Design brainy babies an easier way?

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Back when this blog was young and its was age measured in months, not years, “godless capitalist” (gc) would debate Paul Orwin and Charles Murtaugh, especially on the issue of QTLs which affect normal variation in IQ. When gc made the case for possible genetic engineering of one’s offspring to have higher IQs Murtaugh was aghast. His basic logic seemed to be that the QTLs which contribute to normal variation in IQ are of small effect, so there are many, and who knows what sorts of problems might be caused by “switching” dozens of genes from state A to B? Genes are often of course pleiotropic, and Murtaugh’s assumption seemed to be that changing the genetic architecture in such a profound way might not be a good thing in the genetic background of the typical human. We’re a species with a very high rate of spontaneous abortion, perhaps as much as 3/4 of fertilizations do not come to term. Much of this is likely due to chromosomal abnormalities, but there are likely other factors as well, so let’s take Murtaugh’s objection seriously for a minute.

What sort of superior child do most parents which frank eugenic inclinations want? Wouldn’t you want your son to be both tall and extremely intelligent? For example, a male who is 1 standard deviation taller than the norm and 2 standard deviations more intelligent would be at a relatively advantage in life. But the chances of having a tall Mensa level IQ son is not high for most humans, and even if you assume some dependence of the deviation of one trait conditioned upon other, that dependence is likely still relatively weak. Finally, both of these are quantitative traits where the average effect from a given gene seems small in their contribution to normal human variation. The right flavor of HMGA2 gives you 1 extra centimeter, but that really isn’t that much, and this is likely a QTL of very large effect for this trait (height). For intelligence the prospects may even be weaker. To engineer a very tall and intelligent son if you are of normal intelligence & height (the typical future consumers) would require alterations on many loci, and this is where Murtaugh might pipe up with cautionary tales.

But then I thought of something: there are other traits where most of the variation seems associated with a few loci of large effect. Europeans’ light skin is in large part due to SLC24A5, SLC45A2, TYR and OCA2. 4-6 loci probably account for around 90% of the variation. What about eye color? OCA2 is responsible for 3/4 of the variation, with TYR rounding out much of the balance. Skin color, eye color, even hair color; these are gross outward phenotypes controlled by a few loci of large effect! The loci are of such large effect I think that South Asian couples of middle complexion who want lighter skinned offspring can now feasibly engage in selective abortions to “load the die” so that their offspring are the “optimal” combination of their genes. We have the information and the technology. Then I began thinking, do people really care about total genome content in relation to their offspring? We’ve floated the possibility of switching a few hundred loci to shift the expected phenotypic value in the offspring, but the Murtaugh objection looms in the background. But we already have genetic backgrounds which have been “field tested” for viability and health in highly intelligent people. Why not just use them and fiddle around with the loci which control superficial physical appearance!

What I’m saying here is that instead of taking the genetic material from one’s own biological offspring and fiddling with hundreds of loci to shift the quantitative value of traits of interest such as height and IQ, why not create a clone of a tall and very intelligent person, and switch a few dozen loci so as to sculpt that individual so that it can pass as your natural offspring? Imagine that a Japanese couple hosts a tall Swedish exchange student who is both a stellar scholar and athlete, and is moderately tall to boot. Additionally, this individual has a very agreeable personality. The son they always wanted! Perhaps they can get that son. They could clone the student, and then make changes to complexion, hair form, eye color, nasal form and include in Asian traits such as the epicanthic fold. Eye color, hair color and skin color are known to some degree now, perhaps a dozen genes could do most of the trick. But what about nasal form? I don’t honestly know. Epicanthic fold? Again, I don’t know. I suspect that some of these traits are subject to QTLs of larger effect than height or intelligence. One would have to do the cost vs. benefit.

Now, some of you might ask, “but why would people want to have offspring who are predominantly not descended from them?” Perhaps that is an issue for many or most people. Honestly though, I think if you could make a child resemble the midpoint of both parental phenotypes in terms of complexion and facial features the intellectual (conscious) knowledge would quickly be overruled by the reflexive (proximate) cognitive processes which would identify the physical resemblance and induce the normal emotional response (the main objection is that I do think that personality ticks are highly heritable, so perhaps some parents would start to treat their offspring as incongruous impostures who exhibit the right look, but with strange mannerisms). This goes to human psychology, it is a complicated area and there is some evidence that humans exhibit essentialisms which may transcend morphology. That being said, in this case I believe not all loci are created equal. If the “important” loci (those which contribute to visual parent-child resemblance) are identical by descent & state from the putative parents I think that many would enter into the tradeoff of alien genome content for the sake of building a “better baby.”

Anyway, just a thought I had on the way to the Post Office (I’m not shitting you!).

Note: Even if the Murtaugh objection does not hold, it might be cheaper to do what I’m talking about. I don’t really take the objection that much to heart, humans mix & match genes across genetic backgrounds all the time when we mate. The key would be to get the exogenous material in early during development so any problems would lead to a spontaneous abortion. Obviously playing with the genetic architecture after the child had been delivered might be more problematic. Also, though purchasing the rights to someone’s genome for your offspring might be expense, I don’t see how it would be that much more expensive than eggs purchased for fertility clinics are today. Of course, the types of parents I’m talking about are probably going to be in line for androids too. Let your imagination fly.



  1. My wife and I have a lesbian buddy who went off to the Fairfax Cryo-Bank to get sperm when she wanted kids. She decided she wanted ‘smart’ and ‘tall’, and picked a donor who was 6 foot eight and had advanced degrees. She now has two perfectly nice, smart TALL kids. The NYT had an article about sperm banks and said, among other things, that they’re not even bothering to take donors who are less than five foot nine, because nobody wants that sperm. At the donor egg places, there is a lot more demand for the eggs of women who have degrees, high test scores, etc. So, there is your revealed preference…

  2. … the revealed preference of the tiny, tiny subset of people who can’t ( or can’t be arsed to) spawn the natural, slob’s way and can access and afford, and indeed even feel the need for, such exotic remedies to their ambition. Good luck to ‘em. 
    As for the hypothetical ScandoJap (I assume you’re rigorously excluding Finns here) why on earth would they want to? For a kickoff, the poor sod would end up with chunks whacked out of its IQ, like me from staying at my grandma’s house with its low, chunkily-beamed ceilings, doorways and stairs, which suited grandma and her 17th century predecessors just fine, but left me in a state of near-concussion most of the time. Hell, I had to bend down even to look out the window.

  3. The argument can be taken to a logical extreme though – just design a dozen or so “archetypes”. The tall and brainy son, the lithe and (ahem) wheatish-complexioned daughter, the squat and bulky warrior, the lanky athlete… then add a “CSS file” for morphological “styling” as you describe.  
    Once you’ve got “optimized” archetypes, of course, why waste them on social tasks to which they are not designed? We can further stratify by class and career.  
    Ultimately we approach something very akin to Brave New World by Huxley, and we get there by perfectly reasonable steps. 
    (I’m not making a moral judgement here. Just pointing out that the moral lines are perfectly arbitrary. So if we are going to perform the inteclltual excercize, let’s do it full bore).  
    I don’t see genetic-based eugenics as inherently evil, but I do think that it’s something that needs to stay within the medical industry rather than the cosmetic ones, and I’d support rather draconian legislation to ensure it stays so. If a person needs a license to drive a car, then they need a degree to wield a genetic recombination blackbox/inseminator. That seems sufficient to harness the potential of the hyperbiotech to maximum societal benefit.

  4. This kind of genetic engeneering on this hypothetical japanese would be done to make “fine tunning” on complexion, height or appearence. The whole idea is that, by the means of genetic engineering, or selective abortions, or what else, parents would be able to control one or two biological knobs and switch their future descendece’s height, complexion, noses, eyes, and so on. 
    It is well understood that relatives have, to one or another degree, the fantasy that their children will fulfill or surpass their own abilites in life. Relatives do make a lot of expectations on their children. For example, boys will be as good sportists as fathers were, girls would be more atractive, or better ballet dancers, than their mothers. 
    Physical appearence, intelligency, charm and personality are qualities that no one thinks are in excess, no matter how much they have. To most parents, specially during the first years of parenthood, children are small little people who will make true many of parent’s dreams, including some personal aspirations that were not accomplished. Evidently, as anyone learns, life is full of disappontments and frustrations, and kids will be only who they are. Intelligent relatives realise fast that one copeing with frustration is a key ability to one who would like to identificate himself as happy. Even though his not a PhD football star or her daughter is not the highly-intelligent Spring Princess. 
    I do not want to seem a moralist, either do not want to pass judgement on anybody, but it would be interesting to investigate what is behind such an idea. I also would like to remind that the feasability of one scientifical proccedure is not reason enough to justify it ethically.

  5. Well remember the story about a year ago on Hasidic Jewish couples in Israel, who because they both carried similar deleterious alleles, were choosing to use sperm from Danish donors to have children… so the concept is not too far fetched…

  6. You might be able to pass the Swede off as Japanese, but probably not as belonging to the couple — facial morphology, iirc (at least for other animals), shows a lot of epistatic variance. It seems like they’d view him as they would a Japanese adoptee. 
    I wouldn’t want a tall and agreeable son — they go in opposite directions, tall predisposing toward dominance and agreeableness toward meekishness. I wouldn’t want a tall son period — smarties who are tall go into the professions, and I’d want him to be a scientist or artist, who are shorter than professionals. Also, someone who’s 6’8 couldn’t dance well, and I’d like him to be able to do that. If you wanted an extravert, they’d do well at performing but not at investigating or creating, since that requires a lot of sitting still. 
    So, tying this back into the thread, a lot of these parents will figure these issues out (you can’t be good at everything, or even most things), and we won’t have the disappearance of types. We might get something like what Aziz mentioned, but that’s just a slightly more extreme case of what happens naturally. A variety of types are maintained since no one beats out all the others in surviving or attracting mates.

  7. Would we have enough food to feed them, when the time comes that the average height is 6’2, and what is considered tall is 8’1?

  8. There would be, OT, once they’ve killed off all the squirts.

  9. This might sound silly or trivial, but I’m excited at the idea that non-Caucasoid people will start genetically engineering children to have features like light eyes, hair and skin, for the simple reason that I think the novel combinations would be striking. Blonde hair on an Asian or black person I’m not too keen on, personally (I’ve seen women of these races with blonde wigs or dyed hair, and they look awful), but I think a red-headed Japanese woman or a green-eyed Indian, in many cases, would be quite attractive. As a swarthy Italian, if I could spend $800 to combine my skin tone with Sharbat Gula’s eye color in my kid, yeah, I’d do it.  
    Also, from what I’ve heard, light skin is still VERY much preferred among women in places like Sri Lanka and Sicily. (I have a friend from Sri Lanka who is very dark and says, to this day, that she feels “repulsive” standing next to white guys, and can’t date them for that reason. It’s actually very sad.) Light skin among women could become an even stronger marker for high class in such places, since it shows your parents had the money to shell out for the genetic engineering.

  10. There would be, OT, once they’ve killed off all the squirts. 
    Isnt this a stupid and arrogant comment that should be deleted? 
    Do you think we should kill the short Japanese whose innovations in technology is remarkable?  
    “Above Average Height” would just make you want to raise the hoop higher, there is no real use for a tall individual except perhaps if you need someone to move a bird’s nest to another tree. 
    Height is just for entertainment. Well, not even. 
    If you are filmmaker, you would know that shorter guys project better in films.

  11. Longevity might be controlled by loci of large effect, and I think that would be a popular “option”. Maybe even in vivo modification. 
    The niche modification idea is uncomforable for me though. Biological collectivization is frightening, but perhaps inevitable in the far future.

  12. just a minor note, please don’t focus on the swede -> japanese transform :-) that was a boundary condition.

  13. Wouldn’t you want your son to be both tall and extremely intelligent?Tall? No. Extremely intelligent, yes, but the cognitive traits I most value cannot be measured accurately enough for us to associate them with genetic variation in more than a trivial way.

  14. Marc, what’s up with your lankan chum? Round our way the dates you steer clear of are the excessively yogurty-coloured ones. The ones that generally resemble a week-old boiled potato, complete with dodgy-looking grey-green undertones. 
    Except they’re man-size… 
    South Indians, like chinese/korean/japanese regardless of gender rate well high in the hottitude chart, probably because they ain’t lardy thyroid-deficient behemoths (see above, with apologies for rudeness to all concerned), and they don’t have awkward notions about booze, but then again there’s not a lot of them up here. 
    The “hey I’m chinese/japanese and I’m gonna bleach my hair orange” used to baffle me, it’s fairly common round here. Used to think “What’s your game, are you taking the piss? You must be nuts, have you any IDEA how much sh8 gingers get, even here in the Land of Ginger?” 
    Now I like it. Like having a tribute band :?) 
    (Yup, I are Mcr1 mutant. You fancy pop round to cave for spot of intromission?)

  15. a red-headed Japanese woman 
    There are tons of Japanese students here, and none has blonde hair. It is common for them to do this, though. It’s more like copper or auburn than orange-red, though. 
    South Indians, like chinese/korean/japanese regardless of gender rate well high in the hottitude chart 
    Those are your preferences, which don’t generalize. East Asians are at or under their proportion of the population when you look at who makes the Maxim Hot 100 list, Playboy, etc. “South Indians” only capture a large amount of attention if they’re light-skinned like Aishwarya Rai. 
    Speaking of which, though, East Asians could make significant gains in hottitude by engineering away the epicanthic fold — that prevents them from having large, full-moon eyes. That could be one reason why halfies look so good — no slanted eyes. 
    a green-eyed Indian 
    Color contacts would probably be cheaper, although if G.E. gets really cheap, it’d be worth it not to have to put junk in your eyes for 10 hours every day.

  16. Woops, agnostic, tripped up by my own imprecision again. What I meant was the general consensus (up to now, anyhoo) of me and all my Scottish, frequently unnecessarily ginger, and absurdly pale compadres of either sex. I ain’t here, see, I’m over there (stabs gnarly neandertal digit vaguely at map of northeast atlantic ocean). And dark and petite is doubleplus good, maybe a relict of some vile ancient prejudice against irish catholics (who are practically translucent). And then there’s that weird “first-footing” thing at new year, still taken pretty seriously specially by the olds, so I don’t bother leaving the house that night. You’ll just have to trust me on this. Or get over on a vacation.

  17. What I’m saying here is that instead of taking the genetic material from one’s own biological offspring and fiddling with hundreds of loci to shift the quantitative value of traits of interest such as height and IQ, why not create a clone of a tall and very intelligent person, and switch a few dozen loci so as to sculpt that individual so that it can pass as your natural offspring? 
    Why not just do a Gattaca using your own material?

  18. This might sound silly or trivial, but I’m excited at the idea that non-Caucasoid people will start genetically engineering children to have features like light eyes, hair and skin, for the simple reason that I think the novel combinations would be striking. 
    Don’t get too excited as this will probably not happen. I think people will generally go for features that are naturally occuring, though uncommon, within their populations, 
    For example, in Africa, people generally think light eyes are creepy and light hair is a sign of sickness, so i’m willing to bet that no one would pay money to have those traits. I can see africans choosing lighter skin for women, but only at levels which currently occur. Due to natural variation, some africans come out dark yellow, rather than dark brown, and this is valued in women. However, anything lighter will be associated with albinism and hence considered very unattractive. Indians also prefer dark hair (had a friend who was born with browish hair and her mom was so ashamed that she’d dye her hair black until she grew out of it) 
    If you’d like to know what traits people would pay for, just look at what they currently pay for now. 
    According to my junk mail, men are most concerned about penis size, baldness, and height. 
    Women spend the most amount of money on wrinkle creams, breast, lip augmentation, and weight loss. 
    These, not blond hair and blue eyes, will be most important.