Stephen Hsu thinks super intelligent humans are coming. He thinks this because he’s very impressed with genetic engineering (he’s a physicist), and believes that the way to make people more intelligent is to adjust their genes, and therefore, more gene tweaking will lead to more intelligent people, inevitably. And not just intelligent, but super-intelligent, with IQs about 1000, even though he has no idea what that means, or for that matter, even though no one really knows what an IQ of 100 means. We’re going to figure out all the genes that are involved in intelligence, and then we’ll just turn the knob on each one of them up to their maximum, and boom, super-humans.
Let’s set aside one concern: is intelligence, and more of it, really that good for human beings? We’re dependent on a certain level of smarts — we’re a technologically specialized species — but it’s not clear that we necessarily gain much by getting higher IQs. Fewer Donald Trump supporters, you might argue, but there intelligent, successful people supporting Trump, so there are more complex factors than just IQ behind that phenomenon. There is an argument to be made here against intelligence as a panacea, but as I say, let’s pretend for a bit that it is nothing but good. We want more intelligent people. Society as a whole and every individual would benefit from being more intelligent, just for the sake of argument.
Then the question becomes one of whether such an increase is possible, and whether genetic engineering is a practical way to achieve it. My answer to the first is that it’s unlikely, and the second is a flat no.
Our evolutionary history suggests that there was a period when Homo‘s brain was undergoing a long period of gradual enhancement. It wasn’t Homo sapiens though; it was Homo erectus. Fossils of that species over its 2 million year history show a pattern of slow enlargement of the cranium — they were getting larger brains. Their tools show some pattern of refinement, so there’s some evidence they were using those bigger brains in more sophisticated ways. But taking a million years to figure out how to put a sharper edge on a stone hand axe isn’t exactly a rapid development cycle.
Modern humans emerged out of Africa between 100,000 and 200,000 years. They were slightly smaller (and smaller brained) than the robust humans living in Asia and Europe, but they did bring about some advances in technology and swept over the world…and were adept at learning new skills. Again, we’ll say for the sake of argument, they represented a clear adaptive advantage to greater intelligence, even though there is no biological basis for assuming they were more intelligent, or that it was their intelligence that allowed them to displace other human groups. (I suspect that more complex social structures and language, which are obviously a product of the brain, are more responsible than IQ).
But here’s the thing: those early modern humans were pretty much indistinguishable from us today. They were about the same size, looked about the same, had the same capabilities we do now. If we used a time machine to go back and kidnap a Cro Magnon baby, bring her to our time and raise her in an ordinary American home, she’d probably grow up to play video games, shop at the mall, get a college degree, and land a job at an investment bank, and do just fine. Most of the evolving humanity has done since seems to be focused on their immune system and adaptations to agriculture and urban living.
One has to wonder, if IQ is such a great boon to humanity, why hasn’t the biological basis for it shown much improvement in the last 100,000 years? Evolution is far better at tinkering than humans are, and has been tweaking our species for a long, long time, but super-brains haven’t emerged yet. Somehow, genetic engineering is going to find amazing new solutions to intelligence, a quality of the brain that we don’t even understand yet, and cause a great leap upward? Unlikely.
Hsu’s answer is convincing only to the naive. He’s basically proposing that the problem is that intelligence involves a lot of genes, so all we need to do is find the optimal variant in each of the genes involved (evolution has already done our work for us!), and then combine them all into one individual. If a thousand genes contribute to intelligence, and there’s a variant of each that gives +1 IQ point overall, then all we have to do is a massive genetic adjustment that brings them all together. Easy, right?
To achieve this maximal type would require direct editing of the human genome, ensuring the favorable genetic variant at each of 10,000 loci. Optimistically, this might someday be possible with gene editing technologies similar to the recently discovered CRISPR/Cas system that has led to a revolution in genetic engineering in just the past year or two. Harvard genomicist George Church has even suggested that CRISPR will allow the resurrection of mammoths through the selective editing of Asian elephant embryo genomes. Assuming Church is right, we should add super-geniuses to mammoths on the list of wonders to be produced in the new genomic age.
Note his estimate of the number of genes that contribute to IQ: 10,000. That’s half the human genome! Hmmm. I wonder if any of those genes play a role in other processes in human physiology that might be affected by his plan?
Here’s an analogy for you: let’s say a novice car designer has decided that the one quality of an automobile that is most important is speed, raw speed. He doesn’t know much about cars, so he asks more qualified engineers about what elements of the car contribute to acceleration and velocity, and they start off with the obvious…details of the engine, fuel mixes, etc. Then they’re talking tires. Aerodynamics. Weight. Pretty soon they have to admit that just about everything in the car is going to affect the speed at which it travels.
So our blithe designer decides that making a fast car is simple: we just look at each component of the car one by one, and we pick an available option for it entirely on the basis of which option makes the car go faster. We’ll easily be able to make a car that can rocket along at a thousand miles an hour, he thinks.
But we have to ask whether we would want a car where the seats and steering were optimized for speed, where safety options were discarded, where something like visibility or reliability were jettisoned for the sole virtue of going really fast.
That’s what Hsu is proposing. It’s absurd. Humans are even more multidimensional than cars, and he thinks he can flatten people out to a single linear parameter. I think we’ve gone beyond imagining spherical cows to imagining human beings as a point on a line.
But OK, let’s do the experiment. Let’s grab a random human ovum, and our impossibly flawless CRISPR/Cas tools, and go down a list (one we haven’t compiled yet) of 10,000 genetic alleles that each individually make some positive contribution to IQ, and we’ll go through and serially edit each of those genes to conform to our hypothetical optimum.
Every biologist in the world is looking at that paragraph and saying, “Wait, we can’t do any of that, and we don’t have that information, and it’s technically the next best thing to impossible.” But don’t worry, the techno-optimists who have no practical experience at all in this kind of molecular genetics will assure us, someday you definitely can. While the biologists will mutter in reply, “Then where’s my flying car and my jetpack and my hoverboard, guy?”
But here in fantasy land, where I’ve been pretending all the difficult questions can be waved away, let’s pretend we can carry out this experiment, and that it somehow gets past an ethics review board.
Now you’ve got a genetically engineered human egg, where half the genes have been ripped out and replaced with Stephen Hsu’s chosen alleles. Who’s the mommy and daddy? Who’s going to take responsibility for this radical experiment in creative genetic engineering? Assuming this amply poked and prodded embryo makes it past the blastocyst stage (odds are it won’t) and actually comes to full term (in someone’s uterus, unless Hsu is so far into fairyland he’s imaging artificial wombs), you’re at some point going to have this infant with half its genome the progeny of a computer and a bacterial molecular pattern matching system. Now what?
This is where Hsu’s whole idea flops down and dies in a flood of prolonged ignorance. All he talks about is genes, genes, genes, as if these humans will just pop out of a vat to take over his physics job. You know where most of the variability in intelligence comes from: it’s in education and opportunity, not genes, and especially not genes that you don’t understand and can’t measure.
I’m all for increasing investment in biology and molecular genetics, but if you really want to create super-intelligent humans, the best strategy is to invest in sociology and education and social services. If Hsu actually believes all those optimized alleles are out there, why does he allow them to languish in poverty and want? If greater intelligence is an unalloyed good and an unquestionable virtue, why chase after untested genes in unborn individuals rather than crusading to have better nutrition for all children, better preschool education, better schools with more uniform standards?
Those are practical, achievable goals. They’re also more expensive and require broader support than a mad scientist with a tissue culture facility, an electroporator, and a freezer full of reagents. But unlike the mad scientist, feeding poor children and creating a network of well-supported educational institutions would actually directly and effectively increase the overall intelligence and knowledge of the population and create material advantages to any society that pursued that goal within a generation.
If you actually cared about accomplishing an increase in human intelligence, that is. I’m not so sure that the people who are seeking magical solutions in a test tube actually do.