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Steven Pinker: How Soon Will Genetic Enhancement Create Smarter Humans?

Today's video is part of a series on genius, in proud collaboration with 92Y's 7 Days of Genius Festival.

Steven Pinker:  I think it's unwise to make a confident prophecy in what technology will or won't eventually be able to do. I think that cuts both ways. That is it's people have looked foolish by saying that something will never happen, but they've also looked foolish by saying that something is inevitable. So there are things that we can accomplish technologically that we as a society have chosen not to, such as passenger supersonic air transport. I think if you were to say to someone in 1957 the speed of commercial jets now is going to be the same as the speed of the commercial jets in 2016, 60 years from now, they would say you're nuts. Technology goes up, up, up, up, but sometimes it doesn't. Because people don't like sonic booms and jet fuel got too expensive. Likewise, if you would've said in 1972 no one is going to set foot on the moon for another 44 years and counting, again. They would say technology always lifts us higher and higher, but sometimes it doesn't. The Cold War ended. People lost interest. There are all kinds of social and economic factors that in combination make the future of technology inherently unpredictable. And I think in engineering human intelligence, to say nothing of human genius, no one knows but I would put my money with no. For one thing, there are moral and legal taboos. People think that introducing traits into offspring is a form of eugenics and is on a slippery slide to Nazism. I happen to think that that is a bogus ethical argument, but it is by far the majority that's a cool argument and in many countries genetic enhancement is or will be illegal. And it's going to take a huge force to overcome that. Just as cloning is illegal in virtually every country, when Dolly the sheep was cloned in 1997 there were confident predictions that there's nothing you can do to stop human cloning. It was just around the corner and here we are almost 20 years later and it has not happened.

Also, the task of engineering high intelligence is turning out to be a lot harder than one might have thought. In the late '90s it was thought well sooner or later we'll find some high IQ genes; they'll give you three or four points. You'd put in a handful of them and you get a much smarter baby. There was going to be the gene for musical talent and the gene for athletic coordination. We have every reason to believe that those traits are substantially inheritable. We've known that for decades just because of twin and adoption studies. On the other hand, we also know that the genes responsible are going to, each one of them is going to have an incy wincy effect and there are dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of them. So making your child smart is not a question of putting in one high IQ gene, it may be a question of putting in a hundred genes or a thousand genes. Every time you monkey with the genome you are taking a chance that something will go wrong. Also, those genes, the ones that we have identified, and we've made enormous progress in just a few years ago there was not a single gene you could point to that had a positive effect on intelligence, now we can point to a few of them. They have incy wincy effects, a third of an IQ point. But on the other hand we identify them with their correlations with intelligence. We have no idea what they do. I mean if you find that any of those genes is actually expressed in the brain then you've had a really good day as a scientist. But to know what the totality of their effects are, positive and negative, is something that we're not going to know for a long time, if ever when you're talking about hundreds or thousands of genes. How do we know that one of those genes that raises your IQ by a third of a point doesn't also increase your chance of epilepsy or schizophrenia or brain cancer. Now, you're going to go to a review board and ask for permission to monkey with a human embryo and they're going to say so we know what the benefits are of implementing this gene, what are the costs? And the answer is we don't know. You think that they're going to have - that that's going to meet approval? Or do you think for that matter that parents are going to be willing to take such chances with the biological integrity of their children? That in exchange for an increase of an IQ points or two they're going to take some unknown risk of making the child schizophrenic or bipolar or some other disease that we may not know of who's probabilities we don't know? Not so clear that they will.

Now, there is the argument parents will do anything to enhance the flourishing of their children. Look at the way parents buy test prep courses and struggle to get them into the Ivy's and so on. I think that's true probably of the social circle of the people who make those predictions where IQ has outsize importance. But even then there are – people do strongly distinguish biological interventions from environmental ones, at least psychologically. That's why we still don't have any sport where athletes can dope all they want. You might say what difference does it make whether you increase your red blood cell count by training at a high altitude or by taking a drug? Well, biologically there may not be that much of a difference, psychologically there's all the difference in the world. We just don't think that it is the same thing when you can cheat and achieve an advantage through sheer biological interventions. I wouldn't say that for sure that's going to stand in the way of parents enhancing their children genetically, but on the other hand I think it's unwise to say that it will have no effect, that we know that those psychological barriers will be overcome.

This video is part of a series on genius, in proud collaboration with 92Y's 7 Days of Genius Festival.


In the late 1990s, scientists thought they were close to locating specific genes that controlled for human intelligence in all its manifestations: musical genius, analytical acumen, physical prowess, etc. But the truth turns out to be more complicated, says Harvard psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker. There are many genes — perhaps thousands — that affect human intelligence, and while manipulating them may have predictable benefits, the adverse consequences remain unpredictable. Thus experimenting with our so-called intelligence genes will likely be met with high levels of skepticism in caution. It's proof, says Pinker, that technological advancement doesn't always march to the drum beat of inexorable forward progress.

A new hydrogel might be strong enough for knee replacements

Duke University researchers might have solved a half-century old problem.

Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • Duke University researchers created a hydrogel that appears to be as strong and flexible as human cartilage.
  • The blend of three polymers provides enough flexibility and durability to mimic the knee.
  • The next step is to test this hydrogel in sheep; human use can take at least three years.
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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.

Hints of the 4th dimension have been detected by physicists

What would it be like to experience the 4th dimension?

Two different experiments show hints of a 4th spatial dimension. Credit: Zilberberg Group / ETH Zürich
Technology & Innovation

Physicists have understood at least theoretically, that there may be higher dimensions, besides our normal three. The first clue came in 1905 when Einstein developed his theory of special relativity. Of course, by dimensions we’re talking about length, width, and height. Generally speaking, when we talk about a fourth dimension, it’s considered space-time. But here, physicists mean a spatial dimension beyond the normal three, not a parallel universe, as such dimensions are mistaken for in popular sci-fi shows.

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How often do vaccine trials hit paydirt?

Vaccines find more success in development than any other kind of drug, but have been relatively neglected in recent decades.

Pedro Vilela/Getty Images
Surprising Science

Vaccines are more likely to get through clinical trials than any other type of drug — but have been given relatively little pharmaceutical industry support during the last two decades, according to a new study by MIT scholars.

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