Ilya’s Sensationalized “Designer Babies”

I hate to be disagreeable (especially since I’m new here, and all) but I take serious issue with Ilya’s gloss on “Designer Babies.” I find so many parts of his post problematic that I hardly know where to begin. [The conflating of self-enhancement with offspring enhancement? His seeming endorsement of state-sponsored control of reproduction? The distributive justice claim?]. To be fair, I am against prohibitions against genetically modifying babies (see my debates on IQ2Al-Jazeera, and On Point, with Tom Ashbrook). But a responsible bioethical discussion should begin with the scientific facts:

The largest study ever of genetic contributions to childhood intelligence, published earlier this year, found that only around twenty to forty percent or so of variation in childhood IQ can be explained by genetic factors. That’s far less than many believed, and far less than necessary for the deterministic “Designer Babies” Ilya hypothesizes. Even if we did a throwback to old-school genetic determinism, we are nowhere close to having a decent understanding of the actual genes involved, (let alone the gene-gene, gene-environment, and epigenetic variations to name a few) in the complex behavior called “intelligence.” Moreover, there are so many safety impediments to the genetic modification of complex behavioral traits in human, that for the foreseeable (and distant) future, engineering ourselves (let alone our offspring) for intelligence is just science fiction.

And yet, we are on the cusp of FDA trials for doing real genetic engineering of offspring—using mitochondrial DNA transfer (which leaves the nucleus of the egg or embryo untouched–where  nearly 100% of the coding traits are–including any genes related to intelligence). Mitochondrial transfer could prevent the needless suffering of thousands of children a year. But if we sensationalize science about “designer babies,” we will never approve this truly remarkable breakthrough in the real science of genetically modifying babies.

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