The benefits of Chinese eugenics

Edge’s annual question for 2013 – What *should* we worry about? – has generated a bunch of interesting responses. First in the list is Geoffrey Miller’s response, Chinese eugenics. Miller writes:

When I learned about Chinese eugenics this summer, I was astonished that its population policies had received so little attention. China makes no secret of its eugenic ambitions, in either its cultural history or its government policies. …

The BGI Cognitive Genomics Project is currently doing whole-genome sequencing of 1,000 very-high-IQ people around the world, hunting for sets of sets of IQ-predicting alleles. I know because I recently contributed my DNA to the project, not fully understanding the implications. These IQ gene-sets will be found eventually—but will probably be used mostly in China, for China. Potentially, the results would allow all Chinese couples to maximize the intelligence of their offspring by selecting among their own fertilized eggs for the one or two that include the highest likelihood of the highest intelligence. Given the Mendelian genetic lottery, the kids produced by any one couple typically differ by 5 to 15 IQ points. So this method of “preimplantation embryo selection” might allow IQ within every Chinese family to increase by 5 to 15 IQ points per generation. After a couple of generations, it would be game over for Western global competitiveness.

Supposing that the Chinese are engaging in a eugenic exercise to boost IQ, and ignoring the potential moral implications such as coercion, should we be worried? Miller suggests it might be the end of Western global competitiveness, but off the top of my head I can see the following benefits:

  1. Innovation would increase with the greater number of high-IQ people. As ideas are non-rivalrous, that innovation will benefit other countries.
  2. Savings would increase (IQ is correlated with time preference), creating a greater capital stock. This capital stock can be invested in Western countries.
  3. Given the strong link between IQ and economic growth, China’s economy would grow, creating a larger trading partner and greater demand for Western goods and services.
  4. China would be a source of high-IQ immigrants.

Of course, we are already reaping these benefits from China. East Asians already have an average IQ above Western populations and China is a growing source of ideas, capital, demand for Western goods and services and high-IQ immigrants. If anything, we would be worried if Chinese IQ were dropping.

Miller notes at the end, however, that his real concern is the Western response:

The most likely response, given Euro-American ideological biases, would be a bioethical panic that leads to criticism of Chinese population policy with the same self-righteous hypocrisy that we have shown in criticizing various Chinese socio-cultural policies. But the global stakes are too high for us to act that stupidly and short-sightedly. A more mature response would be based on mutual civilizational respect, asking—what can we learn from what the Chinese are doing, how can we help them, and how can they help us to keep up as they create their brave new world?

The Western response will be interesting, but I do not expect that the response to actions in China will be the most important in this area. Rather, it will be the response to “positive eugenics” within Western Countries’ own borders as people increasingly take their genetic future into their own hands. If someone wishes to select the embryo with the highest predicted IQ, will they be allowed?


  1. Bill says

    If someone wishes to select the embryo with the highest predicted IQ, will they be allowed?

    Why wouldn’t they be? It is legal selectively to abort based on sex or Down Syndrome now. It is legal to use sex-selection techniques to increase the probability of having a male or female baby via in vitro. It is legal to choose sperm donors based on smarts, health, stature, etc. What possible difference could it make if, instead of throwing away embryos more or less at random, it is done for eugenic effect?

    It’s really only consistent pro-lifers who have problems with any of this stuff, and 1) we have essentially no influence on policy, and, 2) we don’t have any particular differential objection to this stuff if you see what I mean. All sperm donation is immoral. Ubermenchen-only sperm donation isn’t extra immoral, as far as I can see.

  2. Kevin says

    Neat post (great blog) — and provocative idea. Another criticism of the original idea, though, is… what _else_ might be selected by any efforts to select for higher IQ? The idea that IQ and only IQ can be selected seems questionable.


    • Nicholas says

      @Kevin, interesting point, and That is something eugenics often fails to account for. Even Eugenics eliminating diseases could cause a long term problem – some diseases are adaptive – There are hypothesis that diabetes type 2 creates a antifreeze like condition that prevents limb lost (at least in the short term) in extreme cold (adaptive for an ice age) . It is known that sickle cell is a preventative for malaria and this is the reason it is more common in Africa. Things like hemochromatosis (high blood iron content) are a preventative agaisnt the plague and other problems. Of course it could be argued that technology is now the preventative for these things, but there is nothing that guarantees there won’t be an apocalypse. just saying.

      And that’s just one example… per Kevin’s point selecting for intelligence and only intelligence could invite a host of other issues – such as personality issues, or even autism. It may just be a correlation, but look at the autism rates in silicon valley – much higher than other places in the country – could it be caused by intelligence breeding with intelligence? The kind of people who are good at coding are more likely to have autistic gene sets?

Comments, thoughts, suggestions?