Linguist/philosopher and Philly native son Noam Chomsky once postulated that the current era of human history might “provide an answer to the question of whether it is better to be smart than stupid.” We got closer to that answer last week, when researchers from Cardiff University in Wales announced an intriguing new find: a gene for stupidity. Specifically, they showed that kids born with two copies of the common gene known as Thr92Ala who also have low levels of thyroid hormone are four times more likely to have a low IQ than children with only one copy of the gene, or with two copies but normal hormone levels.
How low an IQ? Between 70 and 85, the researchers say. Anything below 70 is classified as an intellectual disability; the 70-to-85 range is considered “mild intellectual disability.”
So, let’s all rush out to have tests on our unborn babies, right?
Mm, not so fast.
Does being smarter make your life better? It’s an interesting question, and one on which life-of-the-party guys like Kafka, Beckett, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Freud might have an interesting debate. Evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr argued that evolutionarily speaking, lower life forms like beetles and bacteria have been far more successful at surviving than humans. Bacteria don’t commit suicide. Well, actually, bacteria do commit suicide, but only to benefit their relatives, not because of the heavy pall of existential despair.
Penn’s recent rash of suicides has been shocking because it's hard to imagine why young people would end lives that seem to hold so much promise. Psychologist Martin Vorachek has performed studies linking national average IQs and suicide rates that indicate smarter people are more inclined to kill themselves. Yet a 2004 study of nearly a million Swedish men showed that those with low IQs had suicide rates three times higher than their more cognitively enhanced brethren. Researchers in that study speculated that low-IQ men were more likely to hold menial jobs and suffer from poverty, and were less able to “problem-solve when faced with severe life events.”
As science brings us more and more ways to identify unborn children who’ll grow up with what we consider advantages or disadvantages in life, ethical dilemmas will grow increasingly thorny. Would you screen your unborn child for gender? How about the breast-cancer gene? Hmm. Athletic ability? Obesity? Hair color? An increased chance he'd turn out to be a serial killer? An increased risk he or she will drop out of school?
The trouble with making such evaluations is that we all have our own value systems. I don’t give a damn about hair color; I do love sports. There are Hollywood actors with Down syndrome; there are those who argue that autism is just another form of neurodiversity. Last week, the Wall Street Journal told how companies are now recruiting those on the autism spectrum for certain kinds of jobs.
For an article I wrote about Penn professor Adrian Raine’s studies of psychopathology and children, Duke University ethicist Walter Sinnott-Armstrong told me that “eugenics — the policy of weeding out bad genes — should not be government policy. It’s a family matter.” I agree it’s not my place to decide what other parents should choose. But I do think there should be more public discussion about the choices involved — and, for that matter, about what makes for “a good life.”
Of course, if anti-choice activists have their increasingly restrictive way, none of the discussion will matter in the end.
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