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.