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Genetic screening to enhance IQ should be embraced

There could be a way of predicting – and preventing – which children will go on to have low intelligence, according to the findings of a study researchers at Cardiff University presented on Monday. They…

Time to unlock intelligence potential.

There could be a way of predicting – and preventing – which children will go on to have low intelligence, according to the findings of a study researchers at Cardiff University presented on Monday. They discovered that children with two copies of a common gene (Thr92Ala), together with low levels of thyroid hormone are four times more likely to have a low IQ. This combination occurs in about 4% of the UK population.

Importantly, if you had just one of these factors, but not both, there did not appear to be an increased risk of low intelligence. These are early results, but suggest that it might be possible to treat children early with thyroid hormone supplementation to enhance their intelligence. This raises many ethical issues.

IQ and quality of life

A common objection is that being smarter does not make your life better. In this study, researchers were concerned with those with an IQ betweem 70-85. Below 70 is classified as intellectual disability but an IQ of 70 to 75 is similar to mild intellectual disability.

Even for individuals with an IQ between 75 and 90 there are still significant disadvantages. Job opportunities tend to be the least desirable and least financially rewarding, requiring significant oversight. More than half the people with this IQ level fail to reach the minimum recruitment standards for the US military. Individuals with this lower level of intelligence are at significant risk of living in poverty (16%), being a chronic welfare dependent (17%) and are much more likely to drop out of school (35%) compared to individuals with average intelligence. Studies show that there is also an increased risk of incarceration and being murdered.

Linda Gottfredson, who’s undertaken much of this research, concludes that at the very least, “an IQ of 75 is perhaps the most important threshold in modern life”. So it is clear that the low-normal intelligence, although not classified as disabled, are significantly disadvantaged.

If we could enhance their intelligence, say with thyroid hormone supplementation, we should.

Ethical decisions

It is important to recognise that the threshold of “normality” here has no moral significance. The dividing line between the IQ classifications of normal intelligence and intellectual disability at 70 is made statistically. It is statistical point, that around 2% of the population will fall below that level. But disease could have been defined slightly differently, changing the bar of where candidates qualify for medical therapy.

But what matters is not where you fall on a statistical curve for something like cognitive function, but how bad it is to be at that point – how does it influence how well your life goes or your well-being? It is pretty clear that low-normal levels of cognitive function tend to reduce well-being and so should be candidates for enhancement.

Another common objection to enhancement is that it would create inequality, allowing the rich to get smarter and pass on these benefits to their children. In this case, however, the interventions would only benefit those with an IQ of 70-85 – so it would in fact reduce inequality. This is a strong argument in their favour.

Nature and nurture

While medical treatments are important, how bad any condition turns out being depends on many other factors as well. For example, if those at risk of having a low-normal IQ were identified early, enhanced education or diet or other non-medical environmental modifications could be employed.

And there is another way this information could be used. Embryos are now routinely tested during IVF using genetic diagnosis for major diseases. But soon, whole genome analysis will be so cheap that it can be used to test the genomes of embryos in IVF. Should tests be done for gene variations that could contribute to causing low intelligence? Many genes will be like this one – alone they may not confer risk but in combination with certain environments (in this case low thyroid hormone) they have disadvantageous effects.

In my view, we ought to test embryos for such gene variants. Imagine you are having IVF and produce ten embryos. They are all clear of major diseases, but one of them has two copies of the Thr92Ala gene. Given that there are 9 others that don’t have this potentially disadvantageous trait, why not select one of them? Of course this does not guarantee that the embryo you do choose will have normal intelligence, but based on the information you have, it reduces the chances.

Given that the outcomes are so much worse than their alternatives, we should reduce the chances even by a small account, provided the costs aren’t great. But given that whole genome analysis is likely to be used in the future, why not use the information that is available to try to at least start off with a higher chance of a better life? Responsibility requires that we use predictive genetic information, including weakly predictive or context-specific genetic information.

A common objection is that we should concentrate not on genetic selection, but environmental improvement. You might say: “If my child is genetically disposed to having low intelligence, I will make sure we correct the thyroid hormone levels.”

But life isn’t this certain or controllable – we can’t guarantee that our attempts to control the environment will be successful. All we can do in life is try to reduce the chances of bad things happening, and increase the chances of good things happening. That includes using genetic information.


This article was written with the help of Mikael Dunlop, who was formerly at the University of Oxford’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Bioethics.

Join the conversation

41 Comments sorted by

  1. Thomas Goodey

    Researcher

    Of course the intelligence of the unborn child should be maximized by whatever means possible, including genetic modification. That's a no-brainer! (I'm not quite sure that this is the most appropriate expression to choose...)

    Warning to technophobes: Avoid the application of Godwin's Law, which will be mercilessly enforced in this discussion!

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    1. John Davidson

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      The Führer thanks you from the grave:

      Hitler was a Leftist
      Hitler's Anti-Tobacco Campaign

      One particularly vile individual, Karl Astel -- upstanding president of Jena University, poisonous anti-Semite, euthanasia fanatic, SS officer, war criminal and tobacco-free Germany enthusiast -- liked to walk up to smokers and tear cigarettes from their unsuspecting mouths. (He committed suicide when the war ended, more through disappointment than fear of hanging.) It comes as little surprise to discover that the phrase "passive smoking" (Passivrauchen) was coined not by contemporary American admen, but by Fritz Lickint, the author of the magisterial 1100-page Tabak und Organismus ("Tobacco and the Organism"), which was produced in collaboration with the German AntiTobacco League.

      http://constitutionalistnc.tripod.com/hitler-leftist/id1.html

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazi_propaganda

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    2. John Davidson

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      Josef Mengele (German: [ˈjoːzɛf ˈmɛŋələ] ( listen); 16 March 1911 – 7 February 1979) was a German Schutzstaffel (SS) officer and physician in Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. He was notorious for the selection of victims to be killed in the gas chambers and for performing unscientific and often deadly human experiments on prisoners. After the war, he fled to South America, where he evaded capture for the rest of his life.

      Mengele received doctorates in anthropology and medicine…

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  2. Kenny Black

    Professor, Principal Investigator in Marine Ecology at Scottish Association for Marine Science

    There is nothing technophobic about questioning the morality of eugenic solutions to the world's problems. Lets spend our energy providing support for those with disabilities and those caring for them. And lets look at ways we can offer food, clean water and sanitation in a place of education for all the world's children. it is education and nutrition that will increase children's life chances. Lets do the easy things first.

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    1. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to Kenny Black

      First, who said anything about solving the world's problems? I think we should be discussing individual solutions for individual people.

      And I think that setting up a system for "offering food, clean water and sanitation in a place of education for all the world's children" would not be an easy thing; it would be a very difficult thing. (For a start, a lot of the world's parents would fight tooth and nail against it.) I think eugenics, one child at a time, is a much easier way to proceed.

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    2. John Davidson

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Kenny Black

      Lets do the easy things first................then we can rebuild AUZHWITZ

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  3. James Marlin

    Layabout

    Wow, this is a tough one.

    While of course no one would wish a congentialy caused disadvantage upon anyone, the problem is where do we draw the line. The author wisely and cautiously referred to only sorting out fertilized eggs used in IVF, but it isn't too much of a leap from that to the act of terminating a pregnancy due to the same finding.
    So why not do the same thing if there is a finding of markers for Down Syndrome? Or if the person shows markers for heart disease? Or dwarfism? Obesity…

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    1. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to James Marlin

      "... why not do the same thing if there is a finding of markers for Down Syndrome? Or if the person shows markers for heart disease? Or dwarfism? Obesity? Gay? Transgendered?"

      Indeed. Good idea. I confidently expect all these abnormalities/defects to be edited out in the medium-term future.

      "Reducing/eliminating any of those potentials will most certainly create an improvement in the person's life, but at what cost?"

      Well, obviously, the [negative] cost of the person not not-experiencing that improvement.

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    2. James Marlin

      Layabout

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      So you're all for parents aborting a fetus if there's a genetic cause for homosexuality and the child they're carrying has it? Or anything else that the parents feel might hinder their childs life, no matter what that is? How about if they're 5' 5" instead of 6' 4"?
      I think I'm safe to assume that there is some genetic imperfections that you carry. So how about if it was you that your parents decided to terminate? It's real easy to think of it in the abstract, much harder if it's a real living being. And to be perfectly honest I don't think I'd enjoy a world of approved genetically sanitized humans. Then again I'll be dead before it happens, so it'll be someone else's utopian nightmare to deal with.

      P.s. Did you know that most scholars agree that da Vinci was most likely gay, and Van Gogh obviously had mental problems. I wonder how many brilliant people will never be born in your world.

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    3. Blair Matthews

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      "Indeed. Good idea. I confidently expect all these abnormalities/defects to be edited out in the medium-term future."

      Gay or transgendered are abnormalities/defects which need to be "edited out"? Have I read that right or was it just poor editing on your part?

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    4. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to James Marlin

      I'm not for anything. Let the parents decide. I agree that some limits should be set by the law. For example, recently it was reported that a pair of deaf parents wanted to have a deaf child, presumably on the grounds that they wanted to reproduce themselves exactly. This should be prohibited.

      I am 169 centimeters high, which I consider to be the right height. Your mileage may vary.

      Fairly obviously, if I had been terminated, I wouldn't be around to discuss the matter. Stop empathizing with the me that never actually happened!

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    5. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to Blair Matthews

      I didn't say they need to be. I said I confidently expect them to be (due to free choices by parents). Few people want their children to be homosexual, and very few indeed want them going around pretending to be a different sex from what they actually are.

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    6. James Marlin

      Layabout

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      Dude..... You have no idea what Transgender is do you. The majority aren't pretending. They go through extensive therapy, and are guided by their therapist through the entire journey. It takes years, painful years before they even approach the subject of gender reassignment.

      I will agree with you about the majority of the expecting parents wanting the perfect child and being foolhardy enough to edit all individuality out of them. It's not a future I look forward to.

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    7. James Marlin

      Layabout

      In reply to Blair Matthews

      Yeah I'm afraid you did.

      I get the impression that our good Mr. Goodey lives in a lab the majority of the time, so has little understanding of the world the rest of us live in.

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    8. James Marlin

      Layabout

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      So no deaf people eh? What would you have the authorities do if they did reproduce a deaf child? Terminate it for muddying up the gene pool?

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    9. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to James Marlin

      But their great desire is to pretend to be of the opposite sex - to masquerade as the opposite sex.

      Returning to topic, in particular with regard to sexual abnormalities, the very definition of philoprogenitiveness is that parents feel the absolutely proper biological urge to reproduce themselves, not only for one generation, but indefinitely down through the generations; i.e., to support Life. That is why, when the possibility opens up, they will do their best to avoid producing offspring of types who, it can be predicted, are likely not to have any children. It's obvious.

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    10. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to James Marlin

      Well, I think it is very morally reprehensible to make a positive effort to give birth to a child that is congenitally deaf, and I think that producing such a choice as a result of genetic selection, or editing, or whatever, should be strongly prohibited - yes, with severe penalties. The next stage would be blind people wanting a blind child!

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    11. tiradefaction

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      >I'm not for anything. Let the parents decide.

      So wait, you want to let the parents decide, but want certain limits applied (like with deaf children procreating) but believe it should be ok to "edit" out gay people even though there is no health detriment to homosexuality. Weird logic.

      I may be jumping the gun but I feel this guy might just be out to illicit a reaction, or what we otherwise call a troll. Either that or ironically he has a severe case of Aspergers.

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    12. tiradefaction

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      >the very definition of philoprogenitiveness is that parents feel the absolutely proper biological urge to reproduce themselves, not only for one generation, but indefinitely down through the generations; i.e., to support Life. That is why, when the possibility opens up, they will do their best to avoid producing offspring of types who, it can be predicted, are likely not to have any children. It's obvious.

      Of course it's worth pointing out gay people increasingly have their own biological children, made possible by one of the technologies mentioned in this article (IVF). I'd imagine transgendered people will utilize this approach as well. Honestly I'm beginning to think you're a troll and probably not even worth this comment.

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    13. Blair Matthews

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      "Few people want their children to be homosexual, and very few indeed want them going around pretending to be a different sex from what they actually are."

      I can state with absolute conviction that I would have absolutely no problem if my children were gay or transgender ... or my brothers, friends, students, acquaintances, passers-by ... or anyone. I need to state this for the record (despite the blatant trolling) ...

      I don't know what you research Mr Goodey, but I think you need to get out more.

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  4. John Scott

    logged in via email @btinternet.com

    We must be clear what we mean by enhancement. Educating a child is enhancement. Boosting a child’s IQ by pharmacological means is enhancement and I have no problems with such enhancements. However choosing embryos is not as simple. If intelligence is purely instrumental, something we use, then once again I would have no problems. However if IQ helps define someone then enhancing IQ is not really enhancing a person, it is choosing a certain kind of person rather than enhancing persons and there are dangers involved

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    1. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to John Scott

      You're getting confused with abstractions again. Focus on the realities of the situation. Choosing one human embryo and killing others is routinely done nowadays; obviously you can't bring all the embryos generated by IVF to adulthood. Essentially this is the same choice you make when breeding any living creature, such as a dog or (in a somewhat different manner) an apple tree. Obviously you are choosing one kind of person - the kind you prefer - and terminating the others. The muttering about "defining" someone is irrelevant.

      The much more interesting question relates to taking one of the embryos, presumably the most suitable one, and editing its genes to provide the characteristics that you want. Or, perhaps, editing the genes of the male and/or the female gamete before they unite. This technology is in its infancy now, but is advancing rapidly.

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    2. James Marlin

      Layabout

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      "Choosing one human embryo and killing others is routinely done nowadays; obviously you can't bring all the embryos generated by IVF to adulthood"

      "But as far as I know the choice is based on viability alone. This is a further step testing for genetic markers and rejecting based on the results.

      "The much more interesting question relates to taking one of the embryos, presumably the most suitable one, and editing its genes to provide the characteristics that you want. Or, perhaps, editing the…

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  5. Account Removed

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    I grow vegetables now, and I like to use seed I have saved myself wherever possible. Seed saving involves choosing plants to breed from that I consider desirable specimens, good representatives of the varieties they represent.

    Surely something similar is going on among people who suggest this sort of intrusion on unborn childrens' genes. Personally I find it disgusting that some of us take it upon our selves to decide what other people should be like. For heaven's sake, this is not about plants…

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    1. Eerke Boiten

      Senior Lecturer, School of Computing and Director of Interdisciplinary Cyber Security Centre at University of Kent

      In reply to Account Removed

      For an ethicist, "given that whole genome analysis is likely to be used in the future, why not use the information" sounds extraordinarily shallow. But maybe I don't understand enough of "practical ethics".

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    2. Account Removed

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Eerke Boiten

      My observation is that in our common dealings, the guileless among us are primarily guided by instinct when it comes to right and wrong. On the other hand, there are a considerable number - usually wealthy or at least affluent - who are unscrupulous, not hesitating in their decisions in order to make room for moral considerations. As one very wealthy man told me, "Alan, you will never be rich beause you are too nice". He and I didn't agree on what rich means though.

      Ethics - practical or conceptual - are a philosophical invention. Its main application has always been employment for academics, and a fig leaf for politicians and clerics.

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    3. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to Account Removed

      Yes, but this is supposed to be a reasonably intellectual forum, so we should not even consider being guided by the gut instincts of the guileless. Such "gut instincts" are, of course, merely deep-seated unconscious remnants of traditional teachings that have been handed down through the generations. These teachings were confused to start with, and they have become much more confused down through the centuries. Moreover, they have little application to modern conditions.

      If we had continued to rely upon gut instincts we should never have arrived at Copernican astronomy or Newtonian dynamics, let alone Einsteinian relativity.

      The idea that the main application of ethics has always been to provide employment for academics is laughable.

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    4. Account Removed

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      Sorry but I do not accept your argument. I am convinced that conscious investigations are always instigated by a subconcious thought coming to the surface in a person's mind; it may be a sudden reminiscence, or merely a brief sensation or a suspicion, but people certainly do not decide spontaneously to ask why apples fall to the ground. My view also explains why people are able to put something off until later; why people become indignant, or offended, or joyous, or experience many other emotions…

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    5. Account Removed

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Account Removed

      And in the meantime Mr Goodey it has occurred to me that even mathematics makes use of "gut feeling" when it comes to axioms.

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    6. John Davidson

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Eerke Boiten

      Ethics the guys that mold perceptions to tomorros political Dogma figure out how to wrap up junk science and wholesale it to the public perception! History oh so often repeats itself and here we are again, Prohibition,great depression,world government and eugenics!

      30 years ago youd have said I was talking about the first progressive movement in 1900!

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    7. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to Account Removed

      I object to your rudeness. I have a BA in mathematics from Cambridge (a First, actually), and I know something of what I am talking about; and obviously you don't. Nowadays mathematics does not work by trying to select "true" axioms [using gut feeling] and then reasoning from those axioms. It is far more general than that. Your view (probably) coincides with that of Euclid and his contemporaries.

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    8. Account Removed

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      And I to yours. Don't take my word for it. Go to BBC Radio 4, then to the home page for In Our Time. Go to the program archive and listen to the program titled "Probability". In particular spool ahead to 28 minutes into the program when one particular lady (a mathematics lecturer at the University of St Andrews) saying how mathematicians "get all excited by axioms". All three guest speakers are eminent mathematicians.

      Quite apart from listening to mathematicians, you might also read about the work of Bertrand Russell, which was based on axioms in mathematics, and then Kurt Geodel and his incompleteness theorem.

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    9. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to Account Removed

      Mathematicians don't "get excited" about axioms; that's BBC nonsense.

      Yes, thank you, I am quite familiar with the work of Russell and Godel already.

      The point is that nowadays mathematicians don't choose a bunch of axioms based upon their gut feelings and then deduce various things from them. Those days are long over. Mathematicians think about what things could be deduced if you choose which axioms, for example.

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  6. John Davidson

    logged in via Facebook

    Eugenics: the California connection to Nazi policies

    http://www.ahrp.org/infomail/03/11/10.php

    Eugenics: the California connection to Nazi policies_SF Chronicle

    Mon, 10 Nov 2003

    On Sunday, Nov 9, the San Francisco Chronicle published an extraordinary, most informative article by Edwin Black, that sheds light on the role played by the American eugenics movement in the Nazi extermination policy. Eugenics is a pseudoscience whose purported aim is to “improve” the human race, while eliminating…

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    1. John Davidson

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to John Davidson

      The Führer thanks you from the grave:

      Hitler was a Leftist
      Hitler's Anti-Tobacco Campaign

      One particularly vile individual, Karl Astel -- upstanding president of Jena University, poisonous anti-Semite, euthanasia fanatic, SS officer, war criminal and tobacco-free Germany enthusiast -- liked to walk up to smokers and tear cigarettes from their unsuspecting mouths. (He committed suicide when the war ended, more through disappointment than fear of hanging.) It comes as little surprise to discover that the phrase "passive smoking" (Passivrauchen) was coined not by contemporary American admen, but by Fritz Lickint, the author of the magisterial 1100-page Tabak und Organismus ("Tobacco and the Organism"), which was produced in collaboration with the German AntiTobacco League.

      http://constitutionalistnc.tripod.com/hitler-leftist/id1.html

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazi_propaganda

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  7. John Davidson

    logged in via Facebook

    The T-4 Euthanasia Programme

    In the fall of 1939 the German government established, under the Reich Chancellery, the Euthanasia Programme under the direction of Philip Bouhler and Dr. Karl Brandt. The headquarters of the operation were at Tiergartenstrasse 4, Berlin and the code name for the program was derived from that addressT-4.

    The choice of terminology for the program is consistent with the Nazis' penchant for euphemism. Euthanasia typically means "mercy killing" and in the 1990's in…

    Read more
    1. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to John Davidson

      Wow! I have never seen such an EPIC FAIL based upon Godwin's Law (or Principle)! That's the end of this thread, all right!

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  8. Ramesh Raghuvanshi

    logged in via Facebook

    If gene decide all capacities of man and there is no place for government ,here I ask simple question why Einstein `s one child was dull abnormal and second average so and so? Why not most intelligent borne with Einstein`s gene?There was other experiment done in U.S. Nobel prize winners Siemens inserted in most intelligent women result was all children borne with that experiment was dull average so and so.My question is why western scientist are giving so much importance to gene?Why they always thinking one sided

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