Quest for 'Genius Babies'?
Jason Richwine swiftly resigned from the Heritage Foundation this month following revelations of his 2009 Harvard University dissertation on IQ and race, but the blogosphere continues to buzz with the story. In the aftermath, as Richwine continues to defend his research, some human biodiversity, or “HBD,” experts charge that a new generation of eugenicists may be coming of age. A recurring name is that of Stephen Hsu, the Michigan State University physicist and vice president for research and graduate studies who is researching intelligence and genetics at the world’s biggest genomics sequencing lab in Shenzhen, China.
“Richwine would probably also find a friend in Stephen Hsu, a theoretical physicist by training who is currently searching for an intelligence gene,” wrote Yong Chan, research director for the racial justice website ChangeLab. “Even though mainstream science has pretty much scrapped the notion that race has any kind of biological basis long ago, that hasn’t stopped [Hsu] from trying to link intelligence with race and getting a billion and a half dollars for research based in China.”
Michael Scroggins, a Ph.D. student at Teachers College of Columbia University, echoed Chan on Ethnography.com: “Suffice to say, [Richwine and Hsu] offer nothing new to debates over IQ, or poverty or immigration. Their innovation lies in the naked, unreflective application of a naïve sociobiology to policy debates over access to democratic institutions – citizenship and public education.”
Much of the controversy surrounding Hsu stems from a recent Vice article alleging Hsu's cognitive genomics project is ultimately helping China engineer “genius babies.”
“At BGI Shenzhen, scientists have collected DNA samples from 2,000 of the world’s smartest people and are sequencing their entire genomes in an attempt to identify the alleles which determine human intelligence,” the piece reads. “Apparently they’re not far from finding them, and when they do, embryo screening will allow parents to pick their brightest zygote and potentially bump up every generation's intelligence by five to 15 IQ points.”
The article is based on an interview with Geoffrey Miller, professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of New Mexico, who donated DNA to the study.
"We’re pretty far behind," Miller said in response to Vice's question about how the U.S. compares to China in cognitive genomics research. "We have the same technical capabilities, the same statistical capabilities to analyze the data, but they’re collecting the data on a much larger scale and seem to be capable of transforming the scientific findings into government policy and consumer genetic testing much more easily than we are. Technically and scientifically we could be doing this, but we’re not. ...We have ideological biases that say, 'Well, this could be troubling, we shouldn’t be meddling with nature, we shouldn’t be meddling with God.' I just attended a debate in New York a few weeks ago about whether or not we should outlaw genetic engineering in babies and the audience was pretty split. In China, 95 percent of an audience would say, 'Obviously you should make babies genetically healthier, happier, and brighter!' There’s a big cultural difference."
Hsu, who declined an interview, disputed aspects of the article in an e-mail. “Our work has nothing to do with IQ selection of human embryos or in vitro fertilization, except that, in the long run, basic science on the genetic architecture of cognitive ability could have an impact in those areas,” he said. In his blog, he also noted that Internet posts about his research typically point to the “Chinese connection” in their titles, even though many of the DNA donors for the project were American, and that a lead scientist for the project is Robert Plomin, a professor of behavioral genetics at King's College London. Hsu said he and his collaborators are entering a quiet period to analyze their data due to the “wacky” news coverage of the project.
Despite the assumptions made in the Vice article, there is some truth to the idea Hsu’s research eventually could help China engineer intelligence; although no one in Hsu’s cognitive genomics lab is working on reproduction – specifically preimplantation genetic diagnosis of embryos – other BGI units are, he said during a recent interview on NPR. Still, Hsu called the “genius baby” allegation a “huge speculative leap” and challenged the notion that China has written a blank check to BGI (he said the institution is private and compared the often cited $1.5 billion government funding figure to a line of credit, rather than a direct grant).
But comments on Hsu's own blog suggest more than purely scientific interest in cognitive genomics.
"Imagine what a couple might pay to ensure that they get the best out of 10 or 50 possible offspring, optimizing over their choice of heritable attributes," he wrote in 2012. "Compare this with the cost of a Harvard education or K-12 private school tuition. The cost of an IVF cycle is down to a few thousand dollars and could go even lower. ...I hope that progressive governments will make this procedure free for everyone. The benefits from increased economic output, decreased welfare and criminality rates, etc. far outweigh the cost of what I have described above ( = few cycles of IVF + running my algorithms provided at dirt cheap licensing rates ;-)." Pondering the cost of such a procedure, he added, "Few $K is the cost in Taiwan or Korea and success rates are if anything higher there. That's not even factoring the economies of scale that would arise if a large fraction of couples wanted it. Who says the U.S. is the first market for this?"
Richwine said via e-mail his own work has nothing to do with eugenics and that he’s not familiar with Hsu – and, to be sure, there are huge differences between Richwine’s social science research extrapolated to recommendations for immigration policy (in particular, that there exists a long-term gap in IQ between non-Hispanic whites and Hispanics and that IQ should be considered in immigration decisions) and Hsu’s work in the hard sciences.
However, some see similarities – and find fault in – their interest in research over its potential ethical implications.
In a post called “The New Eugenics – Same as the Old Eugenics?” for his blog, Wiring the Brain, Kevin Mitchell, a professor of genetics at Trinity College Dublin who said he has engaged in dialogue with Hsu on the matter, also argued that research can’t be divorced from its potential implications. “Some would argue it is not the place of scientists to decide the ethical issues – it is our job just to do the science,” he wrote in reference to the physicist's research. “If society abuses it, well, that is not our fault. This is a case where I strongly disagree – we cannot disentangle the moral issues from the scientific ones. It is too easy to use scientific findings to justify policies that would otherwise be deemed abhorrent; too easy, as [David] Hume noted, to mistakenly derive a prescription of how things ought to be from a description of how they are.” Mitchell said via e-mail that "I think people are calling Richwine and, to a lesser extent, Hsu, eugenicists, because their public statements seem to favor eugenics."
Chan echoed Mitchell. “We can't act as if learning, teaching, or research in our academic institutions happens within a vacuum,” she said in an e-mail. “Historically, ‘science’ has had a substantial influence in how ideas about race were developed and then how those ideas were translated into policy and laws.” In Hsu’s case, she added, “To approach the field of genetics (and not just around this idea of intelligence) without acknowledging the potential for racist outcomes is ignoring history. To be the producers of knowledge without any thought to how that knowledge might be used is ignoring our moral responsibilities.”
The blogger also noted some physicists’ objection to working on the atomic bomb. Hsu made a similar reference when asked about the ethical implications of his research during a tech talk at Google in 2011 (he was there in part to solicit DNA donors for his project, telling the crowd he’d wondered since he was a kid what makes certain minds, like those of theoretical physicists, “special”). Genetic selection for traits such as height and intelligence seem to be inevitable, he said.
“At that point, all bets are off. Rich people are going to be doing it. They might be making choices about implanting – if they’re doing IVF, which zygotes to implant. It’s all going to come. It’s all driven by technology. I don’t see any way to stop it. …So yes, there are huge ethical implications. But, you know, although I just said that, compared to people who worked on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, I think what I’m doing – right, they had even, in some sense, larger ethical questions they had to answer to at the time – I think it’s part of the territory for just doing science.”
Others see no eugenicist agenda in either researcher's work, and believe the cases raise questions of academic freedom.
Charles Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who caused controversy with his 1996 book on IQ and society, The Bell Curve, wrote the essay “In Defense of Jason Richwine” for National Review Online. In an e-mail, he called the backlash against both scholars “a form of contemporary intellectual insanity.”
“Here we have one guy, Hsu, who isn't doing anything that could remotely be called eugenics, and another guy, Richwine, who based his dissertation on differences in standardized test score means that indisputably exist, and people call them eugenicists, racists, pseudoscientists, you name it,” said Murray. “These reactions are hysterical, incredibly ignorant about the state of knowledge in psychometrics, and often made by people with impressive academic credentials. After almost 20 years of living with them, I still don't really understand what's going on.”
Michigan State stands behind Hsu. “[Any] researcher or professor at MSU is entitled to full freedom in their research and in the publication of their results,” a spokesman wrote in an e-mail.
Nita Farahany, professor of law, philosophy, genome sciences and policy at Duke University School of Law offered a nuanced opinion: “I think researchers should be careful about the conclusions that they draw. Studying the genetic and environmental contributions to intelligence (if one could agree on what that means) – or IQ scores – does not link Dr. Hsu to inappropriate conclusions drawn by other researchers.” But, she said, “I do think that researchers have a duty to consider how their research will be used, to understand the implications of their research for society and to help safeguard against scientific misuse.”