By Brian Merchant
Image: Aarondn93 via Flickr
Seems like everybody's talking Chinese genomics and the art of engineering genius babies these days. But the nation that's more likely to breed a generation of super-smart, problem-solving kids isn't the global economic giant currently engaging in a complex, sinister-sounding genetics program—it's Armenia, a tiny landlocked nation, pop. 3,000,000, that's still mired in the shadow of a devastating genocide. And it's going to do it with chess.
First, let's look at China's alleged plan. Vice recently ran an uber-popular interview with evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, who believes that the Beijing Genomics Institute is essentially looking for a way for China to breed more intelligent children. Super babies, if you will. And it's the largest such effort in the world. More specifically, BGI Shenzen has "collected DNA samples from 2,000 of the world’s smartest people and are sequencing their entire genomes in an attempt to identify the alleles which determine human intelligence."
If they're successful in finding them, Miller believes it could pave the way for embryo screenings that would eventually help boost the IQ of children by 5-15 points per generation, in aggregate. But after the article went viral, there was some significant pushback from the scientific community. Many scientists say IQ is too complex, too reliant on the interplay of genes and environmental factors, to "engineer" for, given our current capabilities. Slate's Will Oremus collected quotes from a number of skeptics who shared this view, including Hank Greely, director of Stanford’s Center for Law and the Biosciences.
“I think it’s pretty clear that intelligence—if it even exists as an entity, which remains controversial among psychologists—involves a boatload of genes and genetic combinations, all of them substantially mediated through the environment," Greely told Slate. "The chances that genetic selection is going to lead to really substantial increases in human intelligence in your lifetime are low.”
Santiago Munné, who runs Reprogenetics, a private lab that does preimplantation genetic diagnosis—a process where an embryo is screened for disease-causing mutations, and sometimes, for physical characteristics like sex and hair color—doesn't think China can pull it off, either.
“IQ is controlled by probably more than 1,000 genes, so there is no point even trying to control for that,” he told Oremus. Miller nonetheless feels that if you do enough screenings and weed out enough genes related to intelligence, you'll increase the net intelligence slowly but surely.
But there's probably a better, less terrifying and Gattaca-reminiscent way to make an entire generation of kids smarter with already extant technology and no hint of scary eugenics: Make playing chess mandatory in school.
“ "The chances that genetic selection is going to lead to really substantial increases in human intelligence in your lifetime are low.”
Armenia is the only nation in the world where chess is a compulsory part of school curriculum, thanks to a $3 million initiative passed in 2011. Beginning two years ago, chess has been a mandatory in the third and fourth grades—students play chess two hours a week every week for two years. Part of the program's aim is to improve children's logic and reasoning skills. But, as with China's more sci-fi approach, part of the aim is to engineer a generation of smarter, savvier children.
Armenia's education minister Armen Ashotyan recently told Al Jazeera that "Chess develops various skills - leadership capacities, decision-making, strategic planning, logical thinking and responsibility. We are building these traits in our youngsters. The future of the world depends on such creative leaders who have the capacity to make the right decisions, as well as the character to take responsibility for wrong decisions."
And, of course, there is a decent body of scientific evidence that suggests that learning and playing chess can actually raise a child's IQ—no test tubes required. University of Sydney professor (and chess grandmaster) Dr. Peter Dauvergne has long argued that chess has significant educational benefits, and that a raised IQ is chief among them.
He synthesizes the research supporting his claim in a 2000 article, "The Case for Chess as a Tool to Develop Our Children's Minds." Elsewhere, the Kasparov Foundation has compiled compelling arguments that chess improves cognition, boosts intelligence, and enhances problem-solving capabilities in "the Benefits of Chess in Education."
The Armenian psychologist keeping a close eye on the chess program agrees. "Ruben Aghuzumstyan has been researching the impact of chess on young minds since last year," Al Jazeera reports, and he says that "preliminary results show that children who play chess score better in certain personality traits such as individuality, creative thinking, reflexes and comparative analysis."
That is encouraging news, because there's still little consensus around whether chess is actually unique in its educational benefits—whether it's any more effective than more traditional math or logic problems. But there's no doubt that it's an intellectual boon for children. And it's definitely more fun.
Susie Hunanyan, the elementary school student profiled in the piece, looks forward to her routine chess lessons, and even aspires to be a grandmaster. "I like chess lessons a lot," she said. "My grandpa taught me how to play chess. But now that I learn chess in school, I am better at it than he is."
The question is, will she be better than him at everything else, too? It stands to reason. The concerted push to engage the nation's youths may yet beget a generational rise in IQ—which is really fascinating to consider, especially alongside China's sci-fi futuretech. While China may be paving the way for genetically-optimal brainiacs in giant genomics labs, Armenia is modifying its youth's intelligence the old fashioned way—with smart policy and good education. As such, Armenia's actually more likely to boost its youth's IQ than China—using gaming technology that's been around for over a thousand years.
By Brian Merchant