“For the foreseeable future and perhaps forever, this technology will only be available to people who are already wealthy or otherwise privileged,” says Meyer. “Insofar as this does have an impact, and possibly gives offspring a boost, [this] is not something that will be equally accessible to everyone. Just as wealth is inherited, these are literally things that are inherited. You could imagine a world where this spills over generations and widens socio-economic divides.”
The new poll compared people’s willingness to improve their children’s prospects in three ways: using SAT prep courses, embryo testing and gene editing on embryos. It found some support even for the most radical option, genetic modification of children, which is banned in the US and many other countries. About 28% of those surveyed said they probably would if it were safe.
“These are important results. They support the existence of a gap between the generally negative attitudes of researchers and health professionals … and the attitudes of the general public,” said Shai Carmi, a geneticist and statistician at Hebrew University. in Israel, who studies embryo selection technology.
The authors of the new poll grapple with the implications of information they’ve helped uncover through a series of increasingly large studies to pinpoint genetic causes of human social and cognitive traits, including sexual orientation and intelligence. That includes a report published last year on how the DNA differences between more than 3 million people are related to how far they went in school, a life outcome correlated with a person’s intelligence.
The result of such research is a so-called “polygenic score”, or a genetic test that can predict, based on genes, whether – among other things – someone will be more or less inclined to go to university.
Of course, environmental factors are of great importance, and DNA is not fate. Still, the gene tests are surprisingly predictive. In their poll, the researchers said people should assume that about 3% of children will attend a top-100 university. By choosing one of the 10 IVF embryos with the highest gene score, parents would increase that chance for their child by up to 5%.
It’s tempting to dismiss the benefit gained as negligible, but “assuming they’re right,” says Carmi, it’s actually “a very large relative increase” in the likelihood of attending such a school for the given offspring – about 67%.
Polygenic consumer prediction tests for a number of traits are already available from 23andMe. For example, that company offers a “weight report” that predicts a person’s body-mass index. Carmi says education predictions and body mass predictions have similar accuracy.