“For the foreseeable future, and possibly forever, this technology will only be available to people who are already wealthy or otherwise privileged,” Meyer says. “To the extent that it influences and gives impetus to any offspring, [this] it is not something that will be equally available to everyone. Just as wealth is inherited, it is literally things that are inherited. You can imagine a world in which this has been happening for generations and is helping to widen socio-economic divides.”
A new survey compared people’s willingness to expand their children’s prospects in three ways: SAT prep courses, embryo testing, and embryo gene editing. He found some support even for the most radical option, the genetic modification of children, which is banned in the US and many other countries. About 28% of those surveyed said they would probably do so if it were safe.
“These are important results. They confirm the existence of a gap between the general negative attitude of researchers and medical professionals … and the attitude of the general public,” says Shai Karmi, a geneticist and statistician at the Hebrew University in Israel who studies embryo selection technology.
The authors of the new survey grapple with the implications of the information they helped uncover through a series of increasingly large-scale studies into the genetic causes of human social and cognitive traits, including sexual orientation and intelligence. That includes a report published last year showing how differences in DNA among more than 3 million people are linked to how far they get in school, a life outcome that correlates 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 is more or less likely to go to college.
Of course, environmental factors matter a lot, and DNA is not destiny. Yet genetic tests are surprisingly predictable. In their survey, the researchers asked people to guess that about 3% of children would attend a top-100 college. By choosing one of the 10 IVF embryos with the highest gene score, parents will increase this chance for their child to 5%.
It’s tempting to dismiss the resulting advantage as insignificant, but “assuming they’re right,” Carmi says, it’s actually a “very large relative increase” in the odds of getting into such a school for the offspring in question—about 67%.
Consumer polygenic prediction tests for a number of traits are now available from 23andMe. This company, for example, offers a “weight report” that predicts a person’s BMI. Carmi says that education predictions and body weight predictions have equal accuracy.