Shenzhen Genetics Firm Aims for Brighter Babies

‘China’s Bio-Google’ BGI-Shenzhen has attracted increasing attention in recent months, not least for its work with American psychologist Robert Plomin on tracing the genetic causes of exceptional intelligence. At Motherboard, Aleks Eror interviews one of the intelligence study’s participants, evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, who argues that unsqueamish attitudes towards are giving China the edge.

How does Western research in genetics compare to China’s? We’re pretty far behind. 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.

Why 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.

According to Miller, the research might eventually enable parents to select the most potentially intelligent from a number of embryos. After a generation or more, this could make “a huge difference in terms of economic productivity, the competitiveness of the country, how many patents they get, how their businesses are run, how innovative their economy is.” The interview does not explore how broadly such selection might be available, or its potential side effects such as intensified social inequality. Miller does, however, raise possible candidates for additional selection criteria. “Personality traits might be a little simpler than intelligence – how hard working somebody is, how impulsive, how politically liberal or conservative they are [….]”