Scientists are inching closer to successful human applications of CRISPR-Cas9, a genome-editing technology that helps them easily find, delete, and replace genes in any living organism. The benefits of such gene editing are obvious: Genetic mutations that cause birth defects or increase disease risk may one day be repaired in every cell, delivering a complete and thorough cure.
But it also presents more ethically ambiguous possibilities, including the potential future ability to enhance or control for traits that aren’t life-threatening, as well as pass these genetic changes down to the next generation.
While the majority of Americans think that treating a severe birth defect or reducing the risk of serious disease is an appropriate use of gene editing, most also believe that using the technology to make a baby more intelligent is a step too far, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center.
Of course, these gene-editing technologies are only hypothetical right now. Scientists have successfully used gene editing to encourage human embryos to correct potentially fatal gene mutations, but research has been scant. The technology also has been held back by the fact that the National Institutes of Health, the main funding source for most research scientists in America, will not finance gene-editing studies on human embryos.
Currently, scientists are nowhere near identifying the potentially thousands of genes that may influence intelligence.
But the new Pew survey findings are illuminating in two ways: They draw boundaries that define socially acceptable uses for what could be imminent new technology, and they hint at Americans’ nuanced and thoughtful understanding of intelligence, experts say.
“Even experts disagree about what intelligence is,” said Robert Sternberg, professor of human development at Cornell University. “So we would be raising intelligence according to someone’s definition, but maybe not someone else’s. What, then, exactly, would we be raising?”
There’s also the notion that intelligence ― at least as measured by standard tests for I.Q., the SATs or the GREs ― may not be the best predictors for quality of life, future income, happiness, or opportunities for advancement.
“When we talk about I.Q., it’s not really a good predictor of life beyond the second year of college,” said Elena Grigorenko, a professor of psychology at the University of Houston and a professor in the Department of Molecular and Human Genetics at Baylor College of Medicine. “Why do we even care, then?”
The ability to enhance one’s intellect ― and presumably increase one’s advantage over others ― is a deep-seated wish of humankind, as evidenced by its depiction in both ancient myth and pop culture. Consider Adam and Eve taking a bite of fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, or Trinity’s ability to download, in seconds, instruction on flying a helicopter in “The Matrix.”
Yet, as humans hypothetically get closer to the concept of a quick fix to improve intelligence, Americans aren’t so sure they want it.
The Pew Research Center surveyed a representative sample of more than 2,500 Americans on the acceptable uses of gene-editing technology. Eighty percent drew a line when it came to using gene editing to make a baby more intelligent.
In comparison, 72 percent of respondents thought that gene editing to treat a serious birth defect or disease was an appropriate use of technology, while 60 percent accepted using the technology to reduce the risk of a serious disease that could appear over the course of a lifetime.
Opinions about using gene editing to fix birth defects or reduce disease risk varied slightly according to demographic qualities like religious commitment, gender, and basic science knowledge. For instance, people who said they attended religious service at least weekly and pray at least daily were slightly less likely than those with low religious commitment to say that gene editing could be used to treat a serious congenital condition or reduce the risk of a serious disease later on in life.
Men were more likely than women to view gene-editing technology as an appropriate way to treat or reduce disease risk, and people with more science knowledge were also more likely to say that it would be appropriate to edit genes to treat or reduce disease risk.
However, if gene editing required experimentation on human embryos beforehand, almost two-thirds of respondents said that it would be taking medical technology too far.
One thing that unified the vast majority of survey respondents across all demographic groups, including age, race, sex, education, income, region and religious levels, was the belief that enhancing intelligence would be an inappropriate use of gene editing, said Cary Funk, lead author of the study and the director of science and society research at Pew Research Center.
“As these techniques are continuing to evolve, we see in this survey that public opinion on gene editing on babies really depends on its intended purpose,” said Funk. “Americans of different groups think [intelligence enhancement] is taking the medical technology too far.”
While the survey didn’t ask respondents to explain their reasoning, experts who specialize in intelligence, psychology and genetic research offered several reasons for why intelligence enhancement at the genetic level was distasteful to Americans, while curing birth defects or lowering the risk of serious disease was acceptable.
One reason has to do with the history of medicine itself.
“Medicine has a long and noble history of being dedicated to the prevention and treatment of disease,” said Dr. Zev Williams, chief of the division of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at Columbia University Medical Center. “Forays out of this realm are, in my opinion, appropriately met with concern.”
“How many high-I.Q. people do you know who are absolute fools? It is not clear that raising I.Q.s will help the world. It may hurt it.”
Another reason may be the rich diversity that a variety of different intelligence levels and interests brings to the human experience, said Grigorenko. Unlike painful, devastating diseases, which are an unhappy and unwelcome type of human diversity, intelligence is a source of “healthy diversity.”
“We do want to be different, because otherwise we’ll be bored to death,” said Grigorenko. “Intelligence is a source of healthy diversity, and everybody values that, whether implicitly or explicitly.”
Finally, Americans may not be convinced that being more intelligent is thoroughly positive, said Sternberg.
He pointed out that, worldwide, I.Q. scores have risen more than 30 points in the 20th century, due to a mix of factors that include an increase in schooling and better nutrition. Despite ― or perhaps because of ― this rise in intelligence, the wealth gap is increasing, autocratic leaders are more popular than ever, and people are being automated out of their jobs in record numbers, Sternberg noted.
“How many high-IQ people do you know who are absolute fools?” Sternberg asked. “It is not clear that raising IQs will help the world. It may hurt it.”
Sternberg’s comments line up with other data from the survey that show large portions of Americans believe that the negative effects of gene editing are very likely to arrive alongside this lifesaving technology.
Eighty-seven percent of respondents said that gene editing was very or fairly likely to increase social inequality, as only the wealthy would be able to afford it. Eighty-six percent said that it was very or fairly likely that some will use the technology in morally unacceptable ways.
Meanwhile, only 60 percent said that gene editing would pave the way for new medical advances that would benefit everyone.
Of course, the survey results showing the unacceptability of altering intelligence at the genetic level may be nothing more than a feint toward ideals like democracy and equity. This may be in response to the deeply unequal access to good schools and an enriching home environment ― two things known to reliably increase I.Q., said Art Caplan, director of the division of medical ethics at NYU School of Medicine.
Caplan is deeply skeptical that future Americans will be able to hold themselves back from using whatever gene editing technology is available to give their children every advantage.
“There are many cultures in the world, including the U.S., that are highly competitive, market-driven societies where individuals are looking for their children in particular to get an edge and advantage,” Caplan said.
Consider the well-educated, upper-income parent, he said. Even before giving birth, they may be reading, singing and playing music for their fetus’ enjoyment and enrichment. Pregnant moms may be upping their intake of seafood and eggs as a response to research showing that these nutrient-rich foods are linked to better brain development and memory for babies.
And once born, the educational advantages of the super-rich are evident in the safe neighborhoods, high-performing and expensive schools, extra tutoring sessions, and boundless opportunity for cultural enrichment that their children enjoy.
“There are plenty of cultures where it would be considered negligent not to do that,” Caplan said, naming Singapore and China among the countries that share America’s competitive zeal. “You’d be a bad parent. You’d say, why aren’t you reading to your child in utero? Why don’t you feed your child natural mushed up asparagus?”
For now, questions about the acceptability of gene editing to enhance intelligence are hypothetical. But another Pew survey from April revealed that 52 percent of Americans believe that we will be able to eliminate almost all birth defects with the help of gene editing within 50 years.
Once that happens, said Caplan, expect a global debate about what it means to be human. And at that point, the debate won’t center on the difference between repairs and enhancements of the human genome, because enhancement will be a given, he said.
“It will go to whether a particular enhancement seems morally justifiable or too disruptive of human nature.”