Depending on who you ask the genetic testing of children is a nightmare, a science fiction ploy, or a day camp in China. At the Chongqing Children’s Palace, more than thirty children aged three to twelve are being tested for eleven genetic markers. With the help of these markers, and some observation of the child, Dr. Huang Xinhua, the manager of the facility, claims he can accurately predict abilities as diverse as IQ, memory, focus, emotional control, music appreciation, and athleticism. All in the span of a five-day camp for the children. Too bad it’s the equivalent of DNA astrology. As science blog Genetic Future was quick to point out, the whole setup is predicated on misconceptions. Check out the (neutral) CNN video after the break to learn more.
The simple fact is that current genetic testing isn’t able to predict complex abilities such as emotional control, IQ, or focus. Doing so based on just 11 genes is farcical. The day you may be able to predict height, physique, and hearing acuity based on genetic tests is coming soon, but it’s not here yet. Again, as Genetic Future points out, current genetic models are based on European genomes not Asian ones, and have proven ill-equipped to even predict height. The idea that a quick genetic test could serve as an aptitude test is ludicrous at this point in time.
By charging $880 USD, and claiming to use real genetic sampling techniques (capturing 10,000 cells from a single saliva swab), the Children’s Palace is presenting the facade of legitimate science. A facade that CNN doesn’t address at all in their video. They focus entirely on if parents should use genetic testing, ignoring the blatent fraud that Dr. Xinhua is committing. The first question reporters should always ask about a technology is, “does this really work?” Right now, CNN is simply legitimizing a group whose claims are a few years too soon.
Dr. Xinhua is exploiting Chinese parents’ dedication to their single state-allowed child. These parents believe in science and want to use it to help their child as much as possible. That attitude alone speaks volumes for the future of the genetic testing of children. While the Children’s Palace is riff with misrepresentation, the possibilities they propose are becoming more likely as time passes. Already we’ve seen that certain babies could show us the most likely genes that key for muscle strength. Prenatal screening for a few genetic defects is already common place, and could expand indefinitely in the future. By the end of this year, sequencing the entire genome of an individual may become financially feasible for most couples. Parents the world over, not just in Chongqing, are going to use that technology to whatever advantage they can.
Which may not be a bad thing. I know that movies like Gattaca have guided us to believe that genetic determination of offspring will lead to a rigid class based society. That’s science fiction. Genetic evaluation of children, or even designer babies, can never accurately control or predict the full range of human ingenuity and success. Instead, DNA testing is likely to help us guide our everyday lives to balance our genetic predispositions. Do you have the gene that increases your risk of heart attack? Get more cardiovascular exercise and watch your diet. Will your child have the gene that allows them to metabolize caffeine quickly? Go ahead and let them try coffee earlier. Genetic testing only works in conjunction with environmental stimulus.
Whether you’re opposed to genetic testing of children, or support it, it is coming. Each year brings us closer to reliably identifying the purposes of our genes. We can fight over the moral implications, or debate if one technique works better than another, but the science will still be available. The ability to understand the genetic makeup of our children isn’t here today, but it will be very soon. Anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something.