In Brief
  • Institutes like the Cognitive Genomics Project are working to identify the genetic origins of our intelligence.
  • Once genes that influence intelligence are identified, tools like gene editing and IVF could be used to make us smarter.

Importing Intelligence

The gene editing technology CRISPR/Cas9 has paved a new path forward for us – from eliminating disease and fixing pests, to restoring lost abilities – the process is expected to graduate us into a new age of medicine. But it begs the question, can we make ourselves better? Can we improve our intelligence in the advent of gene engineering?

The answer might just be a resounding yes.

The Cognitive Genomics Project is focused on understanding the origin of intelligence within our own genome. It’s lead by BGI, a non-profit research group based in Shenzhen, China, that was founded in 1999. The organization is currently conducting a gene-trait association study of g, a general factor of intelligence. General intelligence is defined by three prominent categories: stability, heritability, and predictive powers. In short, the study is collecting genetic data from over 20,000 individuals who have an IQ above 150, and looking for patterns in their genes.

While this might seem relatively straightforward, it’s actually a complex and difficult task. That’s because general intelligence does not follow mendelian, single-gene genetics. Researchers cannot simply look for specific mutations in specific genes, as they do for diseases like Huntington’s Disease or Cystic Fibrosis. Rather, intelligence is more similar to traits like eye color and hair color that involve multiple genes in inheritance patterns that we are just beginning to understand.

No Gene Editing Needed?

It remains to be seen how effective gene editing can be at influencing traits like personality and intelligence in people whose brains have already been formed. One way we could avoid the gene editing process entirely is by genetically designing intelligence into our children from conception. We could utilize in vitro fertilization and carefully process the genetic information of each embryo produced for genetic preferences.

If the Cognitive Genomics Project provides significant data supporting the correlation between particular parts of the genome and intelligence, then parents can look for these genetics sequences in potential embryos and select the embryos with the desired traits. This method would increase the probability of intelligent children without having to edit particular genome sequences.

While the ethics of human genetic engineering continue to be debated, we may be closer to a more intelligent humanity than ever before.