It’s not exactly news that China are setting themselves up as a new global superpower, is it? While western civilisation chokes on its own gluttony like a latter-day Marlon Brando, China continues to buy up American debt and lock away the world’s natural resources. But now, not content to simply laugh and make wankers signs as they pass us by on the geopolitical motorway, they’ve also developed a state-endorsed genetic engineering project.
At BGI Shenzhen, scientists have collected DNA samples from 2,000 of the world’s smartest people, and are sequencing their entire genomes in an attempt to identify the alleles that determine human intelligence. Apparently they’re not far from finding them, and when they do, embryo screening will allow parents to pick their brightest zygote and bump up every generation's intelligence by five to 15 IQ points. Within a couple of generations, competing with the Chinese on an intellectual level will be like drinking a shot every time Lena Dunham gets naked on Girls – not a good idea.
Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist and lecturer at NYU, is one of those 2,000 braniacs who contributed their DNA. I spoke to him about what this creepy-ass programme might mean for the future of Chinese kids.
Inside the BGI lab in Shenzhen. (Image via)
VICE: Hey Geoffrey, does China have a history of eugenics?
Geoffrey Miller: As soon as Deng Xiaoping took power in the late 70s, he took the whole focus of the Chinese government from trying to manage the economy, to trying to manage the quality and quantity of people. In the 90s they started to do widespread prenatal testing for birth defects with ultrasound and more recently they've spent a lot of money researching human genetics to figure out which genes make people smarter.
What do you know about BGI Shenzhen?
It’s the biggest genetic research centre in China and I think the biggest in the world, by a considerable margin. They’re not just doing human genetics; BGI is also doing lots of plant genetics, animal genetics, anything that’s economically relevant… anything that’s scientifically interesting.
Are you in touch with them?
I just got an email a couple of days ago saying that they’d almost finished doing the sequencing for the BGI Cognitive Genetics Project, the one I gave my genetics to, and that the results would be available soon.
What was their selection process?
They seem mostly interested in people of Chinese and European descent. They’re basically recruiting through a scientific conference, through word of mouth. You have to provide some evidence that you’re as smart as you say you are. You have to send your complete CV, publications you’ve produced, standardised test scores, where you went to university, stuff like that.
How will the research be applied, practically?
Once you’ve got that information and a fertilised egg that’s divided into a few cells, you can sample one of the cells to figure out the expected intelligence if it’s implanted and becomes a person.
What does that mean in human language?
Any given couple could potentially have several eggs fertilised in the lab with the dad’s sperm and the mum’s eggs. Then you can test multiple embryos, and analyse which one’s going to be the smartest. It would be that kid of that couple as if they had it naturally, but it would be the smartest a couple would be able to produce if they had 100 kids. It’s not genetic engineering or adding new genes, it’s the genes that couples already have.
And over the course of several generations you’re able to exponentially multiply the population’s intelligence.
Right. Even if it only boosts the average kid by five IQ points, that’s a huge difference in terms of economic productivity, the competitiveness of the country, how many patents they get, how their businesses are run, how innovative their economy is.
Could it develop into something more sinister?
That same research does open up the door potentially to genetic engineering in the future. But that would take a lot longer to make practical.
When do you think the embryo analysis might be implemented on a large scale?
Actual use of the technology to do embryo screening might take five to ten years, but it could be just a few years. It depends how motivated they are.
Could this whole process be repeated with other characteristics, like physical appearance?
Absolutely. In fact, almost any trait other than intelligence would be easier to do. We know that intelligence depends on lots of genes while physical traits – like hair or eye colour – only depend on a few genes. Things like body shape would be easier to do, physical attractiveness would be pretty complicated, personality traits might be a little simpler than intelligence – how hard working somebody is, how impulsive, how politically liberal or conservative they are would be easier. How religious you are – that’s definitely influenced by genes to some degree.
Shit. How does Western research in genetics compare to China’s?
We’re pretty far behind. We have the same technical capabilities, the same statistical capabilities to analyse the data but they’re collecting the data on a much larger scale and seem to be capable of transforming the scientific findings into government policy and consumer genetic testing much more easily than we are. Technically and scientifically we could be doing this, but we’re not.
We have ideological biases that say “Well, this could be troubling, we shouldn’t be meddling with nature, we shouldn’t be meddling with God.” I just attended a debate in New York a few weeks ago about whether or not we should outlaw genetic engineering in babies and the audience was pretty split. In China, 95 percent of an audience would say: “Obviously you should make babies genetically healthier, happier and brighter!” There’s a big cultural difference.
What else are China doing that we aren’t?
Well, they’re also investing a huge amount of money in education, they’re creating new systems of universities that emphasise more creative approaches to learning, they’re sending hundreds of thousands of college students to America and Europe to see how our education systems operate and bring their own systems up to our standards and above.
Do you think global domination is on the cards, then?
The Chinese Communist party has never really sought global domination. They think of it as restoring China to its rightful and historical place as the central culture of humanity. Europe got a temporary advantage but they’re just restoring the natural balance as the world’s most populous country. I don’t think they have any imperial ambitions to spread China’s borders – they’re not going to act like Nazi Germany or America in the 20th century – but they do want respect and they do want influence and they don’t trust America or Europe to run the world in the right way, in terms of issues like global warming or equality or economic stability.
Maybe they’re on to something.
Follow Aleks on Twitter: @slandr
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