Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Annual Edge Question

Every year The Edge poses a single question to a variety of intellectually influential folks. The question for 2013 was, "What should we be worried about?" Many of the responses are thought-provoking, and it is time well spent (or at least better spent than many alternatives) to browse the responses to this question and the questions from prior years.

The lead-off response from evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller is closest to my own concerns, as anyone who has taken a course with me in the past few years would know. His response is Chinese Eugenics, and he makes his points well. An excerpt:

"China has been running the world's largest and most successful eugenics program for more than thirty years, driving China's ever-faster rise as the global superpower. I worry that this poses some existential threat to Western civilization. Yet the most likely result is that America and Europe linger around a few hundred more years as also-rans on the world-historical stage, nursing our anti-hereditarian political correctness to the bitter end.
...
But then Deng Xiaoping took power after Mao's death. Deng had long understood that China would succeed only if the Communist Party shifted its attention from economic policy to population policy. He liberalized markets, but implemented the one-child policy —partly to curtail China's population explosion, but also to reduce dysgenic fertility among rural peasants. Throughout the 1980s, Chinese propaganda urges couples to have children "later, longer, fewer, better"—at a later age, with a longer interval between birth, resulting in fewer children of higher quality. With the 1995 Maternal and Infant Health Law (known as the Eugenic Law until Western opposition forced a name change), China forbade people carrying heritable mental or physical disorders from marrying, and promoted mass prenatal ultrasound testing for birth defects. Deng also encouraged assortative mating through promoting urbanization and higher education, so bright, hard-working young people could meet each other more easily, increasing the proportion of children who would be at the upper extremes of intelligence and conscientiousness.
 
...
Chinese eugenics will quickly become even more effective, given its massive investment in genomic research on human mental and physical traits. BGI-Shenzhen employs more than 4,000 researchers. It has far more "next-generation" DNA sequencers that anywhere else in the world, and is sequencing more than 50,000 genomes per year. It recently acquired the California firm Complete Genomics to become a major rival to Illumina.
 
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."

[End excerpt]


For a particularly effective (and disarming) explanation of the BGI project, see the video of the talk at Google given by Steve Hsu in 2011. Dr. Hsu's blog, Information Processing, is also worth checking out regularly, even when he is writing about theoretical physics and theoretical physicists. For example, the blog is where I first saw this video of Edward Teller (father of the hydrogen bomb) reminiscing about fellow physicist John von Neumann. Teller's observation that "for most people, thinking is painful" can be quite useful in understanding the behaviors of those around us. Teller notes that some people are "addicted" to thinking and some find it a "necessity." However, every once in a while there comes along someone for whom thinking is a pleasure, even the greatest pleasure.

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