Brave New World: Engineered Embryos

The website headline reads:

Chinese firm’s bid to allow parents to pick their smartest embryos

It’s the advent of the SuperBaby! Underneath the headline, there’s a picture of three adults each holding a baby (all wrapped in pink blankets, one assumes the babies are females). The headline and picture present a slightly misleading impression because the first paragraph of the article explains the Chinese firm is actually just “getting closer” to refining its technology for so-called “designer babies” … but hasn’t yet achieved its goal.

This story from the UK Daily Mail website briefly highlights research being done in China that is focused on determining the key high-IQ genetic markers that would potentially enable hopeful parents to choose smart embryos as the first step to bear children with higher intellect.

The Daily Mail article mentions briefly one of the leading research firms conducting this testing, the Beijing Genomics Institute, or BGI. Given the web information about this company, it appears BGI was privately founded (i.e a non-governmental entity) to participate in the Human Genome Project back in the 90s. After funding from that research dried up, they eventually did some collaborative research on the rice genome and viruses before being officially recognized as a government entity. They receive significant funding from the Chinese and have relationships with international pharmaceutical companies.

One of BGI’s young researchers, a twenty-one year old wunderkind named Zhao Bowen (the Mail article calls him Bowen Zhao), openly admits his research is “controversial” in the West, but in China, “that’s not the case.” He compares the cost saving for “optimizing … heritable attributes” required to produce a bright child against the costs of a Harvard education. His conclusion is inferred:  the former is more practical and cost-effective.

This article also refers to another researcher, Stephen Hsu (Scientific Advisor for BGI and a university professor). Though the Daily Mail isn’t clear whether the final comment in its article comes from Bowen or Hsu, another publication clears up the confusion, attributing these chilling words to Hsu:

There are going to be countries that say this is part of our national health-care service and everyone is doing it,” he told the New Yorker. “And eventually it would become unstoppable, because the countries that initially outlawed it would have to come around. How could they not?”

Thoughtful people have multiple reasons for concern related to engineered embryos, but while reducing potential health risks for one’s offspring looks to be a desirable achievement on the face of it, other ramifications of a research-based genetic free-for-all seem remarkably reminiscent of last century’s Nazi Übermensch. (People have gotten progressively more uncomfortable with using this analogy, but perhaps that should be an indication of the similarities; will people turn their heads away again?)

If Westerners are “squeamish” about the possible applications for technology (specifically in this case, engineering embryos to choose DNA markers for intelligence), I consider that squeamishness a heartening sign. But if Hsu’s words are prophetic, will we have the stamina to hold off what Hsu says is “unstoppable” or succumb to a cultural and ethical disarmament with results as horrific as the Holocaust? Only time will tell.