CRISPR-Cas9 Genome Editing: the Rise of the Super Elite, China and Personalized Bio-weapons

Continuing from my last post, the Cyprus Experiment:

…However, if you start playing with genes in order to create the perfect society…that becomes another thing alltogether.

Imagine this: genes editing can lead to  a situation in which you can choose from a catalog the physical characteristics and personality type of your offspring. “Yes, I would like to order the Big Blue package please.”

I haven’t chose this name randomly, it’s a reference to the Belgian Blue cow which is a breed of cattle renowned for its muscularity, selective breeding led to “double muscling” due to a mutation in the myostatin gene. The whole process of selective breeding can now be replaced with genome editing.

One pertinent question is: do you want to mess with the free will and choices of your offspring? What happens if you order the athlete package but the future person doesn’t really want to be an athlete? What happens if you order the intellectual package but the future person doesn’t really want to be an intellectual? This can take the meaning of parents living through children meaning to another level: if I wasn’t good at sports in school I can live through my son who will be good at sports.

There is the risk of having a bunch of clones walking around, people looking the same and behaving the same. No parent would settle for the lesser model, every parent wants the best for his child. What if the price is too high? Will parents settle for lesser models? Will the world eventually evolve and split into two types of people solely because there were two types of socio-economic classes at the beginning, the ones that could afford the premium package and the ones that couldn’t?

There is the risk that the upper socio-economic classes might irreversibly detach from the rest of the world due to a upwards self-enforcing spiral of wealth and great genetics. Think about the royalty and aristocracy of the past. What prevented them from taking off and becoming vastly different from the rest of humanity is genetic variance and inbreeding. Greedy royals wanted the power to stay in the family, that’s why they preferred to marry withing the family. Inbreeding led to severely physically and mentally incapacitated leaders like Charles II of Spain. The Habsburg Jaw: Charles had such a severe case of Habsburg Jaw, a mandibular prognathism trait popular in the Habsburg family, that he couldn’t eat. He died childless. Whole royal and noble families went extinct not because of war or some other reason but because of childless heirs. The very powerful and wealthy de Medici family ended in 1737 when Gian Gastone de’ Medici died without leaving any heir.

Well, genetic editing has the potential to solve all these issues and to let happen what didn’t happened before. Of course, there is also the element of chaos that always hides beneath the surface of things. Genetic editing might lead to problems that are not immediately observable. For example, we know that high IQ persons also tend to have mental illnesses. Genetic editing might lead to improvements in one area but might also be a black swan and lead to weakness in other areas.

The black swan theory describes events that come as a surprise, have major effects and after they happen become rationalized by hindsight. Examples of black swan events: financial crises, the personal computer, the rise of the Internet, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the crash of airplanes because of metal fatigue.

Metal fatigue occurs when you apply load and stress to a material causing it to weaken. Is there something similar that can be applied to the genome as a material? We might live to find out that there is something called Genome Fatigue.

Black swan events caused by genetic editing might have a wide series of effects: infertility, the heirs might find that they are the last ones in their lineage and boom, the new royal and noble families go extinct again, neurological diseases at a later age, new exotic genetic diseases that didn’t existed before.

CRISPR-Cas9 editing
CRISPR-Cas9 editing. Click picture for better resolution. Source: J LEVIN W

I’m just riffing here, using my imagination and doing some thought experiments. If I’m thinking this then is very probable that someone else also did it or will do it.  For example, totalitarian governments like China (they are leading the way in genetic editing with crispr/cas9 by the way) can use genome altering to silently mark their subjects with special GTAC DNA sequences. The DNA contains portions of “junk” DNA, noncoding portions that do not encode protein sequences. In other words, they don’t do anything, so it’s quite possible to slip in a few sequences more in the DNA that can go undetected and remain silent.

Why would anyone want to mark someone with a special, unique DNA sequence? Better tracking would be one answer. One strand of hair can lead straight to your address. China is great at tracking, controlling, Internet filtering, censoring and is also leading the world in AI and facial recognition surveillance. The law enforcement in China has now facial recognition glasses. Another answer is that highly personalized bio-weapons can be created in order to target specific individuals: adversaries, dissidents, traitor spies and so on. Russia has a track of doing these kinds of jobs, not long ago it targeted a former defector Russian spy (Skripal) and his daughter with a nerve agent.

There is already a huge increasing gap between the wealthiest and the rest of the world: the top 1% has owned more wealth than the rest of the world’s population since 2015. The rise of biohacking, genome editing an AI has the potential to take this gap to another level.


The Cyprus Experiment

The Cyprus Experiment
Map of Cyprus

What happens when you take a bunch of high IQ individuals, send them on an island and let them organize themselves? Will they become a superpower, solve the world’s problems? Seems like an Utopia isn’t it? In one of my previous posts I was writing about how high IQ individuals tend to think over the long term, have higher incomes, to be more cooperative and to be better informed citizens.

Well, this thought experiment was carried out by Aldous Huxley in his book Brave New World: the Cyprus Experiment. Let’s see how Aldous Huxley imagined such an experiment would go.

“Well, you can call it an experiment in rebottling if you like. It began in A.F. 473. The Controllers had the island of Cyprus cleared of all its existing inhabitants and re-colonized with a specially prepared batch of twenty-two thousand Alphas. All agricultural and industrial equipment was handed over to them and they were left to manage their own affairs. The result exactly fulfilled all the theoretical predictions. The land wasn’t properly worked; there were strikes in all the factories; the laws were set at naught, orders disobeyed; all the people detailed for a spell of low-grade work were perpetually intriguing for high-grade jobs, and all the people with high-grade jobs were counter-intriguing at all costs to stay where they were. Within six years they were having a first-class civil war. When nineteen out of the twenty-two thousand had been killed, the survivors unanimously petitioned the World Controllers to resume the government of the island. Which they did. And that was the end of the only society of Alphas that the world has ever seen.”

Note: in the book the Alphas were the high IQ social caste of the society and they usually had positions of leadership, they made the decisions and exercised control over the other classes. The population growth was controlled and “modeled on the iceberg-eight-ninths below the water line, one-ninth above.” The Alphas were males and females and the term alpha isn’t exactly the same as the one used to describe a group with a hierarchical structure in which the alpha male – the stronger, more dominant and aggressive male – is at the top of it.

This is quite an interesting thought experiment. Would it work in real life?

Even though higher-IQ people can better understand the minds of others and tend to cooperate they might end up squabbling: “If an entire group of individuals with higher IQs are together for a reasonably long period of time, we should expect them to find more win-win outcomes, growing a bigger pie that they can squabble over later.”

Resentment – because some will get the short end of the stick and end up doing menial and trivial tasks – big egos, low agreeableness, and the Peter Principle can lead to conflict situations. The Peter Principle is a concept in management that states that the selection for a candidate is based on the success in his current role rather than the intended role, candidates are promoted until they reach a level of incompetence.

Peters Principle
Peters Principle. Source: Nevit Dilmen, CC0.

Possible solution: initial rotation system which should determine if the candidate is fit for the role and also likes his new job – this should improve the level of work satisfaction. Some people might discover that they love working with the land, with animals, to work in factories, to work outdoors, to work with people instead of working with machines, to work with machines instead of working with people. Some people might actively want to change their demanding, stressful jobs with something less stressful and demanding. Some people might want a professional reconversion and to learn new skills – high IQ people usually need to be intellectually stimulated and learning new skills is a great way to do that. Menial and repetitive tasks will almost certainly be replaced with automated processes.

Another possible solution: better control over the initial parameters and variables in the experiment. Instead of letting the folks battle over jobs and job titles, let them be established beforehand. After all, intelligent people can be found in all walks of life. Take Christopher Langan for example. He is considered one of the smartest men in the world yet he has a humble CV: he took labour-intensive jobs, worked as a construction worker, cowboy, Forest Service Ranger, farmhand and bouncer. He is now living quietly happy on his ranch in Missouri. I’m sure that he is not the only intelligent individual content with his lower socio-economic status, not all people want to be in high paying stressful, leadership positions.

I don’t think that the experiment would work if you have a bunch of high IQ, dominant, ambitious, Machiavellian, disagreeable,  conditioned and brainwashed to believe that they are the top dogs and rightful rulers; you take them, put them on an island and hope for the best. Huxley wasn’t aware of DNA or genetic editing with CRISPR-Cas9 at his time, his characters were made after an industrial, chemical process but I think that his thought experiment has a lot of substance and reveals the potential perils of having a race of Übermensch with the traits that I mentioned earlier.

“Because we have no wish to have our throats cut,” he answered. “We believe in happiness and stability. A society of Alphas couldn’t fail to be unstable and miserable. Imagine a factory staffed by Alphas-that is to say by separate and unrelated individuals of good heredity and conditioned so as to be capable (within limits) of making a free choice and assuming responsibilities. Imagine it!” he repeated.

I don’t know of any Cyprus Experiments carried in real life and until such an experiment is carried out we can only speculate. My opinion is that a high IQ society would have better chances of survival and success than Huxley thought it would. In order for that success to happen the condition would be to have some variance in the personalities of the candidates, variance in their Big Five Personality Traits: extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism.  Natural genetic variance does a great job in this regard.

This is not an exhaustive analysis by any means, I might come back to this thought experiment and write about it in some other post.