Engineering the Messiah

By Razib Khan | November 8, 2010 11:37 am

834518In the 1920s the Soviet Union sponsored a “humanzee” breeding program. From what I recall the ultimate rationale for the funding was that the program might create a race of superior warriors, combing the incredible physical strength on a per pound basis of the chimp, with the greater level of intelligence found in human beings. To our knowledge the experiments were failures, though there have long been rumors of successes in these sorts of programs. I suspect the possibility persists because of the transgressive freak-show aspect.

This was a case where the science of the time was simply not up to the ambitions of the scientists, and this sort of engineering for the good-of-society has been the domain of science fiction. Consider the novel Cyteen. In this future history cloning is normal and acceptable, and the heart of the story involves the attempt to replicate a super-genius. There are broader stellar-political implications, as these sorts of minds are driving engines of innovation, and so strategically valuable. A cruder model of this was also explored in the G. I. Joe universe in the form of the villain Serpentor. He was engineered from the genetic material of ancient conquerors.

One of the issues which naturally cropped up in Cyteen is that genius seems to emerge through an intersection of environmental and genetic inputs. So part of the novel focuses on the environmental inputs which are replicated for the copy-genius, and the tensions which arise from this. But even granting this mitigating factor the underlying model is that the genes of geniuses will increase the odds of producing geniuses. We see this with professional athletes; regression toward the mean explains why the offspring of most professional athletes are not good enough to become professionals themselves. But, the odds of one’s child becoming a professional athlete are far above expectation if a parent is a professional athlete. The Bonds and Griffeys illustrate this.

With all that said, we have long been able to “brute force” the existence of clones in theory (at least since Dolly). Combined with the future reboot of gene therapy procedures, as well as the ability to extract and amplify older DNA samples, there is the possibility that with enough capital inputs you could “re-create” Einstein. I’m talking a classic Boys from Brazil scenario. The humanitarian and ethical obstacles to this are clear and present in any liberal society, but what about a totalitarian one? Stalin was in power for about 25 years.

Addendum: And then there’s the famous case of Duncan Idaho.

  • Mike Keesey

    Funny you mention Duncan Idaho; when I saw the title of this post, I immediately thought “Kwisatz Haderach”.

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  • Uncle Al

    A female horse and a male donkey get you a valuable mule. A male horse and a female donkey get you a worthless hinny. The Russians were doing it backwards, getting Democrats instead of Ivan the Wonderful.

    In any case, you must use a bonobo not a chimp. All the Great Apes cross like citrus, or Arkansas farmers’ sons and stock animals.

  • John Wilkins

    If you want long-twitch muscle fibres, it seems it would be easier to insert the relevant genes than to crossbreed. But the tradeoff is less dexterity.

  • Razib Khan

    we don’t know the relevant genes i think. or at least most of the effect. at least last i checked.

  • trajan23

    Razib: ” the incredible physical strength on a per pound basis of the chimp…”

    I’m not quite sure that twice the strength of a human of equal size counts as “incredible physical strength.” Hawks notes:

    ” In 1943, Glen Finch of the Yale primate laboratory rigged an apparatus to test the arm strength of eight captive chimpanzees. An adult male chimp, he found, pulled about the same weight as an adult man. Once he’d corrected the measurement for their smaller body sizes, chimpanzees did turn out to be stronger than humans—but not by a factor of five or anything close to it.
    Repeated tests in the 1960s confirmed this basic picture. A chimpanzee had, pound for pound, as much as twice the strength of a human when it came to pulling weights. The apes beat us in leg strength, too, despite our reliance on our legs for locomotion. A 2006 study found that bonobos can jump one-third higher than top-level human athletes, and bonobo legs generate as much force as humans nearly two times heavier.”

  • Razib Khan

    I’m not quite sure that twice the strength of a human of equal size counts as “incredible physical strength.” Hawks notes:

    fair enough. though i’m not sure you’d feel that way if you were fighting a guy on the battlefield who was twice as strong and managed to snap one of your bones before blowing your brains out after you went into shock :-) have you fought people much physically in a no holds bar fashion? small marginal differences are a bitch.

  • trajan23

    Oh, yeah. I certainly agree that fighting someone who has twice your physical strength is no fun. Indeed, one of my pet peeves regarding recent action movies is the all too common theme of a 115 pound female pounding the snot out of a man twice her size (cf. Scarlett Johansson in IRON MAN 2, Lucy Liu in BALLISTIC: ECKS VS SEVER, all of the women in the CHARLIE’S ANGELS movies, etc).

    My only quibble lay in your use of “incredible.” The word just conveys an impression of Incredible Hulk style strength to me. Your use of it suggested that you were using the outdated “chimps have 5 times the strength of man” models.

    I definitely would not want to fight an enraged chimp anytime soon!

  • Razib Khan

    agreed. it was a worthwhile comment. if someone edited my posts that might be removed.

  • Al Feersum

    @5 – we sort of know the genes that create ‘genius’ – and as you say, the odds of genius parents having genius offspring is really high.

    Sadly, these genes are also loaded with a lot of bits that would make them potentially undesirable to use. The genes are highly heritable, but often, the expression can be quite disabling.

    As Rob Calvert penned:

    Einstein was not a handsome fellow
    nobody ever called him Al
    He had a long moustache to pull on
    it was yellow
    I don’t believe he ever had a girl
    One thing he missed out in his theory
    of Time and Space and Relativity
    is something that makes it very clear he
    was never gonna score like you and me

  • Zohar

    Then the Soviets started executing geneticists as counter-revolutionaries — Lysenko

  • Caledonian

    Einstein was married twice and had three children.

    Rob Calvert was either writing very tongue-in-cheek, or astonishingly ill-informed.

  • Al Feersum

    @12 – yeah, it was very tongue in cheek (after all, he had to make the song scan). But the speculation that Einstein had an autistic spectrum condition (along with many other übergeeks, like Newton or Gates) and the definitive diagnoses of people like Paul Dirac could suggest that ‘genius’ may be (in the words of the World Health Organisation) a ‘disease’.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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