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Embryo selection as foreign aid
The obvious path to a flourishing, self-sustaining Africa.
Written by Ives Parr.
The disparity in living conditions between the world’s richest and poorest nations is staggering. Considering that international income disparities exceed fifty-fold, resolving this extreme inequality would rank among the greatest accomplishments in human history. Despite concerted efforts by national governments, supranational institutions, and charitable organizations, hundreds of millions of people live in abject poverty. While short-term endeavors to ameliorate poverty are incredibly worthwhile, the ultimate solution likely lies in technological advances that would permanently uplift the state of the developing world. One extremely promising, although under-considered, avenue for transformative improvement is cognitive enhancement using embryo selection.
Although a complex array of factors influences the wealth and success of nations, national intelligence stands out as a critical explanatory variable. Within countries, intelligence positively correlates not only with income but also with numerous desirable socioeconomic outcomes (Herrnstein & Murray, 1994; Gottfredson, 1997; Strenze, 2015). Unsurprisingly, these relationships typically remain when comparing nations (Lynn & Vanhanen, 2002). When considering the association between GDP per capita (GDP/c) and log-transformed national IQ (NIQ), Meisenberg (2004) found an astounding correlation of 0.82. More recent research using improved NIQ measures finds positive relationships with GDP/c and other desirable variables such as GDP growth, employment, economic freedom, literacy, human development (HDI), sanitation, property rights, and the rule of law (Becker, 2019).
While criticisms have been leveled against Lynn and Vanhanen's NIQ estimates, many are no longer relevant because many of the most heavily criticized samples are no longer used (Warne, 2023). Dismissal of Richard Lynn’s work on NIQ is not warranted as many other researchers find similar estimates of what basically amounts to intelligence, although some prefer terms like “harmonized learning outcomes” or “universal basic skills” (e.g., Angrist et al., 2021; Gust et al., 2022; Patel & Sandefur, 2020; Rindermann, 2018). Warne (2023) compares the relationship between the measures and finds a high degree of correlation.
While a comprehensive case for the causal role of NIQ in increasing GDP is beyond the scope of this article, it is worth considering several converging lines of evidence: (1) the relationship exists at multiple levels; (2) the causal explanation is simple, clear and feasible; (3) adult IQ is highly heritable (Plomin & Deary, 2015), undermining the case for socioeconomic factors causing low IQ; (4) IQ gains from interventions persistently fade out (Protzko, 2015), further casting doubt on reverse causality; (5) IQ-increasing interventions improve scores but not general intelligence (Hu, 2022; Lasker & Kirkegaard, 2022; Ritchie et al., 2015); (6) wealth that is exogenous to institutions does not substantially increase IQ, as oil-rich nations are largely in line with their geographic neighbors rather than other wealthy nations (Christainsen, 2013); and (7) a recent study, Francis and Kirkegaard (2022), employed the use of instrumental variables to conclude that high NIQ drives growth rather than vice versa.
It is worth noting that high heritability estimates and intervention failures in developed nations are not wholly applicable to the developing world. Environment must play a role in extreme cases, such as when children are so drastically nutrient-deprived or parasite-afflicted that their brains cannot properly form. Moreover, the actual validity of NIQ scores as measures of intelligence for nations is questionable in some populations, especially those largely unexposed to education (see Warne, 2023). Nevertheless, the available evidence suggests that NIQ plays an important role in global income and welfare disparities, even if the available estimates are imperfect.
While exploring environmental interventions is a worthwhile endeavor and may be more cost-effective in certain cases, the most promising avenue for drastically improving NIQ is through the use of genetic enhancement technology. An extreme decline in the cost of genetic sequencing technology has facilitated the collection of large genomic databases, most notably the UK Biobank, permitting enough statistical power to create polygenic scores (PGSs) that can be used to predict a person’s traits, even before they are born. Widen et al. (2022) demonstrated the effectiveness of using PGSs for embryo selection by showing that the scores are effective in predicting the traits of siblings within the UK Biobank database.
These scientific and technological breakthroughs are recent. The first person born after undergoing polygenic screening, Aurea Smigrodzki, was born in the summer of 2020 (Carr et al., 2021). The company that facilitated the selection of Aurea, Genomic Prediction, provides an embryo health score but does not provide information related to the expected cognitive traits of the embryos, although doing so is technically possible because all psychological traits, including IQ, are heritable (Plomin et al., 2016). Unlike environmental interventions, IQ gains from polygenic selection will not fade out because genes have a lifelong impact on the formation of the brain.
Gains from polygenic screening can be substantial because siblings, and thus embryos, can differ significantly in their genotypic IQ. In their seminal 2014 article “Embryo Selection for Cognitive Enhancement: Curiosity or Game-changer?”, Carl Shulman and Nick Bostrom estimated the maximum expected gain from selection among ten embryos at 11.5 IQ points. A subsequent 2016 estimate by the polymathic researcher Gwern Branwen suggested a gain of 9 points. The expected return from embryo selection depend on the IQ variance, quality of polygenic scores, and the number of embryos (Karavani et al., 2019).
While improving PGSs is crucial, the most critical bottleneck is the number of embryos, which is limited by the availability of eggs. The most promising means of substantially increasing the number of embryos is the creation of eggs from other more available cells in the body such as blood or skin cells. Currently, it is possible to transform non-reproductive cells into cells called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). Through a process known as in vitro gametogenesis (IVG), it would be possible to convert the iPSCs to gametes (i.e. sperm and eggs). While this may sound implausibly difficult, the future of IVG looks very promising. IVG has been achieved in mice (Hikabe et al., 2016), has dedicated startups (e.g., Conception and Ivy Natal), and prediction markets expect the first IVG baby in 2033.
With IVG, selection from large batches of embryos is feasible. Shulman and Bostrom (2014) estimate that the maximum expected selection from 100 embryos would be 18.8 IQ points and 24.3 IQ points using 1000 embryos. Not only could IVG enable life-changing IQ gains, but it could potentially reduce the cost and discomfort associated with the egg retrieval process during IVF, which would likely promote widespread adoption. Parents would be drawn to a highly convenient and inexpensive way to have not only intelligent but happy and healthy children.
Another extremely important aspect of IVG is that it facilitates iterated embryo selection (IES), a process in which embryos polygenically screened have their embryonic stem cells converted to sperm and egg which are then used to create more embryos which undergo the process again (Shulman & Bostrom, 2014). Since the trait of intelligence is highly polygenic and no human is close to having all variants for intelligence, the expected limit to returns of selection for intelligence is far beyond anyone who has ever existed (Hsu, 2014).
The possibility of such tremendous returns could leave one concerned that IQ has diminishing returns. Available evidence suggests intelligence has a positive relationship with desirable outcomes even at high levels (Brown et al., 2021). A critical contribution to this area is the study of mathematically precocious youth (SMPY), which took a cohort of highly intelligent children in the 1970s and followed them throughout their lives. Even among elite children, the most elite still were more likely to have a Ph.D., peer-reviewed publication, patent, and high income.
Even if the initial adoption of genetic enhancement technology is slow or unequal in developing nations, the larger society will benefit due to positive network effects (Anomaly & Jones, 2020). A strong case can be made that exceptionally high-ability individuals make disproportionate advances for society (see Jensen, 1980, p. 114). Carl and Kirkegaard (2022) found that the top 5% highest IQ people bring additional benefits, independent of the average national IQ level. A poor nation would benefit from a small group of highly intelligent individuals occupying essential roles in government and business.
There are many possible approaches to advancing genetic enhancement technology including: (1) improve polygenic scores for cognitive ability by increasing the size and diversity of genomic databases; (2) lobby for legal changes such as lifting bans, government funding of research, and subsidizing IVF; and perhaps most importantly, (3) fund research into in vitro gametogenesis and other forms of enhancement (e.g., genome editing, sperm selection, chromosome selection, iterated meiotic selection, cloning).
If the above argument is correct, the potential benefits for humanity from advancing the research of genetic enhancement are immense. This approach to global poverty is cost-effective compared to other proposals. A single wealthy individual could potentially accelerate the advancement of this technology. Moreover, this approach is much more practical. Rather than relying on massive cultural or political change, achieving widespread use would be much easier. Provided a political acceptance of reproductive autonomy, adoption would be driven by the natural parental instinct to provide a good life for their children.
Readers who are skeptical may question why they have yet to hear such a proposal. The reason lies in the West’s inclination to turn a blind eye to the role of genes and the idea of eugenics in an effort to ward off the demons of the past. While this avoidance was rooted in noble intentions, we must now embrace the role of genes and the importance of genetic enhancement. Scientific and technological advances have permitted a new voluntary and moral form of “eugenics” that is too powerful to ignore. While many may find this vision of the world distasteful, we must face reality for the betterment of humanity.
Ives Parr writes about genetic Enhancement, bioethics, cognitive ability, the culture war, and more. You can read a longer version of this essay on his Substack.
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