A Smarter World: How Far will we Go?

Our imperfections and struggles are commonly held to make life more meaningful; but, why would we insist on passing down weaknesses that result in marked disadvantages to others, especially if the power to fix them were just at our fingertips? The possibility of using emerging reproductive technologies with expanding knowledge of the human genome’s relationship to cognition as a way to create more intelligent offspring will likely soon become reality, and it presents difficult issues. How far can improvement go before it becomes harmful, and how can that be measured? The adoption of these technologies has the potential to alter individuals and society as a whole. This paper explores many of the ethical and social (as well as economic and regulatory) challenges that these new technologies present, while also highlighting and commenting on similar issues society already faces today in a variety of spheres. It will close with recommendations for future use of such technology at the individual, national, and international levels.


If you could increase your child’s IQ, why wouldn’t you? The advent of highly efficient genome-sequencing technologies is allowing for unprecedented capabilities to crack the genetic code and understand the complex relationship between the human genome and cognitive differences (Investigating the Genetic Basis for Intelligence). This development has led scientists to express optimism towards the likelihood that we may apply this research in the near future to reproductive technologies by selecting embryos destined for lives of high intelligence through prenatal diagnosis (PGD) and in-vitro fertilization (IVF). Further, it has been established that if powerful gene-editing technologies were to become more precise, and research on stem cells were to progress (Bostrom and Shulman), it is likely that humans would gain the power to create future offspring that possess higher cognitive capacities than anyone who has ever walked the Earth, leading to what some refer to as a “post-human species” (Hsu 2015).

We can use this growing knowledge of the mechanisms behind the genetics of intelligence to alter the fate of future generations, and our society as a whole, for better or worse. This paper will delve into many of the ethical perspectives and implications that emerge from humans enhancing the general cognitive abilities of their offspring with reproductive technologies, particularly if these technologies, assuming they are completely developed as well as safe to use, would be able to create a substantial difference in intelligence levels.

The complexities underlying the value of beneficence will be explored with particular attention to the stakeholder of the future offspring. The utilitarian lens will be used as well. Among the other points of contention to be investigated are the value of diversity and egalitarian concerns. Because of the impact that these technologies would have on society as a whole, and the likelihood of pressure and coercion to keep up with a new normal, this paper will take into account the associated regulatory challenges.

As foreign as this future world in question may seem, these concerns are certainly not exclusive to genetically enhancing intelligence. Through this paper, I hope to suggest a more meaningful understanding of the values of intelligence and success, as well as encourage reflection and provoke further debate on enhancement.


What is Intelligence?

What does it mean to be smart? Is it how well we score in comparison to others, or our ability to communicate effectively? Our natural ability to calculate numbers quickly, or to invent something original? How early we learn to speak, or how successful we become?

While genetically enhancing intelligence is a subject of ongoing debate, the very idea that intelligence can be defined and/or measured has been, and arguably will always be, contentious.

The definition of intelligence has changed over time (“Intelligence”), varies from individual to individual, and implicit theories on what the concept of intelligence implies can vary from culture to culture as well (Cocodia).

An inherent cultural bias and sordid history of misuse and divisiveness (“Eugenics”) can also be nearly impossible to separate from the nature of IQ testing. It can an extremely sensitive topic; with such strong implications in modern society and an indelible intertwinement with our identities, the concept of intelligence can be undoubtedly controversial and dangerous territory to enter without offending anyone (Gottfredson). However, it is not as sensitive everywhere in the world (Investigating the Genetic Basis of Intelligence), and this is important to keep in mind when considering the global and regulatory implications.

Even scientists continue to debate today what this construct implies and how to properly measure it (Visser, Beth A., et al.). While there is debate over its meaning, and some people deny that this construct has any true validity, there is still an underlying reason why individuals within populations differ in their cognitive capacities, and particularly why individuals tend to score similar across a variety of types of intelligence tests.

The common assumption is that someone can be a math person or a verbal person, but psychometric studies indicate otherwise. While the former distinction is based on our understanding of intelligence to be an endowment of a specific faculty of the brain rather than the whole brain itself, millions of studies have indicated that “primitive” cognitive abilities are positively correlated. This is known as the “positive manifold” of individuals’ scores found among different intelligence tests, which strongly imply that scores on mathematics test are positively correlated with scores on vocabulary tests, for example (Investigating the Genetic Basis for Intelligence).

The variety of expressions of intelligence are compressed and referred to by scientists as the trait of general intelligence (g), also referred to in this paper as general cognitive ability (GCA). This underlying, broad ability is manifested in a variety of realms of cognition, and it can be briefly defined as “the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience” (Parens and Appelbaum). When well-formulated, IQ tests tend to be reliable estimators of an individual’s g (Hsu 2014). In order to avoid confusion, this is what this paper will be referring to as the trait to be enhanced. GCA, g, and IQ will be used interchangeably in this paper.

It is worth noting that, of course, while an individual with a high verbal ability is highly likely to also have a high mathematical ability, this is not guaranteed. This is due to other factors that explain this variation, such as environment and personality. Nevertheless, the specific types of intelligence can not be isolated from the underlying condition of more general processes, and the different types of intelligence may appear to vary more as a result of individual preferences and inclinations (Visser, Beth A., et al.). 

Levels of g, whether or not IQ can always measure them effectively, have substantial and pervasive impacts on the lives of individuals and the well-being of societies.  Besides just a social value, intelligence is a vehicle that can be used to get something else. Within the economic structure we live in, IQ scores can be extremely useful predictors of life outcomes; this will be discussed in greater detail throughout the paper. Despite its sensitive nature, no other trait used by psychologists has been more useful or substantial in predicting life outcomes, and this must be taken seriously (Gottfredson).

G and Genes

The potential for creating “super-intelligent” human beings comes from using knowledge of the relationship between the human genome and cognitive abilities. It is widely accepted among scientists that there is a strong genetic component that can explain why some people are smarter than others; much of who we are was not our decision. While it may seem to not necessarily align with the principle of human equality, this immutable– for now–biological reality, no matter how undesirable it may be, is not one that should be rejected, particularly when enhancing these genetic traits in unprecedented ways becomes feasible.

Twin and adoption studies have long suggested, across a variety of locations, including countries, a roughly proportional correlation of IQ and degrees of kinship.  “Figure 2” below illustrates an essentially proportional relationship for average correlation of general cognitive ability among reared-together relatives as a function of the degree of genetic relatedness. “Figure 3” below illustrates consistently illustrates this pattern as well, but it also takes into account the lessened average correlation for general cognitive ability when these subjects are reared apart (Gottesman and McGue). Interestingly, there is a negligible correlation for g for biologically unrelated siblings raised in the same household. Current research suggests that the variance in g scores across populations are due to at least 50 percent and perhaps as much as 80 percent genetic causes. Strong evidence suggests that the heritability of g is substantial (Plomin).


It is important to note that heritability is not always so straightforward. Behavioral geneticists do not recognize heritability as a fixed biological constant; one’s expressed g can vary across developmental age, time, and culture (Gottesman and McGue).

The heritability of general cognitive ability increases as people age, while the importance of environmental influence declines simultaneously (Gottesman and McGue). To be specific, the heritability of general cognitive ability in the United States is typically seen at a low value in early childhood between .3 to .45  and it increases to well over .5 in adulthood, often between .7 and 0.8, and this continues to increase into old age (Deary and Plomin). This indicates how powerful genes are in controlling the fate of individuals and how genetic enhancements would be undeniably divisive.

Heritability estimates can be much smaller, however, when subjects have experienced environmental conditions such as malnutrition, lack of education, and poverty, which prevent them from achieving their full potential. Many studies find the socioeconomic status of the rearing home to be a consistent moderator of GCA heritability. For example, the National Collaborative Perinatal Project found that genetic variation explained almost none of the observed variation in cognitive abilities in the poorest families studied, but it helped to explain over 80 percent of the variation in the richest families studied; similarly, environmental variation did almost nothing to explain observed variation in these richest families, but it accounted for 60 percent of the variation in the poorest families (Gottesman and McGue). As with most traits, severe environmental deprivation may reduce the heritability of cognitive ability, but the predictive value of g of genetics has long been well-established (Investigating the Genetic Basis for Intelligence). The effects of both environment and genes are particularly relevant when discussing issues of access in this paper.

Genetic effects on intelligence levels are understood to be an upper limit that can be achieved through adequate environmental factors. Therefore, environmental effects, such as upbringing, nutrition, and exercise, contribute what scientists estimate to be anywhere between 20-50% of expressed intelligence (Investigating the Genetic Basis for Intelligence). Genetically enhancing intelligence would raise this upper limit.

However, whether or not one will definitely exhibit a given level of g is not completely dependent on the presence of a given gene variant ( the form of a gene); intelligence is not coded for in the genes like diseases such as Huntington’s. Because so many different genes are involved in the expression of intelligence, intelligence is considered to be a polygenic trait. All of the discovered genes have been found to have a maximum effect of 1 single IQ point. For this reason, scientists have predicted that there at least thousands of alleles which account for the actual variation of cognitive ability found in the general population; a sophisticated analysis yields an estimate of about 10,000 in total (Hsu 2014). General intelligence has high narrow heritability; in other words, its effects can be additive (Plomin, Robert, and Ian J. Deary). Scientists hypothesize that each of these variants will slightly increase or decrease the individual’s overall cognitive ability, and this additive effect is responsible for the wide variety of cognitive ability distribution (Hsu 2014).

Current research seeks to identify the specific mechanism behind the relationship between genes and cognitive abilities. Because genetic technology has become exponentially cheaper and advanced, particularly whole-genome sequencing, the possibility of mapping out the human genome in terms of its effects on human cognition may be possible in the near future, as long as researchers, such as those at the Cognitive Genomics Project from Beijing Genomics Institute, are able to continue their research and gather extremely large sample sizes (Chang, Christopher C., et al.). Researchers have been using new statistical methods on large sample sizes which are proving that specific genes are really involved in shaping human intelligence (Investigating the Genetic Basis of Intelligence).

The Social Science Genome Association Consortium, an international collaboration involving dozens of university labs, has identified multiple locations on the human genome which contribute to cognitive ability, indicating multiple single-nucleotide polymorphisms in human DNA statistically correlated with intelligence. Other studies have located some variants associated with educational attainment (Deary and Plomin).

Because general cognitive ability is so pervasive, this research is promising to provide a rough guide for overall brain functioning, which could potentially lead to breakthroughs in research of other aspects of cognition, such as Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia. (Chang, Christopher C., et al.). In fact, a recent scientific breakthrough identified forty new “smart genes”, and one of them is called SHANK3, which is involved in the formation of the connections between brain cells (synapses), and it can also cause autism spectrum disorder or schizophrenia type 15 if there are mutations on it (Fox). Besides just being associated with intelligence, many of these genes were found to have other roles with brain cell development, and the strongest association found with the newly discovered forty “smart genes” is a gene called FOXO3, which is believed to trigger cell death and is also strongly associated with longevity. The genes associated with intelligence were also found to be associated with body mass, education, and head circumference in infancy (“In ‘Enormous Success,’ Scientists Tie 52 Genes to Human Intelligence”). These associations indicate that genetically enhancing intelligence will come with trade-offs. Also, because these genes are not solely involved with enhancing intelligence, it is likely that genetic diversity may be lost.

It is imperative to also take into account that there is also backlash and vehement opposition because of the undesirable implications of research on the genetic basis of intelligence, such as inevitable discrimination and divisiveness (Appelbaum and Parens). For the sake of clarity, this paper will be mainly focusing on the implications of applying this scientific knowledge to reproductive technology, not on the issue of researching the genetics of intelligence in general. However, this paper’s topic is undoubtedly connected to such concerns even though it is answering a different question.

Overall, the genetics of intelligence are complicated and not wholly responsible for one’s expressed intelligence in today’s society; to reiterate, an individual’s genome is understood to be an upper limit for cognitive ability, which relies on a multitude of other traits, which are not always biological, to be reached. Research is promising to map out a more comprehensive picture of this mechanism in the near future. This expanded understanding has the potential to be applied to reproductive technologies, which would make the role of the genetic basis of intelligence even more significant because it may be possible to expand this upper limit in unprecedented ways.  

Potential Methods and Effectivenss of Genetically Enhancing Intelligence


In vitro fertilization (IVF) is the process of fertilization in which eggs are combined with sperm outside of the body, often in a petri dish, and then transferred into the uterus with the intention of establishing a successful pregnancy. It is often paired with prenatal diagnosis (PGD), which involves the removal of a cell from a fertilized egg and testing it for a specific genetic condition before transferring the fertilized egg into the uterus.

These are both technologies that are feasible and used today. The findings of the genetic basis of intelligence could make selecting the smarter embryo possible, and it would probably be the first form of genetic enhancement of intelligence to be adopted (Hsu 2014). These technologies have been well-developed and have become relatively popular over the years, expanding its usage beyond the original intention of assisting otherwise infertile parents to have offspring, as parents often use these technologies to select against genetic diseases, such as Tay-Sachs (Chang, Anne Lynn S.).

Whether or not one generation of embryo selection for the purpose of higher intelligence would make a noticeable difference on the societal level is unlikely. However, as there is a greater number of embryos to select from, the range increases, which would create much more noticeable differences. To put this into perspective, it is normally recommended that women harvest 15 eggs for IVF for the purpose of ensuring a successful pregnancy (“In Vitro Fertilization”).

Predictions for the potential effects of embryo selection are illustrated under “Table 1” (Shulman and Bostrom) below. With the option between about 10 embryos, others hypothesize that the selection could offer a range greater than 10-15 IQ points (Hsu 2014). “Table 1” (Shulman and Bostrom) also illustrates how the effects of embryo selection for the “smartest embryo” out of the limited options would grow to become much more substantial, as the effects would accumulate over multiple generations, too.


If genetically enhancing intelligence were to become feasible through the hypothetical technology called iterated embryo selection (IES) in vitro, the effects would be much more immediately substantial. Iterated embryo selection would be more effective than regular embryo selection because it would allow for multiple generations of selection to be compressed into less than a human maturation period. The process of IES would genotype and select an amount of embryos with greater levels of desired genetic characteristics; then, stem cells from these embryos would be extracted and converted into sperm and ova, which would mature in no longer than six months; afterwards, the new sperm and ova would be crossed to produce embryos, and this process would be repeated until desirable genetic changes have been accumulated, or when diminishing returns set in.

Normally, such results would take multiple generations to accumulate rather than just months. The feasibility of this technology would only be enabled by advances in the derivation of viable sperm and eggs from human embryonic stem cells, as the stem cell derived gametes would enable this hypothetical technique of enhancing the intelligence of embryos. Further, it would radically change the cost and effectiveness of enhancement through selection. After the fixed investment of IES, many embryos could be produced from the final generation, so that they could be provided to parents at a low cost (Shulman and Bostrom).


Germline Genetic Therapy (GLGT) is done with the intention of transferring genes into human germ cells, cells that can be passed onto future generations, in an offspring who has not yet been born, in order to prevent the development of a genetic disease. This is much more controversial that Somatic Gene Therapy (SGT) because of the risk of severe genetic defects which can be passed onto subsequent generations if someone who has undergone GLGT reproduces, making it risky. Germline genetic enhancement (GLGE) uses the process of GLGT but with the intention of enhancing rather than treating (Resnik). In the context of genetically enhancing intelligence, it is likely that the effects would be passed onto subsequent generations as well as accumulate over time (Bostrom and Shulman), meaning that introducing these enhancements into the human gene pool would be irreversible; they would cross the line of no return, for better or for worse, and they would accumulate in magnitude over the course of generations.

The gene editing technology CRISPR-cas9 is allowing for unprecedented opportunities in adding, deleting, or rearranging segments of genetic material (Laney). However, many are pessimistic about its ability to manipulate intelligence because of the trait’s complex nature in addition to the flaws associated with this technology, such as missing the target. If gene editing were to be used to amplify the intelligence genes of embryos, it would involve manipulating many, many traits, as intelligence is polygenic, which could mean unintended consequences if any mistake were to be made. However, if we have a highly substantial knowledge of the genetics of g and highly developed gene editing technology, this could be another option to genetically enhance intelligence (Juengst).

Cognitive ability is influenced by thousands of genetic loci which all have a small effect. However, if all variants were simultaneously improved, about 100 standard deviations of improvement could possibly be achieved, which corresponds to an IQ of over 1,000. This is a level of cognitive ability that is incomprehensible at present times, and it is definitely greater than any level of intelligence that any human who has walked the Earth has possessed. Direct edits to embryonic human DNA could potentially produce individuals that are “posthuman”, and this process is likely to begin by 2050 (Hsu 2015). While an IQ score at about 1,000 may exceed any meaning in terms of measurement, researcher Stephen Hsu is confident that this ability will be greater than the maximum that has ever walked the earth. He indicates that it is possible such super-intelligent human beings could have the ability to “nearly perfectly recall images and language, super-fast thinking and calculation, powerful geometric visualization, even in higher dimensions, and the ability to execute multiple analyses or trans of through in parallel at the same time” (Hsu 2014), simultaneously, if at the maximal type.

Other data has led to estimations of a total of a number of IQ-effecting alleles in an individual that could ultimately be shifted by 30 standard deviations. This means that, assuming the effects are additive and independent even under extreme selection, this would correspond with about 20 standard deviations, also known as a potential gain of over 300 IQ points. It seems likely that the additive assumption would break down before this would be reached, as various pathways of improvement deliver diminishing returns. It is unknown how long this process would continue before severely diminishing returns would set in (Shulman and Bostrom). Whether or not someone’s IQ could be 300 or 1,000, such a high level of general intelligence would be unpreceded and significant.

This paper is exploring the implications of genetically enhancing intelligence with the assumption that it would become feasible and efficient, but it is currently unclear exactly which type of technology or process above, or whether a currently unknown one, would be able to achieve this. It is also possible that the technologies described above would be paired with each other to amplify the effectiveness; for example, selecting smarter embryos for iterated embryo selection, and/or selecting embryos to use for germline engineering.


There are hypotheses directed towards this question which have been described, but the answer is uncertain until researchers are able to gather larger sample sizes and advance the current understanding of how the human genome affects cognition. Although some variants have been identified, they can not have substantial effects on their own, and it is unclear how they interact with other variants, or what impact unknown variants may have. Because of this, we can not be confident knowing what the limits of human cognition are.na (Investigating the Genetic Basis for Intelligence). In fact, there is substantial evidence to suggest that existing alleles affecting intelligence that are found in the collective world population can be combined to produce a phenotype which exceeds any level seen yet in human history, which may be done by a similar process used by animal and plant breeders who have used experiments on chickens, drosophila, corn, etc. to shift population means by many standard deviations relative to the original wild type to achieve desirable offspring

On a side note, these effects would be amplified even more if other, non-genetic technologies were to be advanced and adopted by humans. The development of genetic enhancement technologies is likely to intersect with the development of artificial intelligence (AI). It may become possible, through greater knowledge of the human genome and advanced genetic enhancement advancement technology, for rapid advances in biologically-based cognition to prevent machines from outstripping human abilities, as long as we are not limited by ethical considerations.It is very likely that the development of AI and genetic modification will be heavily connected and dependent on each other, and it may become a possibility to merge mankind with machines to achieve even greater levels of cognition (Hsu 2015). While this paper will mainly be focusing on the effects of genetic enhancement of intelligence, it is important to keep this in mind.

Even if a small number of humans were to become super-enhanced, the impact on the world could become substantial. The overall impact of genetic enhancement of intelligence in terms of positional benefit as well as the societal impact will depend on how powerful and widely adopted the technology will be. “Table 3” below provides a helpful outline of the potential societal impact of adoption of these technologies, which would depend on their popularity (Shulman and Bostrom). Different amounts of enhancement may change whether or not the intervention is beneficial for the offspring, and divisions in cognitive ability found in society may outweigh the potential benefits that intelligence is credited for. The ethical dimensions of these implications will be explored in the following section.



The principle of beneficence refers to an action that is done for the benefit of others. Such actions can be taken to help prevent or remove harms or to simply improve the situation of a group or individual. This value is perhaps inextricably tied with the value of non-maleficence, which is the principle that means “do no harm”. Some may know the principle of nonmaleficence as the Hippocratic oath, which many doctors–although not all–take. Non-maleficence is a constant duty that must be upheld, either by a commission, by taking action, or omission, by choosing not to intervene (Pantilat). Although it is easier said than done, genetically enhancing the intelligence of one’s offspring–or choosing not to do so–is considered ethical only if the potential benefits of the intervention outweigh the risks.

The nature, the explicit goal of enhancement is to improve, particularly to become better than well (Juengst), but sometimes there can be a blurred line between helping and harming; sometimes they can not exist alone. The purpose of this section is to focus on the specific potential benefits and trade-offs associated with the highly valued trait of intelligence in today’s society, and what this implies in the context genetically enhancing intelligence. This will first be explored through the lens of the stakeholder, the individual offspring. Then, the discussion will focus on society as a whole using the lens of utilitarianism.


Within the economic structure we live in and because of the demands of modern society, higher levels of g correspond to greater advantages. General cognitive ability is positively correlated with a variety of desirable outcomes. For this reason, higher intelligence relative to others would provide what is called a positional benefit. As a result, however, lower relative intelligence becomes a disadvantage.

Many studies have indicated significant benefits correlated with higher IQ. These include longer school retention, lower divorce rates, improved educational outcomes, reduced risk of various social misfortunes, economic stability, lowered risk for certain diseases, and reduced overall mortality (Plomin). Studies indicate that those with higher levels of g tend to have a stronger future orientation, which helps to promote economic success (Gottfredson). To clarify: of course, we don’t live in a world where your potential is directly proportionate to your life outcomes, but intelligence can be a useful predictor and does give an advantage.

To be more specific about the individual financial benefits, according to studies in labor economics, one IQ point typically corresponds to an increase in wages on the order of 1 percent. A study which aimed to avert low birth weight estimated that this value of a 1 percent increase in earnings for a newborn in the United States is in between $2,783 and $13,744. Even higher estimates result when effects of IQ on educational attainment are included (Bostrom and Shulman). With this in mind, genetically enhancing one’s offspring’s intelligence can be what is considered a profitable investment, balancing the cost of IVF and PGD today, which is dropping, although it is notably cheaper in other countries.

There are also some significant harmful implications commonly associated with having low-intelligence that must be mentioned. Those with lower g tend to have unpredictable lifestyles and potential to be manipulated or marginalized (Gottfredson). For this reason, genetically enhancing intelligence can be viewed as a measure taken by parents to, besides providing an advantage, preventing foreseeable harm. If parents have the option to do so but opt out, they may feel, or be painted as, accountable if these harms do occur. However, this is ethically troubling because it sets stigma and discrimination as inevitable and indispensable from society, and thereby a result of the failings of the genes of individuals that are out of control, and this can undermine and weaken efforts for inclusion and tolerance. If the grounds to genetically enhance intelligence are to avoid stigma, this would only prevent the stigma from ever ceasing to exist.

Another downside to low intelligence is the reduced variety of options because of the reduced intellectual capacities. Studies indicate that the higher the IQ of an individual, the greater a number of options the individual will have to pursue, whereas those with lower intelligence have significantly lower options. Specifically, certain jobs such as manual labor are not as g-loaded as physics can be, so manual labor can be pursued by individuals across the spectrum of IQ, whereas physics becomes limited to those with higher IQ (Gottfredson). It can be argued, however, that choice does not always improve the quality of life. Nevertheless, blatant cognitive limitations or threats to an “open future”, which prevent individuals from having complete freedom in society to pursue anything can be seen as a significant downside of lower intelligence and reason to embrace the technologies.

As this is the reality of the role of g in modern society for the individual, and it seems to be in every parent’s best interest to ensure these benefits that are associated with higher intelligence for their offspring, it can therefore be seen as a responsibility of parents to make their children become as smart as possible, making genetically enhancing their embryos not only ethically permissible but rather obligatory.  The assumption that greater g is better underlies Julian Savulescu’s controversial “Principle of Procreative Beneficence”, which states that “couples (or single reproducers) should select the child, of the possible children they could have, who is expected to have the best life, or at least as good a life as the others, based on the relevant, available information”, with the assumption that the embryo with the highest potential for highest intelligence would be expected to have the best life (2001).

While common wisdom says that money can not buy happiness, the truth is that one’s salary does actually tend to have large bearings on individual happiness, but this is only up to a certain point. While each dollar makes a difference in reducing negative emotions for people in the 20th income percentile, this effect begins to decrease at around $70,000, the 80th income percentile, and disappear at around $200,000 (Fahey).

And, while g is a highly rewarded trait, no studies firmly conclude that it guarantees, or has any strong relationship with, avowed happiness, general life satisfaction, or other elements of quality of life. Emotions, rather than levels of general intelligence, are far more powerful determinants of quality of life. Studies also indicate that general intelligence has a negligible influence on emotional states. It is for this reason that intelligence is a variable of minor interest for future quality of life studies, in comparison to the considerable influence that mood and emotions have upon the quality of life. (Watten, Reidulf G., et al.)

It is unlikely that anyone would object to a parent who is setting their child up for success. In fact, it can be considered negligent and harmful to deprive offspring of powerful cognitive enhancements such as not sending them to school; this is illegal in the United States. The obligation to create the smartest possible offspring, however, on the basis that it will lead the happiest life, is hard to defend without backlash in terms of what constitutes a good life.

While intelligence is functionally important in attaining highly valued social ends, there are also some undesirable correlations associated with higher intelligence. For example, bipolar disorder is found more often in individuals with very high intelligence than anywhere else on the intelligence distribution bell curve (Investigating the Genetic Basis for Intelligence). Another is that individuals who are intelligent typically have jobs that are highly cognitively draining, as they are able to grasp much greater complexities, which may add to stress and decrease quality of life (Gottfredson).

Those who have higher intelligence than average tend to have difficulty relating to others (Gottfredson). It would not be surprising if these effects were worsened by genetic cognitive enhancements which would increase someone’s genetic predisposition for intelligence to an extent that is far beyond reach today. Another downside, although it can be seen from other angles, is that studies indicate that those with higher intelligence tend to underestimate their abilities, while those with lower intelligence tend to overestimate and are satisfied with their abilities (“Intelligence”). These all indicate that higher intelligence can not be seen as a direct improvement of life; the benefits come with trade-offs. These trade-offs may suggest that such cognitive enhancements are not truly guaranteed to be beneficent, at least on their own.

Many have concluded that emotional intelligence (EI) is far more important than general intelligence. Emotional Intelligence is a psychological construct which refers to “the capability of individuals to recognize their own and other people’s emotions, discern between different feelings and label them appropriately, use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior, and manage and/or adjust emotions to adapt to environments or achieve one’s goal(s)” (Ford). Individuals differ in their skills of attending to, evaluating, and expressing their emotional states, and these states can be harnessed adaptively and directed towards a range of cognitive tasks, such as creativity, problem-solving, and decision-making. Evidence suggests that emotional intelligence represents a coherent and connected set of abilities which are both distinct from–yet meaningfully related to–general intelligence. Higher emotional intelligence is related to a range of positive outcomes, including, but not limited to, lower aggressiveness, life satisfaction, relationship quality, and higher manager ratings of effectiveness among leaders of an insurance company’s customer teams; this sounds a lot like the benefits previously listed that are associated with general intelligence.

Emotional skills have been indicated as critical to academic achievement in various ways. The ability to understand emotions may facilitate artistic and writing expression, as well as interpretation, and emotional regulation has been shown to help children handle the anxiety of taking tests or the frustration associated with any pursuit which may require an investment of time and effort. Emotional regulation may also facilitate sustained intellectual engagement, intrinsic motivation, control of attention, and enjoyment of challenging academic activities (Salovey, Peter, et al.). Similar to the point already made that one’s genetic potential becomes less meaningful if environmental factors are inadequate, the ability to use and reap many of the benefits of higher intelligence rely heavily on strong emotional intelligence. Still, emotional intelligence can be paired with high general intelligence to achieve even greater outcomes.

Another potential harm that comes along with creating an offspring that would be smarter than what they would be “naturally” is the pressure that the resulting offspring may feel to achieve their “genetic potential”. While people do have a genetic predisposition for intelligence in today’s world, it is both largely unknown as well as not a result of deliberate human interventions, so achieving one’s genetic potential does not necessarily present itself as a major issue. If it were to be a result of parents’ choice–particularly a result of a costly procedure that may be seen as an investment–it would be expected that the resulting offspring from this may feel a lifelong burden to fulfill the goals of this investment, and, if unable to do so because his or her IQ does not equate to what he or she was selected or manipulated to be, feel the burden of lifelong debt and purpose to fulfill his/her predestined purpose, or feel like a failure and not adequate enough to be worth living. This also seems to deprive the enhanced offspring of complete freedom and autonomy over their goals and aspirations, as well as life-satisfaction, as they are already predestined and deliberately created to serve a qualitative purpose. The enhanced offspring would inevitably be seen as an extension of others, and any of their accomplishments may be seen as not fully their own.individuals benefits can be, and are, restricted when they have harmful effects on others

This is viewing human cognition and outcomes as a machine-like and standardized process; genetically enhancing intelligence would inevitably commodify human beings. A similar comparison to this pressure is the reason why many high school and college students feel the need to fulfill the investments their parents have made for their education, and to reach the uncompromising expectations made for them by others. One student claims: “My whole life I’ve been told that, no matter how smart I am, the only way to be successful (see: acceptable) is through academic excellence. Now, would my parents be upset that I’ve taken study drugs? Probably, and that’s just symptomatic of the problem” (“In Their Own Words: ‘Study Drugs’”). Genetically enhancing intelligence threatens the need for acceptance.

A way to prevent this burden while continuing to embrace the technology could be by hiding from the future offspring that this is how he or she was enhanced. This may be seen as similar to how some parents can choose to hide the truth from their adopted children in hopes of preventing their children from feeling as though they are not truly a part of the family. Once the embryo comes into life, there would be no way to decipher whether or not the person was genetically engineered or selected.

However, this seems to be an inadequate solution; it is highly unlikely that this would remain a secret for logistical reasons, and it is ethically problematic in that it undercuts the importance of trust, particularly between parents and offspring. Also, if knowing this truth could pose as such a burden, hiding this truth is merely a band-aid for the larger issue at hand; if parents were to adopt such technology, it is important that they do not view their offspring as commodities or investments that are worth it only if they reach a standardized psychometric measurement. This may be extremely challenging, considering the high cost, at least initially, of this intervention, as well as the potential trade-offs that it may have meant.  

The stakeholder of the doctor is interesting to consider.Why would doctor if given all the information and opportunity not consciously choose intelligence and leave it to chance? Some parents would presumably not want to make the choice and be left accountable; some may desire that the embryo, considering that it would be healthy, would be selected randomly. It may also be possible that parents not be given the option at all because of the possible harmful consequences.

Doctors today typically choose which ones the patient will implant based on what seems to be most viable for a successful pregnancy (“In Vitro Fertilization”).  Would a doctor choose a random medicine rather than the one he/she knows will work? In the same way, why would the doctor not choose the offspring with the highest level of intelligence? As long as the parents may think that it is random, why would it matter that is was not? One obvious reason is that it threatens the trustworthiness of the patient-doctor relationship as well as the trustworthiness of science. Another reason is that it is based on the assumption that a life of higher intelligence is a better life, and this is critiqued throughout the section.  Also, these future offspring are complete human beings, and they can not solely be distinguished by their predispositions to intelligence. We must remember that “smart genes” are functional for other traits.

Taking all of these potential benefits and harms for the individual offspring into perspective, genetically enhancing the intelligence of future offspring should not be considered an ethical obligation. Improved cognitive abilities are not truly beneficient on their own. While higher intelligence is associated with a greater variety of material opportunities and outcomes, quality of life is not necessarily guaranteed by any level of general intelligence. The commoditization of the future offspring and the lifelong burdens that they would carry are much higher in the magnitude of harm than the true benefits that improved intelligence may promise. Further, benefits for individuals are not always of the utmost importance. Benefits for individuals can be, and are, restricted when they harm others.


Through the utilitarian perspective, an act is right if and only if it causes “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” (Schüklenk). Unlike other traits that mainly, or only, serve as a positional benefit relative to others’ traits and benefit individuals or a small number of people, such as one’s salary, an individual’s g can be used to benefit society as a whole. Even if the previous section has deemed it unethical on the grounds that it would be overall harmful to the lives of individuals, the value of service is of importance as well. A widespread adoption of these technologies may accumulate to benefit the greater good, especially as they amplify over time. Examples of these benefits are worth considering.

Studies indicate that, although IQ is a controversial measure, not to mention national average IQ and its effect on economic success, the average national IQ undoubtedly has significant impacts for the greater good.  On the national level, economists suggest that cognitive ability has large externalities on economic growth, especially national average IQs and various measures of aggregate production, such as GDP. These studies indicate that more efficient brain function is likely to be, and likely will continue to be, a key factor in national economic performance. Because a higher national IQ average would increase the country’s competitiveness on the global scale (Jones), enhancing one’s offspring’s intelligence may be seen as a duty as a citizen to ensure the economic stability not just of one’s own child but the country as a whole and all citizens involved.

Some advocates of intelligent enhancement believe that when citizens are more intelligent, they are able to contribute more to society. Furthermore, many assert that a more intelligent society would be a more efficient and functional one. And increases in intelligence would likely promote innovation, another thing that would benefit society as a whole. A major longitudinal study of children who scored at the 1-in-10,000 level on childhood ability tests supports this, which found that 7.5 percent had achieved tenure at research universities, compared to a tiny fraction of a percent of the general population, and they outperformed the general population on a number of other measures, including patents awarded and success in business. Positive externalities may include innovations used by everyone, greater cooperation, increased savings and investment, and impact on political institutions (Bostrom and Shulman).

It is still worth keeping in mind that correlations with economic growth also are indicative of the positive effects of development on cognitive ability through means such as education, health, and diet. The influence of IQ is small relative to the effects of environmental influences, but this may change depending on how significant the IQ increases via genetic enhancements may be (Bostrom and Shulman).

Studies also indicate that, although it is possible for individuals with lower intelligence to reach the same level as those who are predisposed with higher cognitive abilities, this takes more time and effort. Those with higher g consistently tend to learn faster and perform better (Gottfredson). Because of this, it would lessen the burden of educators and allow for focusing on greater, perhaps more worthwhile, endeavors. An upward shift of the Gaussian distribution of intelligence across the population, which would be maintained based on the assumption that cognitive enhancements would be embraced by and used by everyone to an equal extent, would also have disproportionately large effects at the tails, increasing the number of highly gifted and reducing the number of people with retardation and learning disabilities. However, the implications of IQ are highly relative, and those with lower distribution of intelligence may not have IQs equivalent to what is considered detrimental today, but being on the lower end may still have some harmful implications that resemble what many with low IQs today face.

The impacts of genetically enhanced offspring, particularly as a result of the accumulation of effects over the course of many generations, could have major impacts on cognitively demanding fields and the structure of education. What is concerning is that it may threaten solidarity among the enhanced and unenhanced; it would likely lead to separate school systems, which, if publicly funded, would (shown by the trend of charter schools today) not focus on the unenhanced if given a more promising option.

What is intriguing is that if these technologies were to be widely adopted in society, this could possibly lead to what is called “zero-sum”, meaning that the enhancement, at least through genetic means, would be nullified of its positional benefits. By this, I mean that there are simply a limited number of positions available, that not everyone can be the “best”, and individuals all with extremely high intelligence would still not be enough.

This would mean that yet another advantage would be necessary in order to gain the positional benefits. Further, it may become impossible or those who are unenhanced, which is the result of decisions that others made before their birth, could ever be comparable.  However, the benefits of super-intelligent humans for society, such as cures for diseases, make this genetically enhancing intelligence a prospect that could never become completely neutral.

Another argument that could be made to promote enhancing intelligence for the greater good would be using statistics which correlate low IQ as a cause of crime. It would be in the best interest of the government to decrease our astonishing incarceration rates. Studies indicate that “a 3 point IQ increase predicts 28% less risk of high school dropouts, 25% less risk of poverty or being jailed (men), 20% less risk of parentless children, 18% less risk of going on welfare, and 15% less risk of out-of-wedlock births” (Murray). However, this seems to be scapegoating. There are significant flaws in the criminal justice system which need to be addressed before adopting the enhancement technologies are viewed as an obligation as a citizen. Another explanation for this hotly contested statistic holds that school teachers and administrators treat students differently by perceptions of the students’ intelligence by giving them negative labels and fewer educational opportunities to less intelligent students, and these result in feelings of alienation and resentment that lead students to delinquent peers and criminal behaviors (“Does IQ Significantly Contribute to Crime?”). Society’s reaction to intelligence, rather than any inherent traits with lower intelligence, may increase criminal behavior. These problems cannot and will not be ameliorated solely through the use of cognitive enhancement.   

Arguments in favor of widespread use of these enhancement technologies often rely on the assumption that a population full of Einsteins would equate to a population of more productive citizens who benefit society. High intelligence may have the potential to create major changes in society, but such changes are not guaranteed to be beneficial for humanity. Gustave Gilbert, an American psychologist who studied the Nuremberg prisoners extensively, was able to indicate that extremely intelligent people can also be villains. He administered the Wechsler-Bellevue Adult Intelligence Test (modified for cultural differences) for a group of the defendants at the trial, and the results suggest that all of the men tested were above-average intelligence, with a mean IQ of 127. Hermann Göring, a prominent organizer of the Nazi police state and establishment of concentration camps for the “corrective treatment” of individuals, had an IQ score of 138. Arthur Seyss-Inquart, who was found at the Nuremberg trials to be guilty of crimes against humanity,  had an IQ score of 141. Meanwhile, each of the subjects had their own individual and complex personalities. Regardless of their morality, or comorbid mental illnesses, these men were highly educated and intelligent (Zillmer).

To advance my point, Einstein shares an IQ with Bill Gates of 160, which is interestingly below the IQ of Ted Kaczynski, also known as the “Unabomber, who is a mathematical prodigy, serial killer, and domestic terrorist, and has an IQ of 167 (Klugman).

It also took high levels of intelligence to create the atomic bomb. This scientific discovery, however, inherently comes with the potential to create massive destruction and be used beyond what its creators intended. Whether or not it was worth it, however, is another discussion. The point is not that high intelligence guarantees destruction; this is not true, and it is possible for destruction to be caused by a population of low intelligence, as well. It is also possible for positive change to come from individuals with low intelligence.

What both of these examples suggest is that intelligence, and the outcomes of intelligence, are not guaranteed to do good for others; they do have the potential to do good only if accompanied by traits such as compassion, empathy, and civic-mindedness, which are not necessarily quantified or associated with material gains. This does not seem to warrant preventing people from becoming smarter per se, but it highlights a greater responsibility individuals to use their abilities wisely, and the responsibility of society to stay cognizant. To put it more broadly, intelligence is not necessarily valuable and beneficent in of itself for the greater good. With this in mind, an obligation of the citizen to genetically enhance the intelligence of their offspring for the sake of the greater good; rather, it is the obligation of parents should be to raise children who are, again, compassionate, empathetic, and civic-minded.

Still, from the utilitarian perspective, it seems as though the theoretical positive implications of genetically enhanced humans may outweigh the potential harms. There is a reason, however, why what may benefit the greater good is not always what prevails in ethical decision making. When considering the greater good, it is imperative to keep in mind the individuals that the society itself is comprised of. If the efficiency and material gains of a society mean the destruction of the core values around which the society was created, some might say this as an unacceptable trade-off, regardless of the outcome.

Furthermore, many of the benefits that would be offered by genetically enhanced humans in the population could certainly be feasible through other means. By neglecting our responsibility to fighting the institutional injustices that are at the root cause of most inequity, and instead scapegoating genetics, we risk not addressing the larger issue.

Another drawback to enhancement technologies (and their compulsory use)  is that underlying the argument for enhancing intelligence is the idea that those with lower intelligence are a burden and a waste of resources. By pressuring citizens to enhance their offsprings’ intelligence we send the message that intelligence is the only measure of human worth and that the purpose of existence is simply to serve a “greater good”. For many, this crosses the echoing the dark shadow of eugenics.  If genetic enhancements of intelligence were to be permissible, it would be imperative that there was no stigma or pressure to enhance based on these concerns, and public health and IVF clinics would have to ensure this. Still, such an effort might prove ineffective, as the use of the technology continued to spread.
That is not to say that the idea of improving humanity, which originally motivated eugenics before spiraling out of control, is inherently wrong. Humanity should certainly not neglect our proclivity towards becoming better and improving the world, and it should certainly be the nature of the government to promote wellbeing and improvement. What is wrong, however, is the idea that one existence of human life is more worthy than another because of statistical probabilities of material contributions to the world. The belief that individuals pose a burden to society as a result of their traits which they can not control and are not matching what is valued by society, particularly not resulting in economic gains for the society, is identical to propaganda which promoted the state-enforced coercive sterilization of thousands of the “feebleminded” during the first half of the 20th century throughout the United States and the mass murder millions of Jews, Gypsies, disabled people, and other marginalized groups during the Holocaust (“Eugenics”).

Many of the limits that constrain humanity today are not solely due to our genetics. For example, if one were to claim that our inability to find cures to diseases or solve world hunger is contingent on the failings of our inherent cognitive capacities, making genetically enhancing the intelligence of future offspring obligatory, this would be scapegoating. This is not to claim that initiatives are not being taken place, but the societal and economic structure both in our country and internationally could be rearranged to resolve many of our issues, without genetically enhancing offspring in the future, if we are willing to sacrifice much of what we are familiar and are comfortable with. Much of our limits are self-imposed. Lastly, the harsh social and economic consequences of low-intelligence certainly are not solely due to genetics but because of social issues that can be improved. We need to reform our society as well, not necessarily modify our genetics to adhere to social issues that will continue to exist unless approached head-on.


Those who embrace genetic enhancement technology are commonly known as transhumanists, and they see this technology as a means to benefit humanity, to free future generations of the limits that constrain us today. Ultimately, it may be possible that such enhancements have the capabilities to make our descendants Posthuman beings, with much greater intellectual abilities than any current human being could possibly attain. Those who call for rejecting or resisting the Posthuman are commonly known as bioconservatives. Often underlying this stance is the belief that the human genome represents human dignity, and genetic enhancement would threaten this dignity (“Distinguishing Therapy and Enhancement”). However, human dignity and the evolution of our species do not need to be mutually exclusive; the values of progress and dignity are able to coexist and are often very much related rather than at odds with each other.

The prospect of artificial intelligence becoming superior to human beings is commonly seen as a favorable justification to support the aims of creating posthuman offspring, either to uphold a status or to simply have a purpose or job in life that a machine would not be able to take away. The acclaimed scientist and writer Stephen Hawking has recommended that humans stop intelligent machines from “taking over the world” by embracing genetic modification and changing their DNA. (Walsh, Nick Paton). In other words, the autonomy and power of humanity rely upon their superior intelligence. However, this does not necessarily have to be the case. As touched upon through the discussion about the value of diversity, such a perpetually and self-defeating aim ignores the intangible worth that humans have, which is not solely on measurable capabilities.

Transhumanists also recognize that human nature is a work in progress, and they view this as a process that we should mold in desirable ways, which is sometimes obligatory (Juengst). The reality is that there has been–and never will be–a stable definition of human nature; gene variants die out with each generation whether we want them to or not, and the collective human genome is an ever-changing mosaic (Investigating the Genetic Basis for Intelligence). Enhancing desirable traits would be a continuation, the difference being that it would be in our hands. It is also important to note that evolution is blind to our needs and desires; what we pass on is just what is beneficial in terms of reproductive fitness, and we have been using technologies which have hindered us from getting rid of undesirable traits. Such a justification is dangerous to uphold on its own, though, as it is the same one that justified the forced sterilization of thousands and euthanization under United States law during the first half of the 20th century, and the mass murder of millions of Jews, Gypsies, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups during the Holocaust (“Eugenics”).

Scientifically speaking, however, modern society has evolved and does not match our genetics in terms of its demands of studying and intellectual concentration, which explains the struggle to reach these demands and subsequent drive to adapt to our environment (Juengst). This drive to adapt to the ever-increasing demands of modern society is already seen through the widespread epidemic in which students abuse stimulants in order to keep up with academic demands (“In Their Own Words: ‘Study Drugs’”). However, this use of study drugs is not necessarily widely accepted and considered to be a justified “adaptation” for many reasons, one being that it poses for severe health risks, depending on how often and to what degree it is used (Cadwalladr). Perhaps this risk that many take in order to keep up could be eliminated if technologies were adopted to provide future offspring with greater cognitive abilities than they would otherwise, making heavy societal demands less of a burden.

While this is not a complete ethical examination of using study drugs, the underlying motivations behind the abuse of stimulants for this purpose are imperative to bring to the conversation regarding the potential to increase the upper limit of what human genes allow for cognitive abilities. The trend of study drugs is a mere symptom of the pressures of modern society, of a culture deeply rooted in the relentless pursuit of productivity, particularly material productivity. An interesting study asked people if they would take a supplement that enhanced their kindness and empathy, but only 9% wanted it. This is particularly interesting when juxtaposed against the significantly higher percentage of students who report using study drugs (Cadwalladr).

Our struggles are a hallmark of what makes us human. Some are concerned that if future humans were to have genetically enhanced intelligence, we would lose our humanity. Underlying this claim is the belief that it would eradicate the possibility of weakness and mistakes, which are valuable in that that often lead to our greatness  (Klugman). The value of success often relies on the failures and losses we persevere through to get there. However, if future humans were to have greater cognitive capacities, it would be likely that what is expected of them would proportionally grow as well. Similar to students who abuse Adderall in aims of gaining admission to prestigious, and rigorous, schools, they often must continue using these drugs in order to maintain these abilities.

I would agree that we should not strive for perfection, and I would also agree that the adversity which we persevere through gives success a lot of its value. However, asserting that humanity should not strive to eradicate the limits it faces may go down a slippery slope; I believe that it is our responsibility to improve the world and ameliorate the suffering of others. Increasing our upper limit of genetic cognitive ability can be seen as different, though, and a line can be drawn. There is a fundamental difference between trying to improve the world which we are already in with the abilities that we already possess, and trying to extend the limits of our abilities to maximum capabilities by manipulating the human genome, when the abilities we have to solve many of our problems can be solved with what we already have, which is a recurring message throughout the paper.


An interesting call for using genetic enhancements as a way to increase cognitive capacities is one that calls for a way to actually institute, rather than threaten, equality, without necessarily having to bring others down, at least directly. While these technologies can certainly be troublesome in terms of increasing intelligence beyond what is “normal”, it may be considered permissible if they are only used for embryos whose predispositions for intelligence are far below this standard (Juengst). Intellectual disability by today’s standards is below 70 IQ points.

If parents were to “treat” their embryos and just make them “normal”, what would this mean? Would there be a limit to how many genes to manipulate? Perhaps it would only be fair to only allow for this if the offspring would otherwise be intellectually impaired, and to only allow improvement up to a predisposition of 70 IQ points, the current cut-off to be intellectually impaired. However, if an embryo with potential for low IQ is being enhanced to be “normal”, it is quite possible that the process will result in the future offspring having an IQ above another offspring which never had the opportunity to undergo genetic enhancement because of its genetic predisposition; some reasons could be due to unknown gene interactions and unpredictability of future environment.
This can go down a slippery slope; is it ethical to create a standard of genetic enhancements if it is impossible to standardize the environments that these future offspring will be in, it is impossible to standardize the other genes that make of the genome of each embryo, and it is impossible to limit the intelligence of all future offspring who do not undergo genetic enhancement technologies in vitro?

Another problem with this proposed solution to help those with “low” intelligence to become “normal” is that it would inevitably make the standard of having low intelligence even higher, creating an even stronger drive for parents to enhance their children’s IQ.  This falls under the “zero-sum” argument under the “Utilitarian” section.The Flynn Effect has indicated that the standards for “normal” IQ ranges have increased significantly throughout the decades (Trahan). The solution of normalization as means of distinction is problematic, as the criteria to be below average is inherently relative. The reality is that both genetic and environmental factors would contribute to the future offspring’s expressed intelligence, meaning that such a standard would unfairly not take into account the lack of standardization found in the world, ultimately resulting in favoring of some over others.  It would perpetuate a never-ending cycle and lead to all people needing to enhance their children just to allow them to keep up with the new “normal”: a cycle that mirrors the “rat race” found in competitive academic and professional worlds that we are all a part of today, and it would make acceptance practically impossible.  

It must be recognized that with or without these genetic technologies, some people are always going to be smarter than others. This is for a number of reasons, environmental factors are among them. That is, of course, unless we were to all be clones who occupied the same space at the same time at all times. But if some people need to be below average, who do they have to be?


We want to give your child the best possible start. Believe me, we have enough imperfection built in already. Your child doesn’t need any more additional burdens. Keep in mind, this child is still you. Simply, the best, of you. You could conceive naturally a thousand times and never get such a result.

Many would argue that the very act of genetically enhancing intelligence in embryos is a threat to the value of equality of people, despite their biological variations. This is because it reduces the right to exist on numbers and probabilities, rather than holistically appreciating the diversity that exists amongst individuals. Again, this echoes a frighteningly familiar pattern of eugenics.

Often, when we think of the beauty of diversity, we consider different traits to be equal in worth, varying only in form. But when talking about intelligence, this approach, in many ways, requires us to ignore the fact that high and low intelligence are not equal, at least with regards to one’s potential life outcomes.

An interesting voice to include in this discussion is the Neurodiversity movement. Some movements, like the Neurodiversity movement, argue that mental “disabilities” like autism or mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder are simply a part of natural human variation, and come with their own advantages. These people urge that the special strengths and unique qualities that come along with conditions like autism are a part of natural human variation and should not be threatened as something to be eradicated, but rather appreciated as an example of cognitive diversity (Armstrong).

These views are shared by many. It is widely recognized that general intelligence does not necessarily encompass what can be seen as a colorful spectrum, and individuals may hold different types of intelligence that are all valuable in their own respect. As our ability to enhance intelligence grows, however, we will be confronted with the following question: does our professed commitment to diversity warrant depriving people of a marked advantage in life?

If we were to replace “gene editing technologies” with “schooling”, most people would argue no. After all, the government endorses compulsory cognitive enhancement, known as education, to all of its citizens. We do not argue that we should force people to remain uneducated, or unenhanced, for the sake of diversity, as this would be a violation of their individual rights.

Not only does schooling make people smarter for their own sake, it also creates a more unified society and more productive and engaged citizens. In other words, schooling is required because it is beneficial to both the individual and to the health of the society. For these reasons, It would be considered unethical for someone to not send their child to school on the basis of wanting them to have a low intelligence as a part of “natural human variation” Additionally, people would almost never refuse education for the sake of hindering their own cognitive development.

That said, when we replace education with directly raising intelligence, things appear to get more complicated. In reality, however, the advantages of higher raw intelligence are similar to those of higher education. People with lower g, for example, typically will find fewer job options than those with higher g. But of course, intelligence does not exist solely as a currency or a vehicle to achieve our goals. It is also indelibly intertwined with our identities and personalities.

Still, there is no evidence to suggest that increasing intelligence in itself would create a total loss of personality diversity. One would expect the same spectrum of personalities to exist amongst people of higher intelligence; smart people are just as varied as any other group, although they can be viewed as more valuable forms of diversity.

In order to integrate and embrace biological diversity and to find solutions, it is imperative to recognize the implications that the different levels on the scale of g are associated with. It is highly likely that by the time these genetic enhancement technologies are developed, artificial intelligence will be a prevalent part of society (Hsu 2015). Because individuals with low intelligence tend to be limited to jobs that are not very g-loaded, particularly manual labor (Gottfredson), this is particularly relevant to the discussion.

In order to uphold our respect for diversity, it would be the responsibility of society to ensure that all individuals are able to contribute and participate. Is it our duty prevent the use of artificial intelligence in order to achieve this? It would be irresponsible to hinder technological growth, such as artificial intelligence, similar to why it is irresponsible to claim that the oil/ auto industry must be brought back to give people jobs.  Changes require adaptation. Still, it is important that humankind is able to adapt and use other emerging technologies wisely while continuing to be compassionate and inclusive.

We can and should always strive to become better versions of ourselves, but we should not try to create human beings that would be better than others. To clarify, I mean this in the sense of socially valued traits, not necessarily in terms of diseases such as Tay-Sachs. There will always be someone with lower intelligence, with or without genetically enhanced intelligence, but this should not undermine the notion of human equality. We’re going to need to find a way to include them in society rather than view them as a burden. The first step of this is not to base human equality on and worth on quantifiable traits. Other values and traits, as well as types of intelligence and strengths, must be promoted more. We need to recognize our reliance on this range and the inevitability of different, and not better or more valuable, abilities or worthiness of lives based on this. Of course, we also do not want to endorse it to the extent that people feel no obligation to improve themselves or society. Here is the issue: the smarter we get, there will always be this variation because of the environmental factors or other accompanying traits.

Further, the idea of a world without imperfections, arguably a world without diversity, can be seen as one that is incomplete. Our imperfections and deviations from the “norm” are commonly held to give life meaning. Interestingly, the idea that human genetic variation is an important good with significant benefits, particularly for society (even more particularly for others who are not disabled themselves) is largely embraced by those who advocate against selecting against disability. However, it must be emphasized that this powerful intuition can be more problematic than what it may seem to be.

We would probably not want to increase genetic diversity in some aspects such as lower intelligence from the baseline that we have now. Although the idea that there is a value in genetic diversity is a compelling argument, precisely how much value there is and what we should be prepared to sacrifice for it is complicated.

In the debate about selecting for or against future offsprings with disabilities, there is an argument that is based on the premise that disability is an epistemic resource because the experience of “variant bodies” produce distinctive ways of knowing and makes possible new forms of aesthetic expression and appreciation (Rosemarie Garland-Thomson). Therefore, disability is an ethical resource because its existence requires us to be open to the unbidden and to be creative and flexible in our relation to the world and it reminds and prepares us for the inevitable growing into disability inherent in the human condition. For other supporters, it is necessary for creating a vibrant and sustainable society” (Sparrow), good simply in itself. Such compelling arguments also fall under the umbrella of utilitarianism.

The issue with this is that such supporters do not explicitly say that these qualities result in improvements in the well-being of any individuals. To put into broader terms: genetic diversity should be preserved for the benefit of the species. One concern of diversity is that we may be losing a trait that we will need in the future (Sparrow). Genetic diversity, in terms of human evolution and survivability, is crucial.  The validity of this concern in the context of cognitive enhancement can be confusing. Are we planning on living in a society that we would need to have low intelligence in order to survive in? We don’t know what the environmental we are living in the future will look like. We also do not know what specific trade-offs, or what traits, would be taken away from the gene pool for future generations if all genetic variants for intelligence were to be amplified because we simply do not have complete information on the genes that affect cognition. Some even believe that it may be necessary to restrict access to genetic enhancement technologies in order to maximize the chance that descendants of some human beings at least will flourish under a larger range of selective pressures as possible.

If, by some chance, it would mean that we would be getting rid of a trait that gave us lower immunity or defense against a fatal disease, or it was correlated with mental illness , or it was inversely related to some sort of trait that would benefit us in the future that we simply can not predict, this could be reason to embrace genetic diversity as grounds of preventing embryos from being genetically enhanced. However, if others are given access, it would never be fair to deprive people of access to these technologies on the basis that it threatens genetic diversity.

Diversity is not necessarily a value that must always be upheld, and variation in of itself should not be the main concern. If it were, that would go down a slippery slope. To illustrate my point, we should not embrace all aspects of psychopaths and allow them from behaving in ways that are typical to their neural functioning, as this would inflict harm on others. If we are to embrace neurodiversity, it is important to also think about whether or not it is hypocritical to include lower intelligence, as it is a trait that is often poorly-received and mandated to be improved by state law.

Even if some forms of diversity are valuable, it is not ethically permissible to secure this value at the cost of the lower welfare of others. This is why the arguments against the potential inequalities are so compelling. Having low intelligence is not something anyone would typically seek to acquire for themselves or their offspring. To say that our lives would be boring if we were all smart is quite selfish in the sense that we have so many barriers to overcome not just as ourselves but also as a society to help others. Imposing diversity seems to be indefensible. We would never, or should never, deprive groups of education for the sake of diversity. Diversity is extremely beneficial to society. There is a fundamental difference between the diversity that we find in the world and learn to accept and diversity that would be imposed.

But, extreme differences in human diversity may make it impossible for coexistence, an issue which is discussed in the next section. But this goes down a slippery slope; is it justifiable to prevent diversity on the basis that it would create people that would be too different from the “norm”? The difference is that the relationship between two people may become impossible, or at least would become extremely difficult in allowing for somewhat of an open future if the range of IQ were to be in the hundreds (Hsu 2014).

Overall, this section has evaluated the multiple, not always positive, dimensions of diversity to examine the ethics of genetically enhancing intelligence, particularly by applying arguments used in debates over the ethicality of selecting against disabilities. Not all forms are guaranteed to be directly beneficial, both for the individuals and for society as a whole. The diversity found in the world is much different from the diversity that would be imposed for the benefit of others.

It is important to recognize that diversity is inevitable; it can not and should not be eradicated. All traits and changes inherently come with trade-offs. While it is impossible, and undesirable, to institute complete genetic intelligence equality for all humans, all humans possess equal worth. There is value in individuals and their cognitive abilities that do not need to be ranked as much as they need to accepted and embraced. It is also important that we continue to support diversity by ensuring that those who differ from the norm are not left behind.


I belonged to a new underclass, no longer determined by social status or the color of your skin. We now have discrimination down to a science

In the world we live in today, the people who get to be smart are not simply those who are born with the strongest genetic predispositions. As highlighted earlier, an individual’s ability to reach their genetic potential is also due to environmental factors, particularly education. The resources which allow people to achieve their full genetic potential are certainly not sufficiently distributed (“20 Facts About U.S. Inequality That Everyone Should Know”). This unfortunate reality has historically, and continues to, rank groups, particularly Blacks and Hispanics in American society, as inherently inferior to whites for false and racist agendas, following a pattern of ranking which seems follow us throughout history (“Eugenics”).

With an already deep gulf and unpromising, insufficient initiatives to ameliorate this injustice, the opportunity for those with already sufficient monetary resources to increase their offsprings’ intelligence with expensive and powerful technology is an area of ethical concern. The playing field of America’s free market economy is certainly not close to being leveled already; while our government system relies upon the idea of human equality, the reality is that all individuals throughout our population do not have equal opportunities, despite any inherited potentials. If parents were to use these technologies to enhance their offspring’s intelligence, the already privileged offspring would have cognitive abilities beyond compare with any unenhanced offspring that also did not have access to sufficient environmental resources. The enhanced would acquire a monopoly which the unenhanced simply could not compete with and a barrier that would be practically impossible to cross could occur, eventually creating what can many consider being a new species, or what transhumanists envision as the posthuman, as the effects would amplify over the course of generations. This type of social injustice would be impossible to solve through social intervention; group differences in intelligence and human inequality would become a genetic reality.

With a threatened public healthcare system, it’s hard to imagine the American government providing equal access to all citizens so that they can enhance their future children’s intelligence.  But even if this were the case, the reality is that the majority of Americans consistently report in polls opposition towards reproductive technology in general, often because of religious, particularly Christian, perceptions that life begins at conception. Even a higher number of Americans report being against the technology for enhancing intelligence (“The Public and the Gene-Editing Revolution”). The extreme and uncrossable biological divisions would also be along the lines of religious and moral beliefs.

Another alarming division may be along the lines of race. The recent significant indication of 52 “smart genes” came from a study that limited research on the common genetic variants linked to intelligence for people of European descent in order to raise the odds of success, but the problem is that different variants tend to be important in different groups, and this could be the case with intelligence. If so, it is likely that this will pose for major issues when people have the opportunity to use reproductive technologies. Because gene studies have shown that variants in one population can fail to predict what people are like in other populations, as height genes commonly found in Europeans are typically inapplicable to predict the height in Africans (“In ‘Enormous Success,’ Scientists Tie 52 Genes to Human Intelligence”), the opportunities to select smarter embryos may only be given to people of certain races. Further, if people of other races were to want to have a smarter embryo, this may require inserting new genes that would ultimately create an offspring that is another race, leading to homogeneity and a “master race”. This would allow for centuries of racism and pseudoscience to become modified into a genetic reality.

Today, we see those who are at IQ levels which are far below average, such as 60 points, manipulated by others and living unstable lifestyles, often dependent on others, and the standard deviation is only 15 IQ points in present times (“Intelligence”). Unless employers were willing to consciously choose less-able employees over significantly smarter ones, the possibility of the unenhanced being able to support themselves or their offspring, or having the potential to enhance their offspring, would be nonexistent, and these divisions would be irreversible and exacerbated throughout the course of generations.  

Potential IQ gaps which could be 100 points are certainly grounds for concern. It is important to note that due what is called the Flynn Effect, the average IQ level of the population has increased over time (although not for every population), as a result of a number of factors, and thus the value of IQ points can truly become arbitrary (Pietschnig, Jakob, et al.), as it is the relativeness to others which warrants concern; in other words, even if someone were to be unenhanced and 130 IQ points “naturally”, which is quite high by today’s standards, this still would not be sufficient to an enhanced individual who would be 230 IQ points, for example.  Because of this threat to human equality, which may not ever exist in the sense that everyone has the same cognitive abilities, but in terms of the substantial differences that genetic enhancement would make in terms of being able to coexist, the autonomy and responsibility of parents to provide the best for their children is not sufficient when balancing the harms.

A counterargument could be that if we were to desire as a society to level the playing field so that even those with low cognitive abilities could participate in society, we would have to drop to extremely low levels and would have an extremely unstable economy and the world. We would have to sacrifice our own potential if we desire to level ourselves with those who are less fortunate in terms of cognitive capacities so that there is “fair” competition. Further, this changes the nature of what competition even means. Enforcing equality hinders growth and does not do justice to individuals. However, massive group inequalities make coexistence and freedom of others practically impossible, and it is crucial to at least attempt to ameliorate potential conflict; initiatives to regulate the stock market is one example in our society today in which we take this into account. This is also not at all to argue that homogeneity is necessary to foster coexistence; in fact, maintaining relative cognitive equalities by preventing genetic enhancements can be seen as an initiative to ensure that diversity can be preserved.

So, if we were to want the future of humanity to be able to coexist and have an open future, or at least to a certain extent, and genetic enhancement technologies to increase cognitive functioning substantially were also to be used, we would not only need to give every possible future parent access to the technology, but we would also need to force people to use it. This is both very unlikely to be a feasible goal as well as an ethically alarming prospect. One reason is that it transgresses autonomy and reproductive rights for a cause that has not yet been proven to be worth transgressing these values. That is not to say that autonomy, even in a country such as the United States which values the freedom of the individual to significant extents, must be unconditional. The vaccine policy is a prime example of when the autonomy of the individual and personal beliefs can be restricted for the sake of the greater good, particularly protecting the right of others to be able to go into the outside world without worrying they will contract a fatal disease.

But when I am referring to coexistence, I am not describing, or at least I hope I am not describing, the ability of others to physically stay alive, at least not as a direct result. Opponents of what I just proposed may claim that it is unethical for governments to limit the cognitive abilities of their citizens and are harming the future as well. If this were to be taken out of the context of genetic enhancement, however, it would be extremely unethical for a government to prevent already intelligence or already privileged citizens from reading, or getting proper nutrition, or getting proper sleep. In fact, it is required to cognitively enhance all citizens as a part of national law, and it’s endorsed by the government itself. However, not all schools are equal, and the government should work towards improving the schools with fewer advantages rather than consciously hindering those that are successful.

In many cases, people should not be blocked from making decisions that would benefit them or their offspring, but cases like these warrant restricted autonomy. Individuals do not have the unconditional freedom to serve their own desires if it means directly harming others. It also must be emphasized that many of these benefits can be achieved through other means.

It seems clear from this point that the use of reproductive technologies to create smarter offspring should be prevented, and there should be efforts to prevent a gulf to be made between the enhanced and unenhanced, which would be along the lines of socioeconomic inequality, religion, and race. This would be a gulf which would accumulate over time and make the playing field irreversibly unleveled.


Intelligence may be a trait that we highly value, but it is not ethical to use reproductive technologies with the aim to enhance future people’s intelligence. It is a valuable characteristic of humanity to try to eradicate the limits we have, but this paper has come to the conclusion that there are some biological limits that would be best for society to keep, or at least keep out of our control. If we adopt these technologies, no one will be able to reach the finish line we are racing towards. In fact, it will be moved even farther away. 

As much as any form of cognitive enhancement may work, whether it be temporary or permanent, it will not prevent struggles and increased demands from society. It will not directly eliminate the suffering of future generations. What ultimately must be changed, what humans must direct the evolution of, is the elusive and ever-advancing finish line we are racing to. We must ask ourselves what the value is in the end goal which we are aiming towards improving ourselves, and we must also try to understand what underlying assumptions we have that may not truly justify creating a posthuman species.

An improved genetic potential for intelligence is not truly beneficient on its own. The quality of life for individuals and the overall goodness of a society does not solely rely on a high average genetic predisposition for intelligence. The worth of human life also does not become greater in direct correspondence to an increased cognitive capacity. With higher and lower levels of intelligence, there are trade-offs. It is imperative to prevent the ranking and commoditization of human beings, which would be the inevitable outcome of the process of genetically enhancing human beings. The inevitably harmful impact on future generations and irreversible divisions along racial, socioeconomic, and religious lines must be prevented, as well. Equal access to this technology would not solve the problem, either.

While this paper aimed to discuss the ramifications of the future use of technology before it is too late, this discussion has a highlighted a need for societal change and social intervention that is feasible with the genetic predispositions we already possess. We must recognize the value of acceptance. We must appreciate diversity rather than rank and quantify the abilities of human beings, and we must find ways to include and embrace all people of all cognitive abilities in society.

This topic has interesting connections that would be worth exploring more. This paper frequently drew comparisons to the growing pressure of using study drugs. Along the same lines, the ramifications of gene doping in sports strongly resemble those of genetically enhancing intelligence. In these scenarios of enhancement, the actual goal trying to be reached seems to lose its meaning, and there is continuous pressure to keep up with the normal. Because the Flynn Effect followed the same pattern with intelligence as it did with height (Trahan, Lisa et al.), it would be interesting to compare the ethicality enhancing height, both genetically and surgically, using the values this paper used to find parallels. The discussion about genetic diversity may be useful for discussions about other disabilities that are not intellectual, such as deafness and achondroplasia. Also, it would be interesting to look into the effects of literacy on society, particularly the benefits as well as the exclusion that has resulted, as this seems to have interesting connections to my topic. Lastly, the discussion about what constitute a good life and whether or not improved intelligence is harmful seems to parallel the story told in the novel Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. This is the fictional story of a man with mental disabilities who undergoes a scientific experiment to become “superintelligent”. As his grasp and understanding of the truth and complexities of life grow, he realizes that all of his friends were using him all along, and he is then unable to maintain relationships and has a horrible quality of life. 

Although this paper has come to the conclusion that genetically enhancing future offsprings is not ethically permissible, and although the ethics of research was not the main focus of this project, I do believe that scientific advancement in uncovering the relationship between the human genome and cognitive abilities should continue. The reality is that, as controversial as intelligence is and as alarming the applications of this research may be, g is pervasive in brain functioning, and it is not justified to prevent scientific breakthroughs that will ameliorate the suffering of many, which will likely result from the findings of this research. However, if this were to be able to occur, it is the responsibility of scientists, researchers, journalists, and Public Health to prevent misuse of these findings as ways to discriminate against groups. In addition, if technologies like these become feasible, the IVF industry must become more regulated (“A Booming Medical Industry in the US Is Almost Totally Unregulated”) if any ban on enhancement were to be meaningful.   

While I have come to the conclusion that the national policy of United States should ban genetically enhancing intelligence, it would be irresponsible to assume that all people would agree that use of genetic enhancement technologies is unethical and that our national policy would be identical across the globe; this is an ideal that relies on the assumption that all IVF clinicians, that all parents, that all countries for that matter would uphold a complete ban on enhancing intelligence under all circumstances. It is based on the assumption that all people have the same values, as well. And this assumption is false.

Polling indicates a significant variance in attitudes towards human gene-editing across the globe, and enhancing intelligence is no exception. Numerous surveys indicate significant differences in general patterns of attitudes towards using these genetic technologies for such enhancement purposes (“Attitudes to biotechnology in Asia”). This has led many to claim that Asia will be at the forefront of the expansion of human enhancement (“The Public and the Gene-Editing Revolution”). Some reasons for these differing attitudes and likely various regulations across the globe are because of the inevitable differing of cultural attitudes and values. Of course, this is not to say that beliefs are homogenous and can be distinguished precisely from culture to culture, but studies indicate significant differences that have implications for international policy.

The truth is that a global consensus would be nearly impossible to achieve, which means that a national ban would be extremely fragile. Because of this reality, is it ethical to prohibit genetically enhancing the intelligence of one’s offspring if you can’t prohibit another country from permitting it, or prevent people from going to other countries?  Trends in medical tourism suggest that the demographic of American citizens would go to other countries in order to be allowed to enhance their offspring’s intelligence. If this were to be the case, it would be problematic for many reasons. One is that it ignores one of the main premises of the ban; only the wealthy would benefit.

One solution to the international regulatory issues would be that other countries have standards that to prevent American citizens from using medical treatments in their country. However, this would become complicated with dual-citizenship. It would also become complicated if enhanced offspring eventually move to the United States. An inconsistent ban on such powerful technology could lead to significant and undesirable tensions towards foreigners.

Also, how would we be able to enforce this if it is unlike Adderall or steroids which can be tested for in the bloodstream or urine? Gene editing inherently means that the genes themselves are being changed, thus creating a different living being. What is also interesting to consider is what would happen if the existence, particularly the cognitive abilities, of a person were illegal, especially since they are born with it. It is worth noting that this resistance towards enhancement may follow a pattern found in American history of initial repugnance with innovation, which often eventually becomes widely accepted when the concerns are addressed or the innovation is seen as necessary. An interesting example of this is literacy, which used to not be required or offered to everyone but is now a requirement to participate and function in modern society (Bostrom and Shulman). However, it is unclear if the genetic enhancement of intelligence would follow this pattern of normalization, and it will be interesting to see how our attitudes change over time and if the advancement of technologies such as artificial intelligence plays a role in this.

It is worth noting that this resistance towards enhancement may follow a pattern found in American history of initial repugnance with innovation, which often eventually becomes widely accepted when the concerns are addressed or the innovation is seen as necessary. An interesting example of this is literacy, which used to not be required or offered to everyone but is now a requirement to participate and function in modern society (Bostrom and Shulman). However, it is unclear if the genetic enhancement of intelligence would follow this pattern of normalization, and it will be interesting to see how our attitudes change over time and if the advancement of technologies such as artificial intelligence plays a role in this.

What is also interesting is that, because of the significant economic competition that would result if countries were to embrace enhancement technologies for smarter generations of offsprings, nations that originally were in favor of a ban may be coerced into defecting it. And if one country were to do this, it is likely that a trend would continue simply in order to maintain economic security. A “brain drain” may occur, which is the emigration of highly trained or intelligent people from a particular country towards a more advancing region, as a result of the likely disadvantaged position anti-enhancing states would likely be placed in. But if a country were to recognize these results, which would likely amplify over many years after the enhanced offspring are even born, and then defect the law, this could be too late because of the amount of time in between the birth of the enhanced offspring and when it would reach adulthood (today, it is common for individuals to be about 20 in the U.S. when they enter the workforce) (Bostrom and Shulman). And if this were to be the case, and all countries were to permit it, this seems to also imply that we would need to both allow it to be accessible for everyone, for everyone to use it, and also for us to also provide for (or someone would need to) other countries to prevent the global playing field from becoming irreversibly unleveled, possibly at the “Posthuman” level.

For many of the reasons described, the prospect of genetically enhancing intelligence and its global implications resemble an arms race. The conflicts previously described fall into the same pattern of events found during the Cold War, when nations were pushed to invest tremendous amounts of their resources into weapons, such as the United States initially because of suspicions that the enemy would create and use nuclear weapons first, perpetuating a potentially fatal conflict for all of humanity. These were weapons they dreaded ever using. In the same way, countries may be pressured to neglect core values and allow for genetically enhancing intelligence and the alarming damage that would follow (Swedin). And for what reason?

I would recommend a greater global discussion, which is already on its way through initiatives such as the Global Summit on Gene Editing. With such a controversial topic, it is extremely important to communicate effectively and to collaborate to ensure that there is a useful international policy set in place.

There are many, many nuances that emerge in this topic, and I am unable to fully address them all in this paper. This is partially due to the fact that the technology is in the process of being developed and not all of the possible benefits and harms have been discovered. Because the research on the genetic basis of intelligence is far from complete,  how some traits affect each other and what potential trade-offs may arise is currently unknown. We also can not adequately predict what society will be like when this time comes. Some additional prospects that need more investigation are the implications on the structure of education, which was briefly mentioned in this paper, and weighing the trade-offs that would come with these technologies, such as mental illness. Economic implications are also worth investigating further. The full picture is not clear yet, but it is still necessary to consider what it may look like in order to ensure that these new opportunities are used properly before any permanent damages occur; genetically enhancing intelligence has the potential for irreversible and substantial impact on humanity. Unlike what researchers have claimed (Hsu 2014), genetically enhancing intelligence does not have to be inevitable. How that would become possible, however, is up for further discussion.


By Sophia Sinins


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