Thursday, February 27, 2014


We are rapidly gaining skill in genetic manipulation. In addition to such high priority goals as creating better athletes and prettier people, what are the prospects for smarter and healthier people? Steve Hsu has some thoughts and quotes on the former:

.. I think there is good evidence that existing genetic variants in the human population (i.e., alleles affecting intelligence that are found today in the collective world population, but not necessarily in a single person) can be combined to produce a phenotype which is far beyond anything yet seen in human history. This would not surprise an animal or plant breeder — experiments on corn, cows, chickens, drosophila, etc. have shifted population means by many standard deviations (e.g., +30 SD in the case of corn).

... I think we already have some hints in this direction. Take the case of John von Neumann, widely regarded as one of the greatest intellects in the 20th century, and a famous polymath. He made fundamental contributions in mathematics, physics, nuclear weapons research, computer architecture, game theory and automata theory.

In addition to his abstract reasoning ability, von Neumann had formidable powers of mental calculation and a photographic memory. In my opinion, genotypes exist that correspond to phenotypes as far beyond von Neumann as he was beyond a normal human.

I have known a great many intelligent people in my life. I knew Planck, von Laue and Heisenberg. Paul Dirac was my brother in law; Leo Szilard and Edward Teller have been among my closest friends; and Albert Einstein was a good friend, too. But none of them had a mind as quick and acute as Jansci [John] von Neumann. I have often remarked this in the presence of those men and no one ever disputed me. – Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner

You know, Herb, how much faster I am in thinking than you are. That is how much faster von Neumann is compared to me. – Nobel Laureate Enrico Fermi to his former PhD student Herb Anderson.

One of his remarkable abilities was his power of absolute recall. As far as I could tell, von Neumann was able on once reading a book or article to quote it back verbatim; moreover, he could do it years later without hesitation. He could also translate it at no diminution in speed from its original language into English. On one occasion I tested his ability by asking him to tell me how The Tale of Two Cities started. Whereupon, without any pause, he immediately began to recite the first chapter and continued until asked to stop after about ten or fifteen minutes. – Herman Goldstine, mathematician and computer pioneer.

I always thought Von Neumann’s brain indicated that he was from another species, an evolution beyond man. – Nobel Laureate Hans A. Bethe.

Such skills, if real, would certainly change the character of the human race.