BGI & Steve Hsu

FYI this is a way for me to personally keep track of big figures in the field. This post is part 1 of a number (to come).

Steve Hsu is a physicist. Although currently Vice President of Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State, Hsu gained a lot of attention for his work with BGI in their Cognitive Genomics Lab. BGI is one of the largest genomics institutes in the world (FYI though based out of China, BGI opened an ‘Americas’ office April 2010), their Cognitive Genomics Lab (founded 2011) set out to find variants (alleles) associated with cognitive ability. The film DNA Dreams captures BGI and the birth of the Cognitive Genomics group. In the documentary, Huanming Yang, chairman of BGI, announces the following ambitious goal at the 6th International Conference on Genomics:

“I have a dream. That we’re going to sequence every living thing on earth. That we’re going to sequence everybody in the world. And genomics, no doubt, is an opportunity for us all.”

In the documentary we also hear the term ‘positive eugenics’ used by the Cognitive Genomics researchers themselves to describe their work. Historically, ‘eugenics’ is associated with Nazi Germany, the ‘War on the Feebleminded’ in the US (Buck v. Bell 1927), and other programs meant to eliminate the weak through sterilization or murder. These examples would fall under the category of negative eugenics. Positive eugenics, on the other hand, refers to ‘selective breeding of the strong.’ In the US in the 1970s, early proponents of positive eugenics included Hermann Muller, Ernst Mayr, Julian Huxley, and James Crow. Relabeled as a form of new eugenics, or “newgenics,” positive eugenics sought to rebrand a term that had largely been tainted by history. James Crow, for example, argued that artificial genetic selection and/or manipulation could be used to promote health, intelligence, or happiness (Mukherjee, 2016: 275); in the new form eugenics, genes, not phenotype, are treated as units of and for selection.

So decades later, ‘positive eugenics’ still resembles the ‘newgenics’ of Crow and others (though I wouldn’t say the discomfort surrounding the word has dissipated in the least).  Here was Hsu’s explanation for using the term (youtube link to that conversation at the end of this post):

“Eugenics has taken on this extremely specific negative meaning but it’s very funny because the word…really applies to activities that are going on everywhere [today]. Somewhere in this city right now there’s some woman taking a pregnancy test, taking a Down Syndrome test, and that is eugenics as well.”

Hsu continued:

“So when we talked about positive eugenics in that documentary what we meant was in the future, and again this is science fiction right now, although in vitro fertilization is a reality and there are hundreds of thousands approaching millions of cycles of IVF done world wide now every year. There are situations where you have to make embryo selection…and say maybe in far flung future you’d be able to say something like “well this one is going to be a really good athlete…maybe we should implant that one, or maybe not. But I think we’ve got to get into those delicate areas, difficult areas simply because the technology is taking us there and all of the things I just talked about are examples of eugenics.”

From an ethical perspective, however, what kinds of people would have the means, methods, and desire to carry out ‘positive eugenics’? Is it not possible that positive eugenics is a remasking of negative eugenics if those with money, education, and social capital are consciously trying and able to further their privilege and advantage? What would happen if the technologies of ‘positive eugenics’ were given first to those who find themselves in marginalized and disadvantaged positions? I have many questions and looking for a discussion on this.

The media hype surrounding BGI Cognitive Genomics has largely gone silent. This is largely because BGI got into a dispute with its main supplier of sequencing machines (Illumina), bought a competitor (Complete Genomics), and has been busy for the last ~2 years getting the new technology to market. Most of the samples Cognitive Genomics collected remain un-sequenced at the moment–there are no efforts to recruit new ‘cognitively gifted’ volunteers. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other groups undertaking this work, points I will get to in a later post. The big questions are: why is there such a fascination with intelligence? Why are is there even a search for a biological basis for intelligence? [perhaps unanswerable questions from a philosophical standpoint].

Below are some talks I’ve had with Dr. Hsu. I’ve been thankful for his willingness to speak with me and openness to engaging in some uncomfortable questions. Despite the Cognitive Genomics hiatus, his interests in genetics research on cognitive ability remains. My intention was to gain some background on the field of genetics research on cognitive ability and get a better understanding of the Science behind the findings. Given my primary interests, there’s naturally a discussion of socioeconomic status, race, and ethics as well.

The important thing to remember is that Hsu’s views are not views shared by all researchers examining the genetics of cognitive ability/educational attainment/academic achievement [note that educational attainment/academic achievement are often used as proxies for IQ in GWAS studies]. The field itself has a wide range of perspectives on what this research should be used for and even what it can and cannot tell us about the nature of intelligence. Here is one view, my plan is to explore as many of the views out there as I can.

Here’s Hsu’s blog.

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