An intelligence pill? It's likely. A short-short story explores an implication.

Posted Jun 18, 2017

GaelX, CC 2.0
Source: GaelX, CC 2.0

A May 22, 2017 New York Times headline reads: “In ‘Enormous Success,’ Scientists Tie 52 Genes to Human Intelligence."

A week later, the Journal of Cellullar Bioechemistry chronicled the substantial progress and potential in gene editing.

Such research suggests that in a decade or three, parents may have the option of having their sperm and eggs genome-edited to ensure their child has high or at least normal intelligence.

This short-short story explores one possible implication:

The year is 2030 and Linda and Bill are deciding whether to leave their future child’s intelligence to chance or opt for genetic enhancement, which would ensure their child would have the learning, reasoning, and problem solving ability of the top 1% of the 2017 population.

Bill prefers the old-fashioned way: “I don’t want to tamper with nature. With good parenting and good schools, our child will do fine. Some of society’s greatest contributors weren’t geniuses.”

Linda disagrees: “Why saddle our child with such a disadvantage. S/he would never forgive us for making him or her go through life with a liability so difficult to overcome.”

They can’t agree and so decide to defer the decision until Linda got pregnant. She gets pregnant and now there is a new wrinkle: She's pregnant with identical twins. They agree on a compromise: One twin, Chip, will be genetically enhanced, the other, Dale, won't. Linda and Bob also agree they'll do everything possible to parent Chip and Dale equally not, for example, bestow more attention on one.

Nevertheless, by the time Chip and Dale are three, they are markedly different. Chip is speaking in complex paragraphs, Dale mainly in single sentences. Although both go to the same preschool, Dale wants Chip to play with him: digging in the sand and rolling play doh into balls, But Chip shuns him for the advanced four-year-olds who are putting together puzzles.

After high school, Chip is admitted to United States University, America’s most prestigious, run by the federal government. It spares no expense in providing the latest in education: SuperCourses, in which the student’s room (at home or at the university, his choice) has four walls, ceiling, and floor covered with screens that immerse students in amazing environments: from jungles to inside a human genome to Mars, with learning guided by a dream team of the world’s most transformational instructors. Students have to solve real-world problems in those environments. To learn needed methods and content, they just click whereupon the material is taught, just-in-time, by one of those world-class instructors. Thus, SuperCourse students, rich and poor, from all over, receive world-class education. Meanwhile, Dale is admitted only to Southern Arkansas State College, one of the few remaining traditionally taught colleges: a lecturer willing to live in small-town Arkansas, with discussion sections taught by graduate students.

At United States University, Chip falls in love with a fellow student, they enter into a five-year renewable marriage contract, and both are recruited by and accepted positions at Amazon.com. He is hired to improve virtual tours in Amazon's real-estate division’s skyscraper department. She is hired to help develop a safer and greener flying car. They feel good about themselves and their lives, and hold off on having kids until they decide to enter into a 10-year-long child-friendly, marriage contract.

In contrast, the best job Dale can get after his six-year struggle to get a 2nd-grade teaching certificate is as a support person in an elementary school. Most elementary schools offer a scaled-down version of SuperCourses, in which there is only one live teacher per 200 students and one assistant teacher per 20 kids. The assistant’s job is to show the children how to use their SuperCourse computer, troubleshoot the computer, and maintain classroom discipline. “It’s a job,” Dale says, "But I wish I was doing what Chip was doing and making the money he's making!"

Dale dates a number of women but can't attract someone as well-adjusted as Chip’s wife. Because Dale wants children, he enters into a 20-year marriage contract but after two children and too many fights, they divorce. The divorce deepens Dale’s sadness, not just because of the divorce’s emotional pain but because he has to pay alimony and child support while having to live on his one modest income.

That affects Dale’s work performance and a year later, he is “laid off.” He tries hard to find another job but can't in education. Finally, leveraging his experience troubleshooting computers, he gets a job in McDonald’s maintenance department, where he services and repairs robotic cashiers, fry cooks, and sushi makers. He feels it dehumanizing, gets dispirited, and escapes with the latest designer drugs, custom-formulated to give each user a maximum high.

Alas, one time Dale has a bad trip and because he already is despondent, under the influence, he takes the laser gun that he keeps under the bed in case of an intruder, and shoots himself to death.

As Bill, Linda, and Chip trudge from the memorial service, they talk about whether it would have been wiser to have genetically enhanced Dale’s intelligence? Have Chip be unenhanced?

The takeaway

Assume that at some time in the future, gene therapy will allow parents to safely ensure their children's high intelligence. Should they be allowed that option?

60 of Dr. Nemko’s short-short stories are in his just-published book, Modern Fables. You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at mnemko@comcast.net.