“For the foreseeable future and maybe forever, this technology is going to be available only to people who are already wealthy or are privileged in other ways,” says Meyer. “To the extent that this does have an impact, and gives any offspring a boost, [this] is not something that is going to be equally accessible to everybody. Just as wealth is inherited, this is literally things that are inherited. You could imagine a world in which this spins out over generations and helps exacerbate socioeconomic gaps.”
The new poll compared people’s willingness to advance their children’s prospects in three ways: using SAT prep courses, embryo tests, and gene editing on embryos. It found some support even for the most radical option, genetic modification of children, which is prohibited in the US and many other countries. About 28% of those polled said they’d probably do that if it was 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,” says Shai Carmi, a geneticist and statistician at the Hebrew University in Israel, who studies embryo selection technology.
The authors of the new poll are wrestling with the consequences of information that they helped discover via a series of ever larger studies to locate 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 among more than 3 million people related to how far they’d gone in school, a life result that is correlated with a person’s intelligence.
The result of such research is a so-called “polygenic score,” or a genetic test that can predict from genes whether—among other things—someone is going to be more or less likely to attend college.
Of course, environmental factors matter plenty, and DNA is not destiny. Yet the gene tests are surprisingly predictive. In their poll, the researchers told people to assume that around 3% of kids will go to a top-100 college. By picking the one of 10 IVF embryos with the highest gene score, parents would increase that chance to 5% for their kid.
It’s tempting to dismiss the advantage gained as negligible, but “assuming they are right,” Carmi says, it’s actually “a very large relative increase” in the chance of going to such a school for the offspring in question—about 67%.
Consumer polygenic prediction tests for a number of traits are already available from 23andMe. That company, for instance, offers a “weight report” that predicts a person’s body-mass index. Carmi says education predictions and body-mass predictions have similar accuracy.