it naturally, but it would be the smartest a couple would be able to produce if they had 100 kids. It’s not genetic engineering or adding new genes, it’s the genes that couples already have.

And over the course of several generations you’re able to exponentially multiply the population’s intelligence.

Right. Even if it only boosts the average kid by five IQ points, that’s a huge difference in terms of economic productivity, the competitiveness of the country, how many patents they get, how their businesses are run, and how innovative their economy is.

Could it develop into something more sinister?

That same research does open up the door potentially to genetic engineering in the future. But that would take a lot longer to make practical.

Further, continuing:

UPDATE (06/07/2013): When writing this essay, I took Miller’s description of BGI Shenzhen’s intelligence project at face value. Subsequently, I discussed the project with Nature writer Ed Yong on Twitter and read his article on the topic. I’d encourage you to read Ed’s original reporting next. As his piece makes clear, the BGI researchers themselves are not motivated by a desire to enable selective births and are not part of a government funded eugenics scheme, but rather they hope to help children already born.
Like all scientists, the BGI team have no control over how wider society ends up using the fruits of their labor. They shouldn’t be condemned for producing knowledge. If genetic markers for features as nebulous as intelligence are ever identified, I expect there will be plenty of people like Miller welcoming their use in child selection. A costly field of endeavor our governments and institutions originally supported in hopes of preventing devastating genetic diseases will spin off an evil twin. The wealthy will select their future heirs at cosmetic fertility clinics. All that stands between us and the dawn of that era, one where humans are chosen for looks and smarts, is our appreciation for the diversity of life.
You can read Geoffrey Miller's claim that BGI was in it for the eugenics here.

Chinese eugenics will quickly become even more effective, given its massive investment in genomic research on human mental and physical traits. BGI-Shenzhen employs more than 4,000 researchers. It has far more "next-generation" DNA sequencers that anywhere else in the world, and is sequencing more than 50,000 genomes per year. It recently acquired the California firm Complete Genomics to become a major rival to Illumina.

The BGI Cognitive Genomics Project is currently doing whole-genome sequencing of 1,000 very-high-IQ people around the world, hunting for sets of sets of IQ-predicting alleles. I know because I recently contributed my DNA to the project, not fully understanding the implications. These IQ gene-sets will be found eventually—but will probably be used mostly in China, for China. Potentially, the results would allow all Chinese couples to maximize the intelligence of their offspring by selecting among their own fertilized eggs for the one or two that include the highest likelihood of the highest intelligence. Given the Mendelian genetic lottery, the kids produced by any one couple typically differ by 5 to 15 IQ points. So this method of "preimplantation embryo selection" might allow IQ within every Chinese family to increase by 5 to 15 IQ points per generation. After a couple of generations, it would be game over for Western global competitiveness.

There is unusually close cooperation in China between government, academia, medicine, education, media, parents, and consumerism in promoting a utopian Han ethno-state. Given what I understand of evolutionary behavior genetics, I expect—and hope—that they will succeed. The welfare and happiness of the world's most populous country depends upon it.

My real worry is the Western response. The most likely response, given Euro-American ideological biases, would be a bioethical panic that leads to criticism of Chinese population policy with the same self-righteous hypocrisy that we have shown in criticizing various Chinese socio-cultural policies. But the global stakes are too high for us to act that stupidly and short-sightedly. A more mature response would be based on mutual civilizational respect, asking—what can we learn from what the Chinese are doing, how can we help them, and how can they help us to keep up as they create their brave new world?
 Are the Chinese likely to be successful?  One can never rule it out, but it does seem unlikely. Take a look at the Nature article linked in the article CIP quoted(Nature 497, 297299; 2013):

Some geneticists, however, take issue with the study for a different reason. They say that it is highly unlikely to find anything of interest — because the sample size is too small and intelligence is too complex.

...In 2010, a team led by Robert Plomin, a behavioural geneticist at King’s College London, failed to find a single intelligence-associated variant, even after examining more than 350,000 variations in single DNA letters, or SNPs, across the genomes of 7,900 children3...

....MacArthur notes that searches for genes connected with schizophrenia have had similar sample sizes and compared people at the far end of the risk spectrum (extremely likely to get the disease) with those in the middle (of average risk). Yet the efforts came up empty-handed. If the genetics of intelligence are similar to those of schizophrenia or height, MacArthur says, the team needs at least 10,000 cases and 10,000 controls.

etc.  Still, we shall see what they find, in an year or two. Notice that the study is continuing despite this alleged taboo. A ruckus was kicked up because of Professor Geoffrey Miller and his claims, not directly because of the study.