Sunday 8 March 2015

Designer researchers, designer babies

The newspapers in the United Kingdom are now full of reports about the abuse of teenage girls by gangs of predatory men, most of them Pakistani, some North African. They make dreadful reading, and it is tempting to turn the page. Aside from the obvious failings of care to the young, it is notable that neither Police nor social worker,s nor most politicians, did very much about it. There have been honourable exceptions: researchers called in by local Councils who then wrote scathing reports which were ignored, and at least one senior politician, Jack Straw, giving warnings about White girls being seen as 'easy meat' by Pakistani rapists. All these were either set aside or came late in the day, after years of abuse.

One under-current theme seems to have been an implicit denigration of “slags”: poor white girls from disturbed backgrounds who were only too vulnerable to anyone who seemed to be treating them with kindness.  There was also a hesitancy in political commentator circles to point the finger at the racial and cultural character of the gangs. It seemed as if Class trumped Race as an organising principle: almost as if it was argued that the working class bring their misfortunes on themselves and no exertions are deemed necessary to protect them. The primary interpretation was about morals, not about race or religion. It remains a moot point what attention would have been given to older white men who had abused Pakistani girls, or to Pakistani men who had abused Pakistani girls. In the former case I assume that the white abusers would have been seen as racists as well as rapists, and the interpretation would be that it was a racially aggravated crime. In the latter case I am unsure what the cultural interpretation would have been: possibly something about repressed male sexuality.

Although there are no shortage of people who need to be called to account I want to restrict myself to researchers, since most of my comments are about research publications: lauding the best ones, and encouraging the others to do better. Almost two years ago I looked at the official sounding “The Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups”, and found it difficult to understand their calculations about a) the extent of the problem and b) whether the racial composition of the gang members was out of the ordinary.

In May 2013, with regard to the latter issue, I said:They did not properly compare the race of perpetrators with the racial composition of the country so as to get a crime rate per racial group. They have still not replied to my enquiry about their statistics and methods, but are still trotting out the same old line about “different models”. The differences between different ethnic groups are considerable, and should be discussed (see posting “Reporting on child abuse Part 2”).  The whole report is due for a thorough statistical re-analysis.

The gang operating in Oxfordshire were 5 Pakistanis and 2 North Africans. No Sikhs or Indians or Chinese in this particular case. By the way, the accepted phrase used now is “Pakistani heritage”.  One cannot estimate crime rates from a single court case, nor necessarily from several such cases, but the Commissioner’s own statistics would place the “Asian” perpetrator rate at 5 times the expected population value.  Statistics like that, if found in cancer research, would trigger a health warning, and the usual flurry of articles suggesting we all needed to change our diets or lifestyles.

Incidentally, after the newspaper reporting about Pakistani gangs there have also been cautionary articles warning  about the dangers of  “stereotyping” which lead me to repeat my words in concluding that post:

At heart this is disproportionately a problem about policing some minorities within minorities. We need to be able to say that only an infinitesimal segment of those ethnic minorities commit such crimes, whilst also reporting that that very small rate varies significantly from one group to another. Open reporting of ethnicity and other background details should be the norm in a free society.

Oddly enough, my interest in these research omissions in studying the sexual abuse of girls was raised by the prospect of “designer babies”: children whose genetic characteristics have been altered in some desirable way. I am not immediately attracted by this prospect, but it led me to muse as to whether we had already achieved “designer researchers”, in this case by cultural rather than genetic means, and that we should object to both.

A designer researcher is a “safe pair of hands” who can be relied upon to come up with a particular set of interpretations, without being actually bribed or bullied to do so. They are drawn from a culture in which “sensitivity” is more highly valued than honest reporting, and where a cloud of obfuscation covers up anything which is considered “off message”. I should make it clear that most researchers can fall into this category at some time, because many of our findings are uncertain, and, worse, because we think that some findings are intrinsically better than others. Far from being a conspiracy, this attitude of mind is generally based on unexamined assumptions, the inherent merit of noble mistruths, or more plainly an unwillingness to state any opinion which causes any fuss, or ruffles the feathers of grant giving bodies.

It goes against human nature, whatever that is, to expect all researchers to be fearless in their search for truth. Turning that stricture on myself, for example, whatever my misgivings, would I encourage parents to use genetic methods of improving their children when they became available, because improving children is a good thing? Parents hope for the best for their children (and, apparently, often hope that their child will be intelligent), so why not help them achieve the best?

The general sequence is as follows: First, edit the genes of stem cells using one of the new methods like CRISPR. Second, turn those cells into an egg or sperm. Third, produce an offspring. This would let parents determine when and how they have children and how healthy those children are actually going to be. Assume just for a moment that it proves possible to do this. Then a mother carrying breast cancer genes could have them edited out of her eggs. Autism enhancing genes likewise. Infertile women would become fertile with their own DNA and chose the healthiest of many embryos. All mutations get corrected before the child is generated.

An indication of public reactions is that half of US respondents willing to express an opinion are willing to consider this for serious diseases, but only 15% to make the baby more intelligent.


Some have argued that intelligence is exactly what should be designed into the new, highly selected and enhanced generation, because human problem-solving ability is a factor in every challenge we face. Our genomes are not perfect and often, as the political phrase has it “not fit for purpose”. Evolution protected us against threats no longer facing us, often at great cost. Why not take the obvious step and cut out the sloppy mischance of nature, replacing it with the sparkling genes of pure reason?

I suppose I should end by repeating the earnest injunction always given at the close of children’s TV programs: “Don’t try this trick at home”. However, it is not my place to determine what you do of a Sunday night, so I will trust your judgment in avoiding designer researchers and making very intelligent designer babies by all means open to you.


  1. As Greg Cochran put it:

    "The next point is that the luck only goes away once. If you took those kids from the first group, with average IQs of 110, and dropped them on an uninhabited but friendly island, they would presumably get around to mating eventually – and the next generation would also have an IQ of 110. With tougher selection, say by kidnapping a year’s worth of National Merit Finalists, you could create a new ethny with far higher average intelligence than any existing. Eugenics is not only possible, it’s trivial."

    I have personally seen people's visceral revulsion to the idea of genetic engineering for the enhancement of traits.

  2. More intelligence? Maybe more of the warrior virtues, so that boys will protect their sisters. Or half-sisters. Or step-sisters.

    Oh well, people apparently wanted multiculturalism. I hope they're happy now they've got it.

  3. I expect more people will warm up to offspring genetic engineering for a variety of goals as it becomes possible to do so. The support will be especially strong with young highly intelligent and career-oriented couples looking to make babies. When it becomes their own personal trade-off to make they'll suddenly become way more willing to think forbidden thoughts and they'll find ways to rationalize their choices.

  4. In the theory is good, in the reality is very probably to be change in a ''desirable genes market''. Savage oligarchic capitalism appropriate of this idea and change it in a bizarre new competition of imbecile human ordinary beings.

    About iq, remember, the individual profile is much more variable than ''only iq''. Is not only need improve iq but improve the best combinations.

    I have the impression that most self-called higher iq people not have a desirable intelligence specially by a conservative perspective.

    Real empathy but combined with wisdom is extremely important.


  5. From "Mainstream Science on Intelligence" (1994), an editorial statement by fifty-two researchers:
    A very general mental capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not just book learning, a narrow academic skill, or doing smarts test. Instead, it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings- "catching", "make sense" of things, or "discover" what to do.


    From "Intelligence: Known and Unknown" (1995), a report published by the Council of Scientific Affairs of the American Psychological Association:
    Individuals differ from one another in their ability to understand complex ideas, to adapt effectively to the environment, to learn from experience, to engage in various forms of reasoning, to overcome obstacles by worry. Although these individual differences can be substantial, they are never entirely consistent: intellectual performance of a given person will vary at different times, in different domains, as judged by different criteria. The concepts of "intelligence" are attempts to clarify and organize this complex set of phenomena. Although considerable clarity has been achieved in some areas, no such conceptualization yet answered all the important questions, and no universal assent commands. Indeed, when two dozen prominent theorists were recently asked to define intelligence, they gave two dozen, slightly different definitions.

    The best criteria to measure human intelligence is by their most objective concepts. Iq is secondary.

    Most so called smart iq people have mental age of a (fluorescent) adolescent.


    1. "Most so called smart iq people have mental age of a (fluorescent) adolescent." How do you know?

    2. Wars???


  6. I assume this sort of vanity intervention would be available to the wealthiest, if at all.

    1) The more educated a person is, the less likely he or she is to reproduce.

    Thus, intelligence beyond a certain point reduces evolutionary fitness. It would be very interesting if seeking to build a better baby was a self-limiting pursuit. You can create hyper-intelligent children, but that lowers the chance of grandchildren.

    Well, I'm sure there will either be a wave of extremely large foundations forming, or some very lucky unimproved cousins inheriting windfalls, in about 80 years.

    2) Here in the US, the schools are not set up to accommodate high intelligence. We don't even know how to educate large numbers of the hyper-intelligent. Will legions of the very intelligent volunteer to become primary school teachers for the hyper-intelligent, rather than become doctors, lawyers, etc.? You'd need very special people to train asynchronously developing children--not only very intelligent, but warm and perceptive.

    3) Do we know enough about intelligence to take such steps? I could well see families taking the step to eliminate Huntingdon's Chorea, for example. Short of such extreme cases, I don't think I trust researchers to edit the genome.

    3a) Tort lawyers will have a field day. It's supposedly very expensive to be an OB/GYN these days, due to the fear of lawsuits, which drives up liability insurance. Now add in a promise such as, "I will make your child more intelligent, with no negative health effects." Even if this promise were true, can you prove that someone is more intelligent than he would otherwise have been? Wouldn't there be a tendency to be dissatisfied with every health issue, rather as people are more upset about small flaws in luxury automobiles? Parents can't give up their children's right to sue for damages.

    4) It would be very interesting to compare the going rates for eggs and sperm from student from different universities in the US. Are the people paying for such items looking for high intelligence, or for high overall fitness, which includes the ability to charm admissions officers? And how do such parents feel about their children? It would be interesting to see if the relationships between family members were just like any other family's relationships.

    5) Potentially, such technology would produce a wealthy class of intelligent, healthy, people, first in line for everything. There have been episodes in the past of such groups becoming targets for resentment and persecution. Already there is a good amount of vilification of "the 1%" going on. If you add in the potential perception that their children are unnatural mutants, and, well. It could be a very interesting century indeed.

  7. Of course; such people can be guaranteed to work long hours at Wal*Mart, Budweiser, or McDonalds without becoming bored or calling in sick.

  8. Assuming that the form and not the substance of my comment was a problem, I am trying again.

    When making observations to discover important variables, we are much more likely to find a pre-conceived important variable rather than any random one.

    If I pull a sample from a diverse collection, but I specify that each object pulled must bear a particular trait out of many, then I did not pull a random sample.

  9. How's your cocktail party chatter? Your lacrosse skills? Do you look good in a suit, and do you have the patience for endless rounds of golf? I'm sure smarter children will have no problem enduring spending significant time on the playing field rather than the library.

    Given a choice of better athletic skills, a more driven or congenial personality, or higher intelligence, the choice is not as obvious as you might think. Certainly, if all parents were academics, they might universally prefer their children be as intelligent as science could make 'em.

    However, the people able to afford personal genetic interventions are more likely to be hedge funders or business people than academics.

    In a funny way, parents often prefer children who have the same interests and tastes they do. So it seems obvious to people who believe in the importance of intelligence that any parent would want smarter children. Values are not universally shared. To decide to turn to extreme measures to increase your children's intelligence would require parents to believe they themselves were not intelligent enough. And yet, people successful enough to afford such a vanity operation would be unlikely to conclude they themselves were stupid. (They might find academic researchers to be unworldly intellectuals, and want to avoid the same in their children.)

  10. This survey is probably an artifact of the taboo against holding that variations in behavioral traits are significantly heritable.

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