The ethics of ‘gifted’ genes: the road to Gattaca?

Now that we know there’s a gene for intelligence, are we going to start breeding little Einsteins? from

Recent research out of the UK has identified a genetic “general academic achievement factor”. Using identical twin studies, they found achievement across a wide range of academic subjects was influenced by many of the same genes:

This shared genetic influence is, to a large extent, independent of intelligence […] This means that it’s largely down to genetic reasons that children who tend to do well in one subject also tend to do well in others even when different levels of intelligence is controlled.

They also found that:

genes explain a larger proportion of the differences between children across different subjects (54-65%) than shared environmental factors, such as home and school environment combined (14-21%).

The dangers of toying with gifted genes

Academic giftedness (I use this in a broad term to cover greater general academic aptitude), it would appear, is largely genetic. This is vitally important research. However, if our knowledge develops further and contributory genes are identified, this line of research could have troubling ethical implications. Here are five ways in which the results could be misapplied.

Firstly, it could be used for eugenic purposes: seeking to improve the human race by breeding certain positive qualities. Embryos produced during IVF could be screened for genes disposing to giftedness and those more likely to succeed academically selected. While such testing is illegal in the UK, it is legal in the US. Given the expense of IVF and education, the state might start to require that more gifted children be produced.

Second, genetic analysis of embryos and fetuses through pre-implantation genetic diagnosis or prenatal screening could be used to identify early in life children more likely to succeed academically. Such gifted children could be “hot-housed” to maximise their potential and achievement, instrumentalising children and constraining their freedom. This kind of hyper-parenting is common, harmful to children and could be exacerbated by genetic testing. The child could become a means to the parental end of success.

Third, genetic testing could be used as yet another instrument of discrimination. Less gifted children could be consigned to “slow streams” or even denied entry into certain jobs or careers because it is believed to be a waste of time and money investing in those less likely to provide a return on investment. They might become the genetically doomed in society. This kind of dystopia is vividly portrayed in the film Gattaca.

The film Gattaca explored genetic engineering. Moshe Reuvini/Flickr, CC BY

Fourth, identifying genetic inequality could exacerbate social inequality. The rich select more gifted embryos, who in turn succeed at school, offering a wider range of lucrative and powerful careers. The rich get smarter; the smarter get richer.

Lastly, if giftedness is largely genetic in origin, biology largely determines ability. In the future, biological interventions, such as drugs, could be used to raise potential. This could lead to an epidemic of medicalisation of lower levels of ability being pumped full of drugs.

The upside of discovering gifted genes

While there are legitimate concerns, there are also upsides to consider. Such results enable better understanding of why some children do well at school and why some don’t. The authors postulate several possible mechanisms: motivation, personality or absence of psychopathology.

Understanding this may lead to new interventions, which could be biological (such as simple dietary modification) or social, such as tailored educational programs.

Parents undergoing IVF for other reasons could be given the choice of whether to select embryos that are more likely to be academically gifted children, who would have a wider range of life options open, including a wider range of more rewarding careers. In short, a better chance of a better life. Provided parents have the power to decide, this is not Nazi eugenics, but rather liberal eugenics, which blends into current screening for intellectual disabilities such as Down syndrome or Fragile X.

Parents could use such testing not to constrain a child’s future, but to open it up. Far from instrumentalising their child, they could still love the child as an end in itself, open to a wider range of being and to choosing for itself what kind of person to be.

Such knowledge could be used to correct natural inequality and bring about a more just society. Increased support and tailored education could be targeted at those who are genetically disadvantaged, correcting the effect of the genetic lottery.

Will we realise utopia or dystopia?

If we choose to do nothing, we are responsible for failing to maximise the potential and the realisation of that potential of the next generation. We can use this research to have children with a better chance of a better life, and a more just and equal society.

Or we can harm, reduce freedom and exacerbate inequality. With knowledge comes power, and with power, responsibility. This research offers a pathway to understanding and improving cognitive ability, which is essential to participation in the 21st century.