Building a harmonious society through genomics

By Razib Khan | April 26, 2011 1:27 pm

Dan Vorhaus points me to this Newsweek feature on BGI. My friend Steve Hsu gets some face time in the piece:

…Last year, pharmaceutical giant Merck announced plans for a research collaboration with BGI, as the Chinese company’s revenue hit $150 million—revenue projected to triple this year. “I admire their passion and the willingness to take risks,” says Steven Hsu, a physicist at the University of Oregon, adding that “it permeates the organization.”

Satellite research centers have been set up or are underway in the U.S., Europe, Hong Kong, and four other locations in China, and the number of researchers at the main headquarters in Shenzhen has more than doubled during the past year and a half. The institute now employs almost 4,000 scientists and technicians—and is still expanding.

“I’ve seen it happen but sometimes even I can’t believe how fast we are moving,” says Luo Ruibang, a bioinformaticist, who at 23, fits perfectly within the company’s core demographic. The average age of the research staff is 26.

Li Yingrui, 24, directs the bioinformatics department and its 1,500 computer scientists. Having dropped out of college because it didn’t present enough of an intellectual challenge, he firmly believes in motivating young employees with wide-ranging freedom and responsibility. “They grow with the task and develop faster,” he says. One of his researchers is 18-year-old Zhao Bowen. While still in high school, Zhao joined the bioinformatics team for a summer project and blew everyone away with his problem-solving skills. After consulting with his parents, he took a full-time job as a researcher and finished school during his downtime. Fittingly, he now manages a project on the genetic basis of high IQ. His team is sampling 1,000 Chinese adults with an IQ higher than 145, comparing their genomes with those of an equal number of randomly picked control subjects. Zhao acknowledges that such projects linking intelligence with genes may be controversial but “more so elsewhere than in China,” he says, adding that several U.S. research groups have contacted him for collaboration. “Everybody is interested in intelligence,” he says.

Knowledge, information, innovation, these are the only ways that the human race will beat back the Malthusian trap in our age. The world is aging now, and many nations will be moving past peak labor soon. We’ll need to be squeeze more productivity our of fewer at some point.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Economics, Genomics
  • http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    Is not China, the setting of the story, a counter-example to the “Knowledge, information, innovation, these are the only ways that the human race will beat back the Malthusian trap in our age” conclusion?

    The brute force was to beat Malthusian limits is to limit fertility, point blank, freeing up more carrying capacity per person, as China famously did, and as almost every other nation in the world has done without China’s coersive methods.

    Incentives and slight coersion would achieve the Chinese result while socially restraining the formation of pro-natal subcultures, in a far less heavy handed way in a society where most adults want far fewer children than they can support.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    fair enough. but it’s the combination which is important. anti-natalism wasn’t uncommon in the malthusian world. and the modern age distribution will be strange, as you’ll have WAY MORE old people. they’re going to be consumers/dependents at the end of their lives, so you need to increase aggregate productivity to support them. otherwise, soylent green scenarios loom.

    p.s. there is some social science now that china’s coercion probably only had an impact on the margin. there have been some tests to see if removing the plan would increase fertility, and so far, no, it hasn’t worked out that way.

  • http://mengbomin.wordpress.com/ Meng Bomin

    So, have you become an advocate of China’s 和谐社会?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    is there a reason i shouldn’t be? is there a nuance in the term i’m missing?

  • John Emerson

    Knowledge, information, innovation, these are the only ways that the human race will beat back the Malthusian trap in our age.

    These are fine things, and your preferred solutions, but there are various others. Tech people prefer tech solutions, little-government people oppose government solutions, and a lot of people think that social change is either impossible or a bad thing (they don’t really care which).

    The world is aging now, and many nations will be moving past peak labor soon. We’ll need to be squeeze more productivity our of fewer at some point.

    If we were in a Malthusian trap, there’d be no peak labor. We’ve seen continuous productivity increase for a couple decades (perhaps our only economic success story) without higher IQ workers.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    These are fine things, and your preferred solutions, but there are various others. Tech people prefer tech solutions, little-government people oppose government solutions, and a lot of people think that social change is either impossible or a bad thing (they don’t really care which).

    everyone agrees that technological growth + demographic transition is the key to breaking out of subsistence over longer terms than land surplus. right? small gov. vs. industrial policy are just different putative means toward the ends of innovation.

    If we were in a Malthusian trap, there’d be no peak labor. We’ve seen continuous productivity increase for a couple decades (perhaps our only economic success story) without higher IQ workers.

    i don’t see the point of what you’re getting at here.

  • John Emerson

    In a Malthusian trap, the young cohort keeps getting larger. You’re talking about the old cohort getting larger.

    We’re already squeezing more productivity out of fewer, and have been for a couple of decades.

    In general, tech people, like freemarketers and little-government conservatives, seem opposed in advance to social and political solutions, for extraneous reasons. That’s a cliche of technocracy, public choice theory, Chicago school economics, as well as various political movements. “Either impossible or bad” is the summary. That’s a crippling principle.

    For that reason, I’m sure that there are social science suggestions that China’s policy had little effect. If I were paid to look at that social science, I would, but with the time constraints being what they are, I feel fairly safe in ignoring it as predictable ideological
    hackery.

  • dave chamberlin

    I wonder how successful BGI will be in finding genetic patterns that differentiate normal people from geniuses. 82% of our approximately 25,000 genes are expressed somewhere in the brain is the finding of Allen Institute for Brain Sciences. It is an indication of the complexity of the human brain and how little we now know how genes influence intelligence. My only opinion is…. hurry up.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    In a Malthusian trap, the young cohort keeps getting larger. You’re talking about the old cohort getting larger.

    this isn’t a precise enough description. basically the pop. can grow, but it only exists in equilibrium with production, so subsistence is maintained in equilibrium. stuff like the black death can kill the old and young, leaving the ppl in betwee.

    We’re already squeezing more productivity out of fewer, and have been for a couple of decades.

    In general, tech people, like freemarketers and little-government conservatives, seem opposed in advance to social and political solutions, for extraneous reasons. That’s a cliche of technocracy, public choice theory, Chicago school economics, as well as various political movements. “Either impossible or bad” is the summary. That’s a crippling principle.

    i really have no idea how you think this has anything to do with what i said above as a rebuttal. the combination of massive growth in productivity + demographic transition is the story of the past 1-2 centuries. the rest of the stuff works on the margins, whether it be smithian growth or redistribution or social policy. you seem fixated on some political points. boring. the role of technology was highlighted prominently early on by marx.

  • John Emerson

    What tripped me was your claim that Chinese population policy had little to do with a decline in Chinese population growth. You have elsewhere made the claim that voluntary changes in behavior, environmental preaching, ZPG, had little to with similar declines in the west. These claims do not strike me as likely, but symptomatic of a political attitude that I’m all too familiar with and which is widespread in the US.

    I didn’t say, and nobody says, that technology is irrelevant.

    In the context of genomics research, and IQ improvement, you said “Knowledge, information, innovation, these are the only ways….” Again, the word “only” set me off. There are a large number of ways, including those.

  • Dragon Horse

    Razib: 和谐社会…Harmonious Society is what the communist leaders (the last two, at least) have said they wanted to form by some perfect mix of capitalism and party domination/control (which they call Chinese Socialism). The term really goes back to Kong Fuzi, but you know, the CCP likes to use it.

  • http://mengbomin.wordpress.com/ Meng Bomin

    is there a reason i shouldn’t be? is there a nuance in the term i’m missing?

    Dragon Horse made the point. Essentially whatever nuance there is to the term comes from the fact that it’s a political brand for the set of policies put in place during Hu Jintao’s tenure. Much like how phrases like social security, great society, liberté, egalité, fraternité, and a whole host of other phrases now have a new connotation after becoming political brands. You can say 和谐社会 and mean “harmonious society” literally, but it will carry with it the connotations of the major policies associated with it, in this case the framework used by the current generation of Chinese Communist Party leadership.

    Now, as for a commentary on the policy, I think that there are upsides and downsides. Certainly, it’s hard to argue with the continued economic development and growth under the tenure of the current leaders and certainly the system works better than it did under the rulership of the Party’s founder, but there’s what at least most Westerners would consider to be a dark side to the CCP’s policies. There’s a reason that the semi-homphonic 河蟹 is used as slang for censorship.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    What tripped me was your claim that Chinese population policy had little to do with a decline in Chinese population growth. You have elsewhere made the claim that voluntary changes in behavior, environmental preaching, ZPG, had little to with similar declines in the west. These claims do not strike me as likely, but symptomatic of a political attitude that I’m all too familiar with and which is widespread in the US.

    first, i’m curious about the second part. what did i say exactly? here’s some stuff on china’s population growth policy

    http://dailymonthly.com/?p=306

    i don’t know the size of effect, but a lot of chinese and non-chinese scientists are wondering if the one child policy only had an effect on the margins. the key is that family sizes were already dropping.

    In the context of genomics research, and IQ improvement, you said “Knowledge, information, innovation, these are the only ways….” Again, the word “only” set me off. There are a large number of ways, including those.

    right, only was wrong. but here’s what i think is non-controversial: for a medium-term persistence of an affluent consumer society only the combination of the much higher rates of productivity growth we’ve seen since 1800, due to technological innovation, + demographic transition, will do it. smithian growth and squeezing more efficiencies, better institutional or social-ethical frameworks, etc., are only going to have an impact on the margins. aside from rock solid population control policies all of these have a shorter-term “catch-up” time horizon for the old malthusian subsistence parameters to be operative, where gains in living standards are only possible through drop off of population.

    we’re really rich right now. but within 2 generations we’ll see a really “gray” world, and at current rates and projects they ain’t gonna be as rich as japan is now. that’s a problem for the sort of social equilibriums we take for granted right now.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    re: harmonious, yeah, i kind of know the context here. i use the term a lot in reference to china because it just kind of sounds funny translated into english.

  • John Emerson

    “better institutional or social-ethical frameworks, etc., are only going to have an impact on the margins”

    Well, they’re essential. And dominant groups basically oppose almost anything that is attempted in those areas. Especially by government, but a very large bloc of public opinion also opposes and ridicules voluntary attempts in these areas and public efforts to advocate for them. This is not true everywhere, but it is in the U.S. There’s an attitude of enraged defiance.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Well, they’re essential. And dominant groups basically oppose almost anything that is attempted in those areas. Especially by government, but a very large bloc of public opinion also opposes and ridicules voluntary attempts in these areas and public efforts to advocate for them. This is not true everywhere, but it is in the U.S. There’s an attitude of enraged defiance.

    i see what you’re getting at, but you’re basically addressing modern political conflicts. i don’t think this has any real meaning before the era of surplus enabled by radically increased gains in productivity + lack of concomitant population growth through demographic transition. before ~1800 i believe most elites basically engaged in coercive rent extraction (i think in some areas the 1700s were transitionary, as a whig sensibility was emerging). after 1800 a lot (few or most depends on your assessment) did, but some also generated enormous positive externalities through innovation which boosted productivity and the size of the pie. that’s different that what came before. e.g..

  • John Emerson

    Jeez, Razib, the modern political conflicts are in effect today. We are moderns. We precede whatever future there will be. These are the undecided questions that are being decided.

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

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 http://www.razib.com

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