Breeding a ‘master race’; a step too far?

24 Feb

China has a history of eugenics but its most recent developments in gene mapping are causing particular concern (Prigg, 2014). Past attempts at controlling its populations characteristics have led to the mass abortion of female foetus’ (Mashru, 2012). Resultantly, you would be forgiven for thinking the Chinese government should refrain from attempting to shape the quality and quantity of its citizens. However, in the past year Beijing Genomics Institute Schenzhen (BGI Schenzhen) has developed a state indorsed programme designed to allow parents to produce the most intelligent children possible (Prigg, 2014). The institute claims it is getting ever closer to making this idea a reality. This blog post asks whether controlling population intelligence is a step too far, even for China.

The History of Eugenics within China

Since Deng Xiaopig took power of the Peoples Republic of China in the late 70’s the state has attempted to control the quality and quantity of the population (Eror, 2013). In the 80’s and 90’s ultrasound technology allowed prenatal testing for birth defects, in an attempt to improve the health -and somewhat controversially the quality- of the unborn population (Prigg, 2014). This new technology plus the introduction of the ‘one child policy’, which meant parents only had one shot at creating successful offspring, caused huge problems for the sex ratio of children born. Resultantly, China now has 32 million more males under the age of 20 than it does females (Mashru, 2012). This is evidence of the negative impacts of the government and science meddling with the populations quality and quantity. It suggests that perhaps allowing parents to determine the intelligence of their unborn child may also result in long term negative impacts for the population.

What’s new?

Scientists at BGI Schenzhen, the world’s largest genetic research centre, are sequencing the DNA of intelligent people in an attempt to identify the alleles which determine human intelligence (FlorCruz, 2013). It has been argued by many that the project is rooted in the idea of prenatal screening but does not cross the lines of genetic engineering as it simply uses the best genes that couples already have (FlorCruz, 2013). As explained by evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller – whose DNA has been used -:

‘The kid would belong to the couple as if they had it naturally but it would be the smartest a couple would be able to produce if they had 100 kids’    (FlorCruz, 2013)

Many have used this fact to oppose ethical concerns. The possibilities of this technology to increase population intelligence are somewhat astounding. If the IQ is boosted in one generation by a seemingly small increment of five IQ points, that’s a huge difference in terms of economic productivity, the competitiveness of the country, how the businesses are run and thus how innovative China’s economy is (FlorCruz, 2013). Countries which have previously shied away from such controversial technology will see the benefits of Chinas attitude which asks:

‘Why shouldn’t we make our future population as intelligent as we can?’

Despite this quite obvious economic benefit to screening foetus intelligence in prenatal scans, there are quite obvious ethical concerns.

Why not breed a ‘master race’ ?

The most pressing ethical concern is that it could lead to increased pregnancy terminations. As aforementioned, when prenatal screening was first introduced in conjunction with the one child policy, it led to gender discriminatory abortions (Mashru, 2012). Despite there being laws against post screening termination due to gender, China now has a huge female deficit (Mashru, 2012). It is not surprising then that there is concern that the introduction of prenatal scanning for intelligence will also lead to abortions on a large scale. It is unlikely that any legislation would be imposed to prevent this; even if it was, past experience with gender discrimination suggests it would not be effectively enforced.  This is a huge ethical concern. Should parents be able to terminate their pregnancy because of the intelligence of their child?

Theoretically the process could be adapted to produce designer babies. Miller openly admits that once intelligence has been successfully mapped the technique could be adapted to determine the physical attractiveness, body shape and personality of the unborn foetus. Could it really be argued that this sort of screening is ethically acceptable? Not only does it take the mystery and beauty out of pregnancy, but it also poses a very real threat to the life of the unborn foetus which could be terminated because it does not have the desired characteristics. Should a mother be able to choose the child they give birth to based on its characteristics?

Conclusion

In a sensationalist world it could be argued that China is one step closer to creating a ‘master race’. Its frequent dabbling with eugenics has raised global eyebrows in the past but recent gene mapping to find intelligent alleles poses some fundamentally important ethical questions. The most pressing of which questions whether a mother should be able to choose the foetus she gives birth to based on intelligence screening? The impact these developments could have upon the characteristics of China’s population are unknown, but arguably they could be both brilliant and devastating.  Brilliant in terms of China as a nation being far more intelligent, economically productive and innovative than elsewhere in the world. But devastating in terms of the government essentially encouraging the mass termination of less intelligent foetus’. This current programme is so close to completion it is unlikely to be halted. However, it is clear that future projects should be deeply questioned.

References

Eror, A (2013) ‘China is engineering genius babies’, Vice. 5th of March. [Available at: http://www.vice.com/read/chinas-taking-over-the-world-with-a-massive-genetic-engineering-program (accessed 14/02/2014)]

FlorCruz, M (2013) ‘Chinese Scientists May Soon Be Able to Genetically Engineer Smarter Children’, International Business Times, 20th of March. [Available at: http://www.ibtimes.com/chinese-scientists-may-soon-be-able-genetically-engineer-smarter-children-1137797 – (accessed 14/2/2014)

Mashru, R (2012) ‘It’s a Girl: The Three Deadliest Words in the World’. The Independent, 18th of January (Available at – http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2012/01/16/it%E2%80%99s-a-girl-the-three-deadliest-words-in-the-world/ – [Accessed 11/02/2014])

Prigg, M (2014) ‘Chinese firm’s bid to allow parents to select their smartest embryos’, The Daily Mail, 14th of January [Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2539596/Get-ready-superbaby-Chinese-firm-set-allow-parents-pick-smartest-embryos.html – accessed 14/2/2014]

 

 

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