Those genius Chinese babies

By Razib Khan | March 17, 2013 11:28 pm

I’ve gotten several emails about the Vice interview of Geoffrey Miller on BGI’s Cognitive Genetics Project. It’s a sexy piece, and no surprise given Miller’s fascination with the future of China and science (something I share to a moderate extent). But for the love of God please watch this Steve Hsu video first before reading that.

The problem that seems to crop up with this project, which has been in the works for years, is that any public mention blows up into extreme hyperbole. And yet when I’ve talked to Steve about it he’s often much more modest about the possibilities, even if the ambitions of the people involved in the endeavor are rather grand. I’m also moderately worried that the likely low probability of implementation of the sort of embryo screening for a quantitative trait like intelligence is going to confuse people as to the more probable and ubiquitous application: focusing on large effect deleterious mutations. As a new father the frequency of congenital defects is just staggering,* and I am highly motivated by this issue. In a China where family size is likely to stay small for the medium term future there will surely be a powerful demand side pressure for children without life altering diseases or abnormalities. Whether that is right or wrong, I am willing to bet that it will be routine reality for the affluent Chinese before the decade is out.

Also, I think Miller overdoes it on how China is overtaking the West in genetics (genomics). There is some caution in some cutting edge domains which might have unpalatable ideological implications, but American universities, and places like the Sanger or Max Plank Institute have a huge store of human capital. In fact I would hazard to predict that for the short to medium term future most of the “blue sky” biological research will still be done outside of China, while the Far East will focus on squeezing as much efficiency and insight as possible out of the basic science pioneered in the West.

* Yes, I know that it’s a 1 out of 30 probability. That’s really, really, high for most expectant parents. Think of a congenital defect as tail risk. Unlikely, but totally devastating when it does occur.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Personal Genomics
MORE ABOUT: Personal genomics

Comments (7)

  1. Laura Hercher

    One of the unnerving things about introducing genome sequencing into prenatal testing is that hype and a race to the market create this pressure to get stuff out there FAST — and the risks associated with crappy testing are so much more profound on the prenatal level. That’s the motivation for the post I wrote last week:

  2. Jon Claerbout

    Let us know if he makes his slides available.

  3. ohwilleke

    This post brings to mind the plot arc in the television series “Alphas” in which a group of people who could have been considered to have had birth defects organized a terrorist movement that targets (among others) pharma companies that make birth defect prevention drugs.
    Sometimes one man’s defect may be another man’s diversity, the bipolar disorder-creativity connection being one of the more notable examples. Still, I would be inclined to think that there are many cases where the distinction is clear.

    • Jeremy Nimmo

      Ignacy Hryniewiecki believed he was in the right too.

      The fact that many grossly wrong-headed people believe themselves to be in the right just proves there are a lot of people who could fall off a cliff without consequence.

  4. tractal

    Actually, it seems like Steve’s high-IQ association study is going to be mostly concerned with finding small effect deleterious alleles. You can find the big dings (major impairment mutations) pretty easily, but finding the small ones takes specifically the kind of study Steve is interested in.

    I’m also not sure modesty is warranted. There’s a good chance the genetic architecture of IQ can be roughly understood as a number of good alleles/number of bad alleles. If that’s the case then eugenics is only a stones throw away. You just need to find the good alleles and then select the best embryos=Gattica+.

  5. mmramos


    I think you´re not aware of another presentation from Mr. Hsu where he displays a far less modest stance about the efficacy of the proposed genetic screening:

    I also think that the citation at the last slide of the presentation is telling:

    “… but such a race will inevitably arise in whatever country first sees the
    inheritance of mental characters elucidated.”— RONALD A. FISHER, “MENDELISM AND BIOMETRY”


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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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