In my 2010 article, "From Yuck to Yippee!," I outlined the usual process of how people move from initially rejecting breakthrough biomedical technologies to embracing them wholeheartedly: First revulsion, next fascination, then acceptance, and finally mandates. With regard to in vitro fertilization I noted:
In 1969, a Harris poll found that a majority of Americans believed that producing test-tube babies was "against God's will." In 1970s, the federal government imposed a moratorium on federal funding of in vitro fertilization research and legislation that would have outlawed IVF was considered by Congress.
Yet just one month after the birth of Louise Brown, the Gallup poll reported that 60 percent of Americans approved of in vitro fertilization and more than half would consider using it if they were infertile. …
We are still in the yuck phase when it comes to the public's thinking about impending advances in reproductive technologies that will enable parents to endow their children with genes and epigenetic combinations that will improve their health, lengthen their lives, boost their intelligence, and strengthen their bodies. But sometime in this century, when these technological interventions become safe and effective, yuck will turn as quickly to yippee as the response to those test tube babies did 32 years ago.
Over at the Washington Post's Volokh Conspiracy, the always insightful Eugene Volokh correctly argues: "If it becomes possible to safely genetically increase babies' IQ, it will become inevitable." Volokh observes:
A Pew poll asked,
Would you say that changing a baby's genetic characteristics to make the baby more intelligent is making appropriate use of medical advances OR is it taking medical advances too far?
The result: 83 percent of Americans said it's not appropriate, and only 15 percent said it was appropriate. Now I'm most certainly not an expert on such questions, so take what I say with a grain of salt. Still, this seems too interesting a topic not to speculate about, so let me offer my guess: If such genetic modification proves to be possible (and safe for the baby), that lopsided poll result won't matter at all.
I appreciate that people might feel that we shouldn't mess with nature that way. I appreciate that intelligence enhancement may increase the gap between rich and poor, and even between the rich and the middle class, at least at the outset. I appreciate that Congress might outlaw it, if it becomes viable. I just think all that will prove irrelevant.
Intelligence is, generally speaking, good, and more is, generally speaking, better. It's better for the person in question. It's better for society to have more intelligent people. It's not the most important thing. But ask yourself: All else being equal, would you rather have your child have an IQ (for all the limitations of that measure) of 85, 100, 115 or 130?
Of course, all things being equal, most parents would prefer to have a smarter kid rather than a dumber one.
The whole Volokh article is worth pondering.
Figuring out how to genetically engineer intelligence will not be easy or fast—maybe implanted brain interfaces will turn out to be a better technology. But I predict that just like opposition to IVF, objections to the safe genetic enhancement of progeny will fade away and the technologies will be widely embraced later in this century.