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The Tale of a CRISPR Clone
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220px-David_von_MichelangeloIf you don’t know what CRISPR is, you should. Two words: genetic engineering. And then you have cloning. I was talking to a friend of mine about the possibility of combining these two technologies, CRISPR and cloning. The basic intention here would be to recreate yourself, but superior. Edit out de novo mutations, and genetic load inherited from ancestors more generally. Perhaps substitute well known large effect alleles which have salubrious consequences. This is not totally abstract, as I’ve talked to many people who are interested in the idea of cloning.

For example, the economics blogger and professor Bryan Caplan has confessed that he would like to see what raising a clone would be like. Or as he states, “I want to experience the sublime bond I’m sure we’d share. I’m confident that he’d be delighted, too, because I would love to be raised by me. ” This may be correct. But now imagine that Caplan avails himself of the latest genetic engineering technology, in addition to cloning. Bryan Caplan version 2.0 is taller, better looking, smarter, more socially astute. In fact, from 2.0’s perspective the original Bryan Caplan may simply be an “alpha” version, before he was “perfected.” Perhaps 2.0 would love Caplan 1.0, but I suspect that this love would resemble Christianity’s love of its parent Judaism, which verges into patronizing condescension, as Christians believe their religion is a perfected completion of the Yahweh cult.

More farcically, consider how teenage rebellion would play out between a clone which is superior in every way to the parent. If a parent asks rhetorically “do you think you’re better than me?”, the clone would have to respond honestly, “Yes, and so do you.” The clone would be a better version of the parent, and likely this structural tension in the relationship would persist, as the original copies see themselves as they would wish to be, but never can be.

Addendum: Ted Kosmatka should write a short story based on this idea!

• Category: Science • Tags: Cloning, Crispr 
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  1. I guess that’s one way to (sort of) live forever, no? Just keep cloning yourself. Reminds me of the Dread Pirate Roberts a little:)

  2. I’m picturing the process curing personality defects as well so the clone / parent can’t stand each other.

  3. If science fiction was actually prioritized in that order I would still be reading it. I am sure there is some good stuff out there, I’ll be checking out Kosmatka, but the normal science fiction fare doesn’t come close to suspending my disbelief because it is obviously implausible. I have long been fascinated by why there is an approximate 30% genetic roll of the dice to measurable human intelligence. We have only found alleles that have a tiny impact on intelligence but there is something yet to be discovered that causes a far larger variation in sibling intelligence than the random additive effect of these individual alleles. Is plucking out the genetic load the answer? It could be. Is there optimum combinations of alleles and the switching on and off in front of these alleles that makes this large variation? It could be. Are there positive effect on intelligence gene mutations scattered throughout humanity that have yet to reach fixation? Sure there is but I dunno the whole answer or even part of the answer. I have fun thinking about it. Let us say one nation on earth, the first choice for most folks is China, decides that there will be a large financial reward for parents to raise a child that is not theirs. This child is a clone of a known genius. Push us say twenty years into the future and this child is not just a clone of a known genius but one who has been “spruced up” via what scientists by then have found to further increase intelligence. Each super genius clone has 999 identical twins scattered about the country. 1000 geniuses each with 1000 souped up clones making 1,000,000 super geniuses for the brave new world. Please don’t take me seriously, I’m just having fun speculating.

  4. Superior biparental kids generally have good relationships with their parents right? There’s lots you don’t know growing up, superiority isn’t necessarily a substitute for experience and maturity.

    Re: ““Do you think you’re better than me?” – eesh, how many parents wouldn’t even go down that route, making your parental authority contingent on being better than your child, better or not? If you did though, you could always be like “Ah, gene-environment interactions!” (although you’re opening yourself up to “Yeah. I know. Thanks for the lame environment Dad!” a bit there).

    A clone can’t be *completely* dismissive of a parent as merely an early version (even if they are completely unappreciative for their parents efforts in bringing them into being and caring for them), as there is still unique environmental influence there… You could still be smarter, etc. than your perfected clone, depending on how much environmental influence is in your favor (relative to how much improvement has come from fixing them). It’d be harsher for people who are already environmentally “underperforming” their genotype.

    Perhaps substitute well known large effect alleles which have salubrious consequences.

    If you wanted to keep yourself as you-like as possible, would the simple strategy to swap in very low frequency genetic load mutations (even if they’re also present in your parents, etc.) with their high frequency ancestor (rather than the “best” or highest frequency variant)? E.g. you’d be making yourself the person you would be if those mutations hadn’t happened, not a person with different variants that might not fit with your ancestral tree.

  5. I think that, short of immortality, the idea of cloning is something that humanity must come to accept in the future as a best way to reproduce capabilities that are imprinted in a person’s genome, especially, when it comes complex traits like IQ. In fact, having a dedicated (government sponsored) financial incentive for people wishing to raise a von Neumann or a Witten seems like a good strategy for a country to succeed long-term.*

    As to me, I am not 100% certain whether I’d like to clone myself, but I am most certain that I’d be delighted to do so for one of my close relatives. Raising someone very much like her as my daughter would be a privilege.

    *It also seems reasonable to introduce a *dis*incentive for people wishing to birth a copy of a violent convict, but accepting that would require a much more enlightened society that one currently in the U.S.

  6. About the smarter bit, there is this. Rare exonic variants were found not to be associated with low IQ, within the rarity of those sampled. This seems to call into question the association between genetic load and low IQ.

  7. @Matt:

    Great speculation. But since parenting is known not have an effect, and the idea that the “unique environment” (really, the unexplained variance) is known not to be attributable to gene-environment interactions, I hope you were just being facetious…

  8. “Christianity’s love of its parent Judaism, which verges into patronizing condescension….”

    At best, actually. Usually worse.

  9. I’m having a hard time imagining a superior me. I’m already 6’4″. I don’t feel the need to be taller. That’s already too tall to be an astronaut or fighter pilot. I can’t fit in a Lotus.

    I could be better looking, but I don’t seem to care, otherwise I would have gotten plastic surgery like so many Hollywood movie stars. Clark Gable for example really looked goofy before he went under the knife and also got some new teeth. With a talented surgeon I could have had movie star looks – not Cary Grant perhaps but probably something near Fred MacMurray.

    I could be smarter but I’m already in the 99.9%ile. I would like to be a four niner but I can bear up knowing I’m not as smart as a few rare others.

    I have some diseases now but they only really kicked in when I reached 65. If you can’t be immortal this is about the best you can hope for.

    I couldn’t find any obvious problems in my 23andme report. I would be hard pressed to identify something obviously wrong to fix. I am nearsighted but that seems to be related to IQ. I wouldn’t trade off stronger eyes for a weaker brain.

    I would have preferred to have suffered from flu less often. So I might prefer to have had a genome with better immunity to upper respiratory infections, but I solved most of that problem when I relented and started getting an annual flu shot as my doctor had always recommended.

    I would have liked to have been a better athlete. But I recognize that all men dream of being a better athlete and it hardly matters how good you are. Joe Montana probably has had those same dreams. I was on my college basketball team. I was totally terrible, but I was still a varsity college athlete which is more than many others can say. I’m content if not completely satisfied.

    I think many readers of your blog if they are honest have a similar story to tell. Their genetics are pretty good. There simply isn’t enough upside room for them to be much better. The average person who reads this blog is smart, probably very smart. Very damn few of them have Huntington’s or some other obvious genetic malady.

    It seems to me that any real world technology that tries to improve a particular genome for cloning will inadvertently introduce some errors of its own. My natural genome has some less than optimum code sequences but I expect that some other defective or less than optimum sequences will creep in with any optimization process. The human genome has been under Darwinian pressure towards optimization for a long time now. Readers of this blog are likely to be already close to optimum – as are you yourself.

  10. Say that you cloned Einstein, or someone of his calibur.

    How confident would you be that the clone would achieve anything like the level of genius and success of Einstein? Surely there is a large genetic component but I would be very interested to see if outliers could reliably be duplicated outside of their original environments.

  11. @Nick:

    That’s an oft-repeated thought experiment, and I’d like to know what would happen myself.

  12. The very fact of being a clone (i.e. being born as someone else’s ersatz) is in itself a pretty peculiar environmental factor. How will the kids deal with this, psychologically?

  13. OMG I want Ricky Gervais to do this as a sitcom.

  14. @Patrick Boyle

    Good points. That is why the first application won’t be making geniuses. It will be either clones or fixing stupid. Fixing stupid will of course be couched in some strange language that makes it sound like a minor tweak that is what everybody does. “Of course my children will have mind glasses, you are just a bad parent if you don’t. If your child had poor vision, would you let him stumble through life in a fog? Of course not!”

  15. Jayman, dumb rather than facetious. I guess dad / mom should really go “Non-genetic unknown factors! (which may or may not be related to environment in ways that are hard to control for, and which may or may not vary by genotype)”.

    Bunch of interesting ideas here –

    Re: how much value for people already at the right tail, some of the value in this for “self cloners” who are already extremely above average should be that the clone would at least not regress as much towards the mean from losing your non-genetic “good luck”, which is generally likely for anyone above average on any trait. Einstein’s clone seems on the balance of probabilities to be unlikely to be as capable or outstanding as he was, but if CRISPRd the right way might not *just* be a patent clerk.

    In a sense you could imagine our theoretical Kaplan in a situation where if he *doesn’t* enhance his clone it will likely lack his “non-genetic” good luck (and as a successful person he’s probably got more good than bad) and thus be a bit of a less capable compared to the original. Which would be a bit of a downer.

    Re: height, seems like a clone with lower genetic load wouldn’t necessarily be taller. Seems like lowering genetic load would be more likely to improve the body’s ability to regulate its growth towards the right size better, to stop at around where the fitness sweet spot would be.

    Re: improving a genome introducing errors, I wonder if it would make sense to leave de novo mutations alone depending on phenotype. For people who are “successful” relative to their parents, their de novo mutations might be more likely to sum to being beneficial on average? It seems like this shouldn’t be a consideration unless the person is really, really far out there though.

    Re: psychological issues, thinking of itself and its “parent” as “delayed twins”, and modelling the relationship on that basis, might help the child normalize itself a bit.

    Re: “OMG I want Ricky Gervais to do this as a sitcom.” – “This is another nice mess you’ve gotten us into proto-Ricky!”

  16. >There simply isn’t enough upside room for them to be much better.

    Yes there is. Steve Hsu mentioned in his video that there are likely many SD’s in g to improve. Future humans are unimaginable to us mere smarties of the present. Humans who are +8 SD to european norms are scattered around in history and were Godlike, geniuses among geniuses. Now imagine someone +20 SD? It cannot be done. Add to that the cognitive implants etc. that time will also bring. It is will be very exciting indeed!

  17. As male of low height and low IQ in which Razib’s advice of finding a good mate is simply untenable, genetic engineering remains the only likely viable means of ‘reproduction’ (my familial history of cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s and diabetes worrying as well). I would also rather have a child built from my conscience rather than my cock. With the decrease in sequencing cost to prevent off-target editing and the high efficiency of CRISPRs. With Illumina’s NextSeq getting genomes down to sub-1000$ genetically engineering may be affordable (surrogacy may cost quite a bit more than the engineering). Of course we need a better understanding of the genome to make it really safe and cognitive genetics is still woefully under-powered. Averaging genomes to reduce genetic load is probably what I would do. I believe that we can create humans +30 SDs in cognitive capabilities, but the studies aren’t there yet.

    I do wonder, however, that if a business were to start around this, would it do better than Robert Graham’s genius factory?

    I’m not sure how Bryan Kaplan can both think that and be for open immigration besides making appeals to libertarianism. It simply isn’t practical. If we wanted talent in this country, wouldn’t it be better to engineer it than import it. At least they would be *ours* even if they aren’t our natural children.

    @Emil OW Kirkegaard

    Feng Zhang was in Karl Dessiroth’s lab where they pioneered light-gated ion channels and he is now a pioneer in the genetic engineering field starting that company with Jennifer Doudna and Keith Joung. I tried applying for a post-doctoral position in those labs.

  18. the late great dave berg of mad magazine’s the lighter side sometimes presented a middle aged dad with a more handsome athletic taller alpha male (hippy-ish:) son. the dad was sort of jealous & resentful, but – eventually… sigh, i’ve lived this – one deals with it & is happy with & for their successful (taller, handsomer) offspring 🙂 if they’re happy, we’re happy! our offspring will be better at some things than us, but sometimes we have a strength in an area they do not (thank goodness for regression to the mean on that account!) PS – have fun, JayMan:)

  19. Some commenters took exception to my assertion that that there just isn’t all that much upside room for much in the way of improvement. I certainly don’t think that there can’t be better, faster, higher people – just not with the existing materials.

    For example. Bones are made of some kind of calcium material. They are hard and strong but titanium or carbon fiber could be harder, stronger and lighter yet. But human genetics (except in the movies) doesn’t really code for better materials.

    Similarly the highest density of switching circuitry so far seems to be in the human nervous system. But not for much longer. There is a smart phone app that is supposed to understand five languages. That’s probably hype and hyperbole – but just wait. Moore’s Law guarantees that quite soon your smart phone will be smarter than you are. Now you may store your calendar on your iPhone. By mid century you may be asking permission from your phone to add an event.

    Genetics has gotten us this far but seems much too slow for the changes that are coming. Cloning or any other kind of gene manipulation seems to be a poor way to create an Einstein.

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