The presumption of parental choice in genetics

In various forms, I’ve been talking about genetic modification and testing of children for years. As most of you know my older son was whole-genome sequenced before he was born. This was in large part scientific activism. I wanted to show people it could be done, and it’s not scary. Genes are not destiny, they’re information.

In the current year of 2017 we’ve gotten much further than when I first began talking about this sort of stuff. The Washington Post and Stat have two articles on the topic that are relevant, Discounts, guarantees and the search for ‘good’ genes: The booming fertility business and A baby with a disease gene or no baby at all: Genetic testing of embryos creates an ethical morass.

I’m prompted to comment on them for two reasons. A simple one is that Michael Brendan Doughtery wondered if the recourse to “super-male” sperm donors would lead to inadvertent consanguineous marriage. I doubt the math works out there. There are tens of millions of children. Even with 1,000 sperm donors genetic diversity would mostly be retained, and you can find plenty of partners. And of course in the near future with ubiquitous genetic testing, most individuals will immediately detect consanguinuity. This is not a problem practically.

A second, broader issue, is in regards to genetic testing and sperm donation I do not believe we should treat parents who make recourse to these technologies any differently from parents (like myself) who can have children without assistance. Most humans make choices on characteristics of their spouses, and those choices aggregate into assortative mating. To me, this is a difference of degree, not kind, from selecting sperm donors. It simply seems creepy because of the technological aspect. The impulses are the exact same.

I do understand that some people have religious, ethical, and normative objections to these new technologies. Personally, I disagree with this viewpoint, but I think it is healthy for us to have the debate openly and candidly.

For example, a few years ago Radiolab had an episode where a gay Israeli couple went looking for egg donors. More specifically they wanted eggs from someone who was white. Obviously, I don’t prioritize my children looking like me that much even though they are biologically mine, so I have a hard time relating to fixating on this issue (my wife and I discussed this topic and I didn’t care too much whether the kids looked like dad, though other people on playgrounds seem to care way too much for my taste). But at the end of the day, it is a choice. And, it is the same choice that the vast majority of humans make by marrying and having children with people of the same race. In multiracial societies like the United States of America, this choice is explicit and implicit in terms of revealed preferences. People want kids to be the same race as themselves. They want to see themselves physically. The Radiolab episode simply exposed what generally occurs on the down-low.

Perhaps we are uncomfortable with the expense and artifice of assisted reproduction. Perhaps it violates our values. This is reasonable. These are issues and debates we need to hash out. But ultimately many of the same issues apply to assisted reproduction and genetic selection as do with “natural” or unassisted parenthood. I think it is important not to put parents who need assistance to a higher standard than those who don’t.

Addendum: I think the argument is ultimately somewhat low stakes because parents who really want a specific child and don’t want to adopt will spend as much as needed to get what they want. And if these technologies were banned in the United States people would just go abroad for the duration of the pregnancy.

16 thoughts on “The presumption of parental choice in genetics

  1. Can Razib or someone else recommend a book on the historical eugenics movement that is actually good? I’m worried that social scientists and historians of today wouldn’t be able to cover this topic very well. I assume, however, that someone must have produced a decent overview that explains what the eugenicists were factually accurate about and where they went wrong, policy-wise.

    One of the reasons I want this is because I think it’s imperative for neo-eugenicists like myself to understand the mistakes of the past.

  2. re: eugenics. you can see wd hamilton’s back and forth ideas in narrow roads of gene land: vol 2. ultimately he ended up supposedly skeptical cuz of the issues with top-down command-planning. the eugenics movement really was part and parcel of the technocratic progressive set of movements.

    at this point a lot of this is semantic. there are not too many down syndrome babies born in denmark and iceland. is that eugenics? (in some technical way perhaps not since their fitness was very low to begin with)

    there’s point in discussing it. genetics and reproduction are becoming mass consumer technologies. talk is irrelevant. choices will come from the bottom-up.

  3. Well I believe the coming genetic modification wave will be bottom up. But I was asking about good info on the historical movement.

  4. My wife and I read the fertility article and were appalled by it at so many levels. For starters, the couple only started trying to have a baby when the wife was 41! Geez, what have they been doing until then?

    And even though both only attended colleges, they insisted on an egg donor who had a graduate degree. And neither had blue eyes, but the wife was “charmed by the idea of a blue-eyed child.” It WAS all creepy and unnatural, like they were picking a doll or a puppy.

    I don’t think this is in any way comparable to finding a mate, with whom one falls in love, and then having babies who are combinations of the two people attracted to each other.

    And for the donor? Argh… all those babies who are her natural children with whom she will have zero contact and will not even be aware of at all.

    To be frank, my wife and I were sickened by the perversion of it all.

  5. Geez, what have they been doing until then?

    they were partying.

    It WAS all creepy and unnatural, like they were picking a doll or a puppy.

    honestly, i think they went looking for the most unselfconsciously creepy couple.

  6. I don’t see anything creepy about any of the people involved. I disagree with Razib on many things, but he makes an excellent point about making choices via assortative mating not being any different *in principle* than making them via technology. Down the road gene editing will help us have the kinds of babies we want as well. (Especially for a cosmetic trait like blue eyes, which is, if I understand correctly, mostly a matter of making two genes nonfunctional).

    “And even though both only attended colleges, they insisted on an egg donor who had a graduate degree. And neither had blue eyes, but the wife was “charmed by the idea of a blue-eyed child.” It WAS all creepy and unnatural, like they were picking a doll or a puppy.”

    As a guy with a doctorate in biology, I do find the fetishization of intelligence / graduate degrees kind of creepy, as well as having some potentially problematic implications for economic inequality. As a racially Indian guy who finds blue eyes really appealing though, I have zero problems with someone who says “I want my child to be blue eyed”, or with gene editing to accomplish that goal.

    As for puppies, I think we exaggerate the distinction between our own species and the rest of the animal kingdom. There’s nothing wrong with viewing people like puppies in some specific situations.

    I don’t think this is in any way comparable to finding a mate, with whom one falls in love, and then having babies who are combinations of the two people attracted to each other.

    There’s no requirement to be ‘in love’ with someone to marry them, have sex with them or have children with them.

  7. Thanks. I took a look at the preview on Amazon and it does seem able to explain the views of the eugenicists pretty well.

    “As a guy with a doctorate in biology, I do find the fetishization of intelligence / graduate degrees kind of creepy, as well as having some potentially problematic implications for economic inequality.”

    I am largely in agreement with your views, but not this one. Selecting a child for intelligence would do much social good in addition to individual good, since IQ predicts low criminality and other forms of prosocial behavior. Blue eyes don’t do that.

  8. I know I’ve said this in the past, but in some ways, I find the prospect of voluntary “consumer” eugenics to be more disturbing than government-mandated forms.

    What sort of modifications would a reasonably enlightened state see as being in the common good? Certainly elimination of alleles known to carry disease risk, as it would lower medical costs in the longer run. Higher IQ would lead to better life outcomes on virtually all metrics. Some sort of personality modifications to increase conscientiousness would be a plus, along with detecting and eliminating variations that lead to criminality.

    In contrast, parents will desire a lot more. It is not in the interest of society as a whole for everyone to be tall, athletic, physically attractive, and at ease in social situations. But when we get to the point that parents can have a choice on these traits, few will choose to have short, weak, ugly and shy children. Indeed, given upper-middle class norms in parenting already have converged on the false idea that through “nurture” you can significantly alter the adult outcomes of your kids, it seems trivial to imagine this attitude transferred to gene selection (once people get over the “ick” factor). Hell, it is, already happening, as the stories you cited have reported.

    I don’t see a good solution for this. Indeed, I think ultimately the government may have to promote the uptake of consumer eugenics, as the formation of a “genetic aristocracy” of only those wealthy enough to skirt the rules would be an even more negative outcome in the medium term. Still, the prospect of a significant proportion of human genomics twenty years hence being molded by evolving social norms around parenting seems mildly terrifying.

  9. “Indeed, I think ultimately the government may have to promote the uptake of consumer eugenics, as the formation of a “genetic aristocracy” of only those wealthy enough to skirt the rules would be an even more negative outcome in the medium term.”

    A subsidized program would definitely be the best outcome. Steve Hsu has talked about making genetic modification most accessible to the poor and other unfortunates, who would benefit the most from it. However, the government simply would give no money to parents who want their daughter to have enormous boobs or whatever.

    When I’m feeling Pollyannaish, I like to think people will have made themselves so smart they would throw middle class childrearing ideas and other such nonsense into the dustbin of history. But surely that’s too much to hope.

    Certainly the everyday stupidity and craziness of people has no bounds, whatever happens. With genetic modifiction we could basically eliminate many evils that have tormented humanity for time out of mind, but would also create new ones in the process.

  10. making choices via assortative mating not being any different *in principle* than making them via technology.

    This strikes me as too much “We already let people drink alcohol – is letting them do heroin really that different in principle?”

    middle class childrearing ideas and other such nonsense

    Why such contempt for ordinary people? You think of yourself so superior? Some of you talk (or write) like stereotypical elitist overlord villains in science fictions films.

    we could basically eliminate many evils that have tormented humanity for time out of mind, but would also create new ones in the process.

    One of the bedrock principles of conservatism (of the Anglo-American variety in any case)… attempts to create paradise on earth usually lead to hell on earth.

  11. The problem with Eugenics in the past was the lack of knowledge and effective methods for the most part. Today you can target single traits, in the past you could just target individuals and groups as a whole. Its not even comparable to what is possible now.

    Physical features are important too and yes, there is no reason to not select for those as well. There is no advantage in being short, fat, weak, sick and ugly for the individual and mankind under most circumstances. And those circumstances under which such traits could be favourable are not desirable by itself.

    Top down is a necessity, because some of you talked about parents wanting beautiful and socially successful children, but thats not the worst. Parents could want absurd and perverted modifications for their children, could want them to be asocial but successful and all kind of weird stuff. Or they might follow trends, so that you get in one generation all of the same one sided specialisation. Like in parts of India and China where parents prefer boys so much, that there is a dramatic lack of girls available in the next generation. If there is no strict regulation and planning, you don’t know where it might end and there is no swarm intelligence to solve that problem.

    I’m all for parents having the choice, being properly educated and informed about which measures are available and reasonable, but there must be strict limits to what is allowed and the good variation shouldn’t be eliminated. For example being shy or even having some kind of mild psychological disorder can be part of the normal variation and even advantageous for the populations and individuals capacities.

    But being dumb, ugly or sickly without positive side effects is in general nothing desirable for sure.

    The main problem of all sorts of Eugenics in the past was that they could just target individuals as a whole.
    An individual with a lot of positive traits, but one bad: They could only sterilise this individual or let it go, there was really nothing else they could do. That was the huge problem – both from a moral and practical perspective. Now you can clear the individuals offspring before birth from the bad traits without hurting any conscious human being.

    What most people don’t talk about is positive Eugenics, which is as improtant in a society in which well educated people with generally favourable traits have less or even no children at all. Both their genetic as well as sociocultural reproductive potential is lost and thats a huge loss in every generation of people raised in a “Western cultural context”.

  12. don’t use the e-word. just call it ‘parental genetic choice.’ it’s like this is some high theory we’re talking about. it’s happening all around us all the time now. not ubiquitous, but most people are probably *acquainted* with someone that’s made recourse to some sort of screening (since so common for 35+ mothers in USA).

  13. Obviously I did screening for my kids too, it just made me feel better to know that “nothing serious is wrong”, at least as far as the screening goes, which is not that far here. Only major chromosomal and organic aberrations being detected even by the most sophisticated screening available to us. A choice we had to make was between invasive and non-invasive methods and for me it was always clear that without a valid indication, a higher risk invasive method is out of question. If the risk because of an amniocentesis is higher than the risk for a serious genetic defect, its not worth it.

  14. I don’t have tremendous concern that a large number of parents would choose to make their kids “weird” on purpose. Look to baby names to see what I mean. While names for children are far more diverse today then they were in the past, most people pick pretty normal names for their kids. Generally speaking, older parents, parents with higher levels of education, and parents with higher SES-status seem to pick the most conventional names.

    I do have concerns that “peer pressure” could result in some traits becoming uncommon however. For example, most parents would likely not want to have a child even modestly on the autism spectrum if they had the choice, but given the systematizing advantage this may confer, it could lead to a lower rate of scientific discoveries. Depression is a more thorny issue, since it causes genuine suffering, but it also appears to be linked to creativity. Is it worth it to allow children to be born predisposed to suffer just to allow for more great art, music, and literature to be enjoyed by millions? This is ultimately a variation on the question asked by LeGuin in The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas and has no clear answer. Another example might be homosexuality. I have no doubt that “progressive” parents wouldn’t select against a gay child if they were told they were going to have one. But if it gets to the point where selection of a child’s sexuality is easy, most people are going to choose straight or bisexual, not gay, just to ensure their son or daughter has more possibilities to meet someone the are compatible with.

    Height offers different issues. For men at least, height confers advantages in number of sex partners and adult earnings. Balanced against that, it reduces adult life expectancy. The issue here could crop up over generations. A guy who is 5’10” today is not considered short, but could easily become short if a lot of parents with below average children begin optimizing for a height of 6’2″ or something. This could set up something of an “arms race” between parents who want to ensure that their children don’t end up “below average.” Except as noted, height is actually not good for longevity, so even if each individual parent believes they’re making the “rational” choice for their child, they’re making choices which have negative outcomes in the longer run.

    Still, balancing these concerns against all of the potential advantages of parental genetic choice – elimination of variants that cause disease, improving IQ by a standard deviation or two, etc – all of these are pretty small beer.

  15. The taller a person is, the more resources they require. Food, obviously, but also things like space. Imagine a full plane where everyone is 6′ 2″.

    Height is a classic example of a situation where every individual’s pursuit of their self-interest–being taller–not only cancels out but leaves things, on average, worse. Collective action is necessary. There should be concerted governmental action to make sure no one is taller than 5′ 9″.

    In the interest of setting a good example, no one in my family is over 5′ 9″.

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