Every parent wants their bundle of joy to be the very best, and some think genetic testing could lead the way to
There have always been strategies to try and tip the genetic scales in your child’s favor. Parents currently can have prenatal testing done to find out if they’re carriers of genetic disorders like Tay Sachs and cystic fibrosis. In utero testing, done as early as eight weeks and as late as 20, can indicate other chromosomal and developmental issues like Down’s Syndrome and spina bifida. All of these tests are now considered standard for having a baby in a developed country.
But testing for intelligence is a whole new arena. Genomic Prediction is a company that tests genetic material differently, using machine learning to analyze your IVF embryo’s genome for health and intelligence soundness. This method is only applicable to IVF) he company uses the embryo’s entire genome to run algorithms that look at more complex issues. These issues, such as diabetes, a predilection for heart disease and some breast cancers, are called polygenic as they involve many genetic signals.
And intelligence, or, rather, the lack thereof (like 25 points under average IQ), fits in with what these algorithms might be able to predict.
Here’s how it works: Let’s say you do IVF and end up with five viable embryos. Genomic Prediction then runs your embryos’ genomes through its algorithms, giving each embryo what it terms a polygenic risk score. This allows for choosing the embryo with the “best” score, i.e. the lowest disease and intelligence risks.
Sounds a lot like eugenics? It certainly could be used that way, especially in the United States where IVF is a private affair and embryos could be tested, potentially, for anything, including traits like eye, skin, and hair color. While a recent MIT survey indicated most people have no qualms about using testing to find potential health issues, things like intelligence and appearance are generally frowned upon. But in some countries, like China, or Singapore, this type of genetic screening might get the green light sooner rather than later. Genetic Prediction CEO Stephen Hsu even admitted in a recent article that he could see it going in that direction, and he might allow his company to do it.
Intelligence Is Way More Than Genes
Intelligence itself is difficult to measure. IQ tests, like the Stanford Binet or
“It doesn’t matter how high your polygenic score
While some geneticists think intelligence is highly heritable (and have explored this through identical twin studies), there are still many other factors having to do with nurture and environment. It’s difficult to parse out the heritable traits from, say, social and economic class and access to opportunities.
Access to Your Genome Is Easier Than Ever
Getting your DNA tested has been accessible through companies like 23&Me and Ancestry for a while now, but those companies only test a small amount, perhaps 1%, of your genome. Complete DNA testing was once hideously expensive, but companies like Veritas are now doing it for a relatively affordable rate of around $600-800.
Those bargain basement prices mean you can find out all sorts of information, both about yourself and your child. But, is the info really valuable?
Take, for instance, the science writer Carl Zimmer’s experience with whole-genome testing. In a recent article for The Atlantic, he took an “intelligence test” promoted by the free site DNA.Land. To his (pretty hilarious) surprise, his polygenic results were on the left (read: dumber) side of the test’s intelligence bell curve. He was shocked and his mother was furious.
A closer look at the bell curve, however, indicated only fractions of intelligence difference; many highly intelligent people were on that lower left side. Scientists, you see, don’t view “prediction” with the same high value as ordinary people. Zimmer, looking at recent (2017-2018) studies of genes, found the actual genetic predictive power ranged from a paltry five percent to an almost equally underwhelming seven percent. That’s not enough to produce the next Baby Einstein.
As for the fears of widespread IVF embryo tinkering, that time is probably far off. As Dr. Harden put it in her article:
“…using polygenic scoring for embryo selection requires parents to create embryos using reproductive technology, rather than conceiving them by having sex. The prediction that many women will endure medically-unnecessary IVF, in order to select the embryo with the highest polygenic score, glosses over the invasiveness, indignity, pain, and heartbreak that these hormonal and surgical procedures can entail.”