DNA Dreaming

Cross-posted with Biopolitical Times on January 13th, 2014.

DNA Dreams, a new documentary by Dutch filmmaker Bregtje van der Haak, could just as well be called DNA Nightmares. The scenarios it unfolds have a kind of eerie pseudo-logic that would be at home in a horror film. But DNA Dreams is a depiction of events happening right now, and that should make us all afraid.

DNA Dreams explores the inner workings of Shenzhen BGI(formerly Beijing Genomics Institute), which calls itself “The World’s Largest Genomics Organization.” In addition to its tag line, the company boasts enormous sequencing and storage capabilities, thousands of scientists, and grandiose plans. In one scene, BGI chair Dr. Yang Huanming tells a spellbound crowd in a packed auditorium,

I have a dream. We have a dream. That we are going to sequence every living thing on Earth, that we are going to sequence everybody in the world.

But sequencing isn’t all that BGI has up its sleeve.

DNA Dreams follows Zhao Bowen, a “science prodigy” in his teens who dropped out of high school and now leads BGI’s Cognitive Genomics Group, a controversial project working to uncover the genetic basis of intelligence. Over 4,000 bio-informaticians are undertaking whole genome sequencing of 2,000 particularly bright people using the world’s most powerful DNA sequencers. They believe that it is only a matter of time before the alleles associated with intelligence reveal themselves.

In one fascinating scene, a number of key BGI players are eating dinner together, discussing how their research will enable parents to screen their embryos and choose the one that will become the smartest child. One argues,

This isn’t even positive eugenics that we’re talking about, we’re not encouraging smart people to have kids, we’re encouraging everyone who has kids to have the best kids they possibly could have.

Amid nods of approval, another notes, “I would totally be willing to do it.”

At another point, Michigan State University’s Stephen Hsu, who has been involved with the project, waxes lyrical on its potential,

The best humans have not been produced yet…If you want to produce smart humans, nice humans, honorable humans, caring humans, whatever it is, those are traits that are related to the presence or absence of certain genes and we’ll have much finer control over the types of people that are born in the future through this.

We do it with cows, we have super cows and super chickens…We’ve pushed those animals in directions we want to push them, but we haven’t really pushed ourselves, and I think people will push themselves.

There are plenty of reasons to believe that such control of human life won’t work technically – and that if it did, even a little, it would be disastrous socially. Yes, we’ve made cows that get bigger quicker (and genetic manipulation is not the only way this has been done). We haven’t made cows that are smarter, nicer, more honorable, or more caring.

And scientifically, the notion that complex human traits could be determined by “the presence or absence of certain genes” could well end up being nothing more than a DNA pipe dream (another alternative title for this documentary). Apaper published in Science earlier this year, with over two hundred authors, reported on a genome-wide association study of over 100,000 people that looked for clues into the genetic basis of cognitive ability.

The grand conclusion? All the measured single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) account for about 2% of the variance in educational attainment and cognitive function. In other words, “fully 98% of all variation in educational attainment is accounted for by factors other than a person’s simple genetic makeup.”

But BGI researchers are undeterred. They believe that the scale at which they can apply whole genome sequencing is unprecedented, and that this will provide them with answers others haven’t found. Bowen says,

It is generally assumed that intelligence is hereditary. Scientists such as Robert Plomin have been studying this for years. But so far they’ve only discovered one percent of that genetic basis. With confidence we can say that we’ll be able to get much further.

Other scientists also seem to have confidence in BGI’s cognitive genomics approach. In an interview last spring, evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller (who contributed his own DNA to the project) speculated that it could be only a matter of years before BGI’s technology is used for widespread sequencing of human embryos. When asked if he thought the project could develop into something more sinister, he replied, “That same research does open up the door potentially to genetic engineering in the future.”

Other BGI already projects could also help open that door. As DNA Dreamsshows us, the company has extensive animal cloning and genetic engineering facilities. Its experimental farm produces multiple cloned pigs every day, some of them genetically engineered to glow in the dark, others to be prone to type II diabetes. The farm’s 25-year-old director Lin Lin is proud of her work. Beaming at the camera with youthful enthusiasm, she says, “This is life that I created. It was made by my hands.”

China, along with dozens of other countries (but not the US), currently bans human cloning and inheritable genetic modification. But BGI now haspartnerships all over the world. If the technology improves and a country that hasn’t outlawed it wants to proceed, what would happen? Bowen, for one, believes that “people ought to be free to manipulate their children’s IQ. It’s their own choice.”

Bowen is not the first to link the rhetoric of individual choice to a supposed “right” to genetically redesign future children based on personal preferences at a particular moment. But this is a spurious argument. As Nathaniel Comfort points out in a recent Scientific American post called “Is Individuality the Savior of Eugenics?,”

Individual eugenics, in other words, dissolves into a species of collective eugenics. Focusing on individual health does not absolve us of the evolutionary question, Whither humankind?

In an opening scene, DNA Dreams shows a clip from a 1962 film in which a man says about the power of DNA, “All the secrets of life are hidden in this substance. This bottle is somewhat like Pandora’s box. It’s better to keep it closed, and we’ll explain to you why.”

DNA Dreams doesn’t offer an explicit position on what DNA developments should be kept inside the box. It allows the fantastic and terrifying reality of BGI to speak for itself. If you can catch this provocative film at an upcoming festival, you’ll find a lot worth pondering.

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