The new Edge.org question and responses have been posted for 2013. The question is “What should we be worried about?” The first response from Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist, is that we should be worried about Chinese eugenics. The tone of the response is overwrought and somewhat breathlessly alarmist, but in the final analysis the guy has a point, if a minor one.
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.
What’s true of today’s political correctness might not be true of tomorrow. Think of all the social change that happened in the 50 years between 1960 and 2010. 50 years from today, maybe we’ll all be hereditarians.
For generations, Chinese intellectuals have emphasized close ties between the state (guojia), the nation (minzu), the population (renkou), the Han race (zhongzu), and, more recently, the Chinese gene-pool (jiyinku). Traditional Chinese medicine focused on preventing birth defects, promoting maternal health and “fetal education” (taijiao) during pregnancy, and nourishing the father’s semen (yangjing) and mother’s blood (pingxue) to produce bright, healthy babies (see Frank Dikötter’s bookImperfect Conceptions). Many scientists and reformers of Republican China (1912-1949) were ardent Darwinians and Galtonians. They worried about racial extinction (miezhong) and “the science of deformed fetuses” (jitaixue), and saw eugenics as a way to restore China’s rightful place as the world’s leading civilization after a century of humiliation by European colonialism. The Communist revolution kept these eugenic ideals from having much policy impact for a few decades though. Mao Zedong was too obsessed with promoting military and manufacturing power, and too terrified of peasant revolt, to interfere with traditional Chinese reproductive practices.
Of course the reformers of Republican China were Darwinians and Galtonians. So were the reformers in every other major nation on earth during that period. And what? And why include the romanizations of Chinese words here? Does every other country not have their own terms for these issues? The author’s purpose in highlighting foreign words here is dubious. He then goes over the gaokao test which he equates, not completely incorrectly, with the past imperial exams. Even so, China is hardly the only nation to use them. On a practical level, there’s no easier way to gauge which students to admit into higher education than a test. The US has plenty of them in the form of SATs, ACTs, MCATs, LSATs, etc. None of this demonstrates a stark difference between China and any other nation. Finally, he mentions the Beijing Genomics Institute.
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… 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.
Here is where I believe he has a point. The BGI is indeed hunting for these alleles, and why search for these genes if not to put them to use in the future? The worry here is still overwrought, because it would conceivably take much more than a “couple generations” to have any large effect. In vitro is still extremely expensive ($15-20k per attempt) and a success rate of less than 40% even for young women and that rate drops precipitously by the mid 30s. There’s no way that enough young Chinese women could afford something like that to matter for many generations, even if they wanted it. But if you’re looking at a long enough timeframe, then yes, it will matter. Still, the state of political correctness by that time could be vastly different around the world. There’s little justification in saying the entire Western civilization needs to worry about this today.