Cherry-picking the smartest embryo

Ian Mendes discovers that pre-selecting your child’s intelligence via embryo and gene mapping is on the horizon... and he's not on board.

Photo: iStockphoto Photo: iStockphoto

Follow along as Ottawa-based sports reporter Ian Mendes writes about the joys of raising daughters, Elissa and Lily, with wife, Sonia. 

Earlier this week, I read a story about how a Chinese company was cloning animals at an alarming rate.

The BBC reported that the company was producing up to 500 genetically cloned pigs each year. And I suppose if you were somewhat scared by that potential bacon shortage story last year, this would be viewed as welcome news.

But it turns out that this same Chinese company — called BGI — is engaged in something far more questionable when it comes to the field of genetic research.

They are involved in a project that could allow parents to select an embryo that is — theoretically — most likely to succeed. While this sounds like it could be the plot from a late 90s movie starring Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, it’s actually happening right now.


The researchers have obtained DNA samples from 2,000 high-IQ subjects and plan to compare these against a sample from the general population. They are hoping to isolate what differentiates the more intelligent people from the person of average intellect.

This isn’t a simple procedure, but considering that researchers have been able to determine which genes give us hair colour and which ones make us left-handed, there is a good chance they will also be able to figure out which gene sequence is responsible for intelligence. It’s really only a matter of time.

And once that occurs, parents could theoretically select the embryo that has the best odds of success down the road.

Gender selection is a controversial topic on its own, but intelligence selection? There just feels like something wrong with a parent selecting the intelligence of their offspring, as if they are picking a dessert from The Cheesecake Factory. The procedure is expected to cost thousands of dollars, but defenders of the program could argue that this is really no different than a parent spending $50,000/year on a Harvard education.


The head of BGI’s cognitive genomics department, Bowen Zhao, told the Wall Street Journal this week that “people believe it’s a controversial topic, especially in the West. That’s not the case in China.”

I wonder if, maybe, that has something to do with China’s one-child policy — “Hey, if we only get to have one of these, let’s make sure it’s perfect.”

It’s not that Westerners don’t also try and get a leg up on the competition when it comes to their baby’s intelligence. Otherwise, the folks at Baby Einstein wouldn’t be sleeping on piles of cash every night. However, it’s one thing to expose your infant to a little Baby Mozart once in a while, and something else entirely to mess around with the genetics of the child in question.

I have always been a believer in the theory that you get the child you were meant to have — not the one you could choose. Our first-born daughter was born with a massive cyst in her brain and we found out when my wife was about six months pregnant. I’ll bet her embryo wouldn’t have looked perfect and they probably would have seen some red flags.

I would pick my daughter out of a group of 100,000 kids right now — but what about if she was a faceless embryo? Would I have still picked her with her flaws? Probably not.


For that reason alone, I could never feel comfortable with a system that allows parents to handpick their embryos based on what their potential might be.

This article was originally published on Jan 16, 2014

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