>More Transhumanism in the Blogosphere

>FuturePundit joins the conversation on transhumanism and identity.

A lot of this conversation hinges on how possible and likely it is that parents make radical personality changes to their offspring.

I think it’s important to keep three things in mind when thinking about that:

1 – Parents are typically conservative in choices they make for their children

Parents have strong urges to help their children get ahead and to pass on their own belief system to them. But the one desire that’s even stronger is the drive towards safety of their children. In situations where parents weigh potential advantage with risk, they seem to generally come out opting for the safest (or apparently safest) course for their kids. As I said in a previous post, this will slow the rate of inter-generational change as compared to the types of changes people (especially 20-somethings) will be willing to try out on themselves.

2 – Genetic personality alterations are hard to fine tune.

While genes play a large role in many behavioral traits, what they really code for are predelictions in one direction or another, not an exact degree. That means that when genetically pushing behavior in one direction or another, it’s easy to undershoot or overshoot. Parents trying to create children that are more confident and assertive increase their odds of producing overbearing brats.

At the same time, it’s possible to select genes highly associated with one end of a behavioral spectrum but still not have it manifest to the degree expected. An example I use in the boook is IQ. Imagine you found thousands of individuals with 160 IQs, cloned them (so that you had all of their IQ-affecting genes) and raised the children in average homes. What would the average IQ of the kids be? 160? Nope. If the genetic correlation with IQ is about 0.5, then the average IQ of the kids will be 130, because those individuals with 160 IQs typically had exceptional genes AND exceptional environments. The fraction of the clones that have a 160 IQ will be exactly the same as the fraction that have a 100 (totally average) IQ – with a mean right in the middle.

On the other hand, a few of these children will have truly freakishly high IQs – not many in absolute numbers, but at a much higher rate than in the base population.

Now apply this logic to a trait like religious intensity. Imagine an “RQ” – religiousity quotient. Even if RQ had a large genetic component (which does not seem to be the case), kids engineered for high RQ would still fall on a spectrum. Some of them would be no more religious than the norm, while others would be so religious they might even apall their parents…

3 – Any genetic alteration of behavior will have broad ripples and side effects

In some ways, what Randall’s arguing reminds me of an argument Bill McKibben makes in Enough. McKibben is a nature lover and wants his daughter to be too. He spends time with her in the woods around their home to try to pass this trait on. But he’s frightened of the idea that parents might genetically engineer their kids to pass on values and preferences like this.

Well, I don’t think he has much to fear. There’s no gene – or collection of genes – for loving nature. Now, there is a well documented genetic contribution to scores on the personality test axis that personality psychologists call Openness to Experience. So probably we could engineer children to be more open generally. But you can’t guarantee that this will manifest as a love of the woods. It may very well nudge the child towards some other behavior – world travel, psychedelic use, role playing games, theatre – who knows?

The point is that the behaviors we tend to think about are usually caused by the interplay of a large number of genes plus the environment. And every one of those genes affects a large number of other behavioral traits. So using genetic techniques to create super-obedient children, even if the motivation were there on the part of parents, seems to me unlikely.