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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Monday, March 7, 2016

Gene-Spliced Super-Geniuses Are Not on the Horizon

A recent Nautilus article by Stephen Hsu has the title “Super-Intelligent Humans Are Coming.” Hsu gives us some reasoning that tries to justify the claim that we will soon be able to genetically engineer humans to have an IQ of 1000. First he guesses that there might be thousands of gene variations that can have a slight effect (positive or negative) on intelligence. Then he reasons as follows:

Given that there are many thousands of potential positive variants, the implication is clear: If a human being could be engineered to have the positive version of each causal variant, they might exhibit cognitive ability which is roughly 100 standard deviations above average. This corresponds to more than 1,000 IQ points.

But there are quite a few problems with such reasoning. First, we have no idea whether having so many genetic variations would be feasible as a way of getting to a super-genius. It could be that if you have more than, say, 100 of them, it has some terrible side effect that would mess up a person's brain or body. Second, we have no idea whether there is a law of diminishing returns that would kick in once you had tried to give someone more than 100 of these genetic variations.

There are all kinds of situations in which having one type of thing may increase some parameter by a one percent, but having, say, 50 of those things does not increase that parameter by anything like 50 percent (because of a “law of diminishing returns” effect). For example, if you buy one smoke detector for your house, it may increase your life expectancy by one percent. But buying 50 smoke detectors does not increase your life expectancy by 50 percent. And while bringing a second pencil to the test center may increase your SAT score by an average of 1 percent, bringing 20 pencils will not increase your SAT score by anything close to 20 percent.

It could well be that it will be impossible to manipulate genes to increase human intelligence by more than 50 percent, no matter how many genetic modifications are made. The whole idea that the secret of human intelligence is found in the genes may be misguided. The rice plant has more than 32,000 genes, but humans have only about 20,000 genes. How could that be if our genes are storing an algorithm for making human minds?

It is also doubtful that we will be able to isolate some series of gene changes that could add up to a roadmap for making humans super-intelligent. In this Guardian article a psychologist says the following:

It’s the best kept secret of modern science: 16 years of the Human Genome Project suggest that genes play little or no role in explaining differences in intelligence. While genes have been found for physical traits, such as height or eye colour, they are not the reason you are smarter (or not) than your siblings. Nor are they why you are like your high-achieving or dullard parents, or their forebears.

There is a problem called the “missing heritability” problem. This is the problem that while twin studies may suggest that as much as 50% of variations in human intelligence may be caused by genetic differences, scientists have had no luck in determining genes that determine intelligence. In this article a scientist named Plomin states, “I've been looking for these genes for 15 years, and don't have any.” This Scientific American article says, “Numerous researchers have found that the structure of cognitive abilities is strongly influenced by genes (although we haven't the foggiest idea which genes are reliably important).” Given the lack of success in finding genes that determine intelligence, it may well be that intelligence has relatively little dependence on a person's genes – perhaps much less than 50%.

Hsu's optimism about genetic tinkering is the kind of optimism scientists had before the Human Genome Project was completed. It was thought that once man's genes were mapped, there would be all kinds of breakthroughs. Scientists thought that we would conveniently find that particular genes mapped to particular traits, and that this would be some medical Aladdin's lamp. What actually happened was something very different. What scientists found was a murky muddle that resulted in relatively few breakthroughs. All too often the roles of particular genes were still very unclear. A typical result was that some gene might be found to have a 2% effect on some trait. Such results were surprisingly unhelpful. Given such a reality, there is no basis for concluding that some big increase in human intelligence can be caused anytime soon through genetic engineering.

The difficulty of mapping genes to cognitive prowess should surprise no one. Think of what genes are: they are typically sequences of chemicals used to construct proteins. Now imagine some great problem involving abstract thinking, such as the question of what is the best future path for mankind, or why there is something rather than nothing, or whether there is an overall plan for the universe, and if so, what is its nature. Can we imagine some new combination of chemicals that would suddenly cause us to understand such problems with much greater insight? No, we cannot. We basically have no understanding of how some particular gene might cause increased intelligence, so in trying to manipulate genes to increase intelligence, we are groping around in the dark.

In short, while we cannot rule out the idea of one day genetically tinkering our way to super-minds, the prospects of being able to radically improve intelligence through genetic engineering anytime soon are poor. It is not at all true to suggest genetic engineering prospects suggest “Super-Intelligent Humans Are Coming,” as Hsu's title states.

Are there any reasons for hope on this matter? There are a few. For one thing, human intelligence as measured on IQ tests seems to be increasing. Google for the topic “Flynn effect” and you will find that IQ scores have increased by 5 to 25 points in the past several decades. This seems quite inexplicable from any kind of genetic standpoint. Could there be some entirely unknown factor behind human intelligence, something that is now turning up the knob on human intelligence to help us cope with an increasingly complex society? Possibly.

Another basis for hope is the prospect that we might develop some drug or chemical that might produce short-term boosts to human intelligence. Many people think that the mind is not a product of the brain, and that the brain is just a kind of temporary receptacle for our minds (for reasons discussed in this series of posts). According to such an idea, your brain is a kind of localization device, restraining a spirit, soul, or mind that might otherwise be free-roaming, forcing it to be chained to some particular body. If such an idea is true, some drug could conceivably switch off some of the brain's activity, which might in some sense be like letting the genie out of the bottle. By taking some drug you might get in touch with some higher consciousness that has been restricted by brain activity largely dedicated to keep you living in the here and now. There doesn't seem to be any drug very suitable for such a purpose at this time, but we may hope that some day such a drug might be developed. It might be that future Americans might have some pill that will make them feel temporarily as if they had some consciousness far beyond that of normal human consciousness. After swallowing such a pill, you might feel as if the doors of Eternity had been opened.