If I were a science fiction writer

I sent this to Jerry Pournelle some time ago: here’s a current version

Let us assume that we really could make drugs that increased intelligence. I’m pretty sure it’s actually possible, and the approach that makes it easy is looking at the results of natural selection, rather than trying to understand everything about human biochemistry from the ground up.  Some of the causative mutations in Ashkenazi genetic diseases such as Tay-Sachs and Gaucher are good candidates. If I were a science fiction writer, I’d wonder where an application of this would lead. I can think of a number of possibilities – for some of them, the book or short story  has already been written.


A. The drugs could be too expensive for universal use.

A1. I doubt if they would be in the millionaire-only club – I don’t think any other drug  is,  really, not when there are a lot of customers to spread the fixed costs over.

A2. But it would be easy for them to be too expensive for general use in non-first-world countries. Them that has, gets. Even if too expensive for general use in a poor country, the kakistocrats could probably afford them, making revolution harder. Dictators would, as a perk, get smarts as well as power. The gap between us and, say, Guinea Bissau would become awesome.

A3. There might be a medium-sized but significant time lapse between elite use and general use. Would our government disintegrate in the interim?.

A4. A cabal keeps the drugs secret and strives for world domination. Sounds like fun. See E.

B. There might be side effects.

B1. You die after a while.  See Flowers for Algernon.

B2. You are physically messed up but don’t die, something like kids with torsion dystonia. I doubt this though, because the Ashkenazi mutations are very recent and have not been refined by natural selection. Most people with that torsion dystonia mutation never get sick. Since that is the case, it is probably easy to improve them, reduce side effects, etc. They are non-optimized and so can be optimized. If nothing else, take a break now and then from the drugs. Carriers can’t do that. Hmm.. if there is a risk of physical problems, would people use them anyhow? Most would-be Olympians would take a drug that killed them in five years if it gave them a gold medal: are wannabe Nobelists that tough? Would we use it in a desperate situation, a war? Should we force it on our researchers, for the greater good?

B3. The drugs change your personality in interesting and/or undesirable ways. This side effect too could probably be ameliorated, but it might be tricky.

C. They only work if taken in early life.. Then us geezers might be pushed aside by the rising generation in a new and spectacular way. In fact, the country might not even be run by middle-aged people at all.

C1. They work some, not as well, if you start late.

D. They increase intelligence a lot. Might be possible: if we’re talking the Ashkenazi mutations, hardly anyone has more than one, just about nobody more than two. One in two thousand Ashkenazi Jews, at most, carry both a Tay-Sachs mutation and a Gaucher mutation, the two most common. But using drugs, we could in principle give you the torsion dystonia effect and the Gaucher-carrier effect and the Tay-Sachs – carrier effect and the Canavan-carrier effect  and the familial dysautonomia carrier effect. As a rough guess, might give you considerably more than 20 pts – torsion dystonia seems to confer about ten all by itself.

D1. Add even one standard deviation and society is transformed. Somehow I think that Poul Anderson’s Brainwave missed the point.

D2. Real smart people become so much smarter as to be un-understandable by usuns. This is a lot like Vinge’s Singularity, or his early short story Bookworm, Run ! .

D2a. They stop having children altogether. if you extrapolate, that is certainly the trend, at least among women. The higher the IQ, the lower the fertility.

D2b. The incomprehensibly smart all convert to Catholicism. Or to something else. To them it is obvious.

D2c. The incomprehensibly smart figure out ways to get even smarter. This story can’t be told.

D3. We run similar genetic analysis on famously smart people, looking for strong IQ genes. Before we’re done we dig up Newton, Gauss, Clerk Maxwell, and steal Einstein’s brain.  Razib Khan is now talking about cloning John von Neumann, but I thought this through some time ago.  Since you will never get permission to clone most of the dead savants, the thing to do is raid all the key cemeteries at once, before anyone has had a chance to strengthen security.

D4. We test it on chimps and overshoot. That could be bad.

E. The government bans it – the powers that be want to stay the powers that be. It’ll only work if the powers that be have their own trump – say, real machine intelligence, or maybe people souped-up with a computer connection, as in Starswarm. Or, hydrogen bombs, coupled with a world technological inquisition, especially biotechnology. See Niven’s ARM stories, Poul Anderson’s Shield, Pournelle’s CoDominium, Vernor Vinge’s The Peace War.

E1. Some countries ban it, while other countries, or other sub-national groups, try it.  We all know how that one turns out. Cf Beyond This Horizon, many others.

E2. Groups that currently have genetic advantages wish to keep their edge and support the ban. Up to now, people could kill or oppress you but they couldn’t be you, couldn’t steal your essence. That was then.

E3. The government bans it for everyone other than themselves, for good national-security reasons. We wouldn’t want super-smart terrorists, would we? Shortly thereafter, hereditary rule is imposed. It now works because regression to the mean doesn’t make the nephew stupid; intelligence is a perk of office.

E4. The government only allows use on the slow: only for leveling. Never work of course.

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60 Responses to If I were a science fiction writer

  1. Steve Sailer says:

    Last year’s movie “Limitless” stars Bradley Cooper as a novelist with writer’s block who gets hooked up with a black market supply of IQ-boosting drugs. He quickly deduces that he should stop being a writer.

    • TWS says:

      And that he should bang his landlord’s wife (or was it girlfriend). I think that was the first thing he did with his enhanced intelligence, chatted up a raging harpy who happened to be married. Did he have the same low morals before he took the drugs?

      Was the message that morals are only for little people or did the screenwriter just not care since the character was obviously a ‘mary-sue’.

      • The most interesting debate would be whether enhanced intelligence has anything to do with morals.

        In the end, morals are still self-imposed rules that have been changed through the course of time and space. Therefore it’s really ignorant to assume that he doesn’t have morals since the landlord’s life is consensual for the sex too

  2. bgc says:

    As you imply, it would be a temporary blip in human affairs (a few generations) unless ultra high IQ was inherited with religiousness – otherwise fertility would crash. Some types of Patriarchal religiousness seems to compensate for some of the societal disadvantages of high IQ – e.g. among US (and probably UK) Mormons, where the most intelligent choose to have the largest families (despite using contraception).

    • Abelard Lindsey says:

      Reproduction would not be an issue for long. Curing aging is at the top of the list of things to do for high IQ people. Once aging is cured and we have indefinitely long healthy life spans, reproduction becomes largely superfluous.

  3. Re D2c: Have you read Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress?

  4. hbd chick says:

    @greg – “We test it on chimps and overshoot. That could be bad.”

    wasn’t charlton heston in that?

  5. dearieme says:

    “The incomprehensibly smart all convert to Catholicism.” Now you’re just being silly.

  6. j says:

    D5. Hitler II concludes that the Uber-Ashkenazis are a danger for his plan of world domination and are chased down and deported to Auschwitz II.

  7. FredR says:

    There are a lot of bad science fiction stories about super-smart people. For obvious reasons, it’s hard to convincingly imagine how a super-smart person will behave and think.

  8. Jim says:

    Unless the drugs were very expensive to produce I’m not sure that banning or restricting their use would work any better than it does with steroids or other controlled substances.

  9. You don’t really have to imagine what the super high IQ would look like too much, there are real examples of such people.

    For example there is the essay “The Outsiders”:

    • billswift says:

      Good article, now all I need is a time machine to go back and show it to myself 30 years ago, it’s too late now.

  10. jb says:

    Re: D2a. I don’t think we need to worry that if everybody suddenly became highly intelligent they would all decide to stop having children. The main reason we are culling people with high intelligence out of our population is not because intelligent people don’t want children, it’s because the sort of high-status high-stress two-income lifestyle that our society currently directs those people towards makes having children extremely inconvenient. A truly intelligent society wouldn’t do that! 🙂

    • JayMan says:

      It appears that it’s more than just that. High-IQ individuals, especially women, have lower sex drives, on average. That is a fundamental inhibitor to having children.
      But agreed, today’s society does making having children inconvenient. Maybe we’d have more children if we didn’t have so many cool gadgets and luxuries that we just have to have, forcing the intelligent into high-powered careers to afford such things! 😉

      • jb says:

        I don’t think sex drive has much to do with fertility. How many times do you have to have sex to produce four or five kids? :-/

      • I conjecture that high IQ women tend to view everyone else as inferior, and so are not attracted to them. High IQ men arguably have OK sex drives. The male upper class is reproducing just fine.

      • JayMan says:


        You’d surprised (how little sex happens). But think, the partners of low-sex drive women probably have lower than average sex drives themselves. It doesn’t much more for very little sex to take place (especially since the chance of conception is for the most part fairly low from any session).

  11. billswift says:

    For an interesting take on C1 see Mack Reynolds’s novel Ability Quotient. The IQ boosting drugs worked better for younger people, so they treated the parents first so they could at least stay in some control while the children were still little.

  12. Gorbachev says:

    Um, hate to break it to you, but this is already in play.

    We see what happens. Botany Bay; the Slave Trade.

    One of these scenarios or a variant is going to play out. Regardless of how it goes, it’s going to be UUUGlee.

    ALso inevitable.

  13. dave chamberlin says:

    Science fiction just loves it when things go terribly wrong. Some guy in a lab coats exclaims, “Hey let’s fiddle with the switching that turns on and off genes that influence brain growth during fetus and infant brain growth and see what happens.” It never ends with a bunch of Einstiens and Michelangelos hanging out having a good time, it’s a bunch of killer babies running amok in the lab.

  14. Chip Smith says:

    Convinced by negative utilitarian logic (variant of D2b), a critical mass of uber-intelligent activists embark on a project to bring about total biological extinction. Advances in nanotech/germ-engineering/whatevertech make the omega scenario plausible.

  15. I remember when you posted this to Jerry Pournelle’s site. With drugs like these, one must not only consider _what_ they do, but also _who_ would be using them. Intelligence is an instrumental good. Different people will have different goals. Do-gooders will push them down everyone’s throats before side-effects can be identified. Clannish groups will try to deny them to others while keeping them for themselves.

    It would be fun to guess what the IQ-deniers of today would do. They could try calling it pseudo-science and ruining the careers of the inventors. The drugs get popular in Russia and China. The inevitable happens and the IQ-deniers scream at the little people: “See? We told you so! This happened because you didn’t listen to US!”

    Then again, the IQ-deniers could denounce the drug and its inventors in public. In private, they could chain the inventors in secret government labs and keep the drug for themselves. Sure, some of the drug would slip out, but, like any taboo, the point is to make sure that a critical mass of the wrong kind of people don’t get it. If you’re not “in the club,” then don’t act too smart, or else you’ll get denounced for “spreading poison/hate/(whatever this taboo would be).”

    Meanwhile, the elite would be really smart from the drug. Everyone would know that their intelligence came from the drug. Nevertheless, everyone would be expected to say that their intelligence was caused by doing and believing what the elite do and believe. Soon, those aspiring to elite status would actually _believe_ that this was the case. Saying otherwise in public would be a life-ruining faux-pas.

    Long story short: If these IQ-enchancing drugs were developed, life would go on as it does now; at least for a while.

    • jb says:

      I think the IQ-deniers would joyfully embrace such a drug! Their problem is not really with intelligence per se, but with the idea that intelligence has a hereditary component, and especially with the idea that the hereditary component might be unequally distributed among different human groups. That’s just … just … so unfair!!! OTOH, an intelligence drug that would enhance anybody’s intelligence would not be seen as unfair, so there would be no problem.

      (Of course, what if it enhanced the intelligence of those who were already smart more than those who weren’t…?)

  16. Jim says:

    If these drugs are not terribly difficult to produce, are effective and without really bad side-effects then there should be a pretty large demand for them. The history of attempting to control drugs and other physiologically active substances suggest to me that trying to prevent their widespread use would not be successful for long.

  17. ziel says:

    Two drugs are developed – one to boost verbal intelligence, the other quantitative. No drug boosts both, while taking both pills causes severe mental illness. Factions soon form among the different pill takers, eventually leading to an epic battle for control of the earth.

  18. dave chamberlin says:

    Usually genius, and I mean real genius clearly expresses itself by age thirty, prime production years, and also prime years from which to create a clone of that person. Instead of getting all involved in every possible option lets hone in on the one(s) that can can be done the easiest, the earliest, and with the most effect. Clone the geniuses alive and kicking and young enough to not have their genes degraded by age.

    Where will it happen? When will it happen? I dunno. Thanks for speculating on this stuff Cochran, it’s long overdue.

  19. > They stop having children altogether. if you extrapolate, that is certainly the trend, at least among women. The higher the IQ, the lower the fertility.

    The problem is not that IQ depresses ferility in both sexes, but that prolonged education depresses fertility. Prolonged education is a zero sum status signaling game.

    In women, but non in men, having a successful career depresses fertility, and results in pathological, perverse and self destructive sexual behavior. In the ancestral environment, people lived by hunting (collagen isotope ratios indicate our ancestors were at the same trophic level as wolves and hyenas, or possibly higher) thus women were basically pets, kept by men for sexual services, domestic services, and reproductive services, but entirely incapable of feeding themselves. Tasmanian aboriginals would trade a good woman for a good hunting dog at the rate of one woman, one dog, as if they were entirely comparable creatures, the same sort of thing. Women are not psychosexually well adapted to an environment of economic independence, and the better they are at supporting themselves, the worse their psychosexual behavior.

    For men, however, successful careers result in increased reproduction, and we may expect that IQ boosted men would reproduce.

    • jb says:

      Among the South African Bushmen, gathered food (gathered by both men and women) accounted for about 80 percent of the calories (the large game that was hunted only by men was more highly valued though). So the women could feed themselves. The culture was also quite egalitarian; men and women lived very different lives (no joy for the feminists here), but both were free to end a marriage they weren’t happy with, and both had a say in what the group would do next. It’s true that the Bushmen lived on very marginal territory, so they can’t be held as a model for all ancient hunter-gatherers. Still, I suspect that the Bushman way of life was far more typical of the way our oldest ancestors lived than the Tasmanian.

      • This conclusion about Bushman hunter gatherers was discovered by feminist anthropologists very recently – which is to say, some considerable time after the Bushmen entirely ceased to be hunter gatherers.

      • jb says:

        I got my information about the Bushmen from The Old Way, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. In the 1950’s Thomas, along with her parents (who were anthropologists) and her brother spent a considerable amount of time living with a group of traditional hunter-gatherer Bushmen who were almost entirely unfamiliar with white people, and she has remained in touch with them since then. I strongly recommend the book! I find it very credible, and I see no reason to doubt Thomas’ description of traditional Bushman life. She certainly doesn’t seem to have any sort of feminist axe to grind; in fact she is very clear that the men and women showed different natures from a very young age, and lived quite different lives.

    • Kn83 says:

      What are some examples of this alleged “self-destructive psychosexual behavior”, since said behavior doesn’t seem to result in any disorders, dieases nor rampant promiscuity among career women. Considering the fact that economic self-reliance is the evolutionary norm for sub-Saharan African women and that black single mothers have no problem reproducing above replacement level while supporting themselves compared to every other population of women, the notion that women arent biologically suited for economic self-reliance doesn’t make any sense. It sounds like pure manosphere nonsense.

    • Kn83 says:

      Also, Tasmanian aborigines are hardly representative of most hunter-gatherers, let alone the earliest homo-sapiens and most primates.

  20. anthon says:

    Not just the Ashkenazi genome. Samuel Johnson, in the 18th century, noticed the extraordinary success of the Scottish. There is something to be studied there. I predict that someday we’ll be raiding the tombs of David Hume, Adam Smith, and Gregory M. Cochran.

  21. qwerty@uiop.nl says:

    The whole phenomenon of the ‘Enlightenment’ in 18th century North-Western Europe could be considered a consequence of slow eugenic processes that produced such stellar amounts of geniuses. In that sense I welcome a pill that would increase IQ one standard deviation, the postive effects would bring increases in wealth, health and general well-being.

    But there might be a nasty twist to the story. If people suddenly have lots more opportunities in life, they will not just act on their best impulses; they will act on their impulses with more opportunities. The point raised at B3 “The drugs change your personality in interesting and/or undesirable ways. This side effect too could probably be ameliorated, but it might be tricky.”

    In Paul Verhoeven’s “Hollow Man” the protagonist can become invisible and even though he always was an arrogant prick, he now becomes a maniac who kills, steals, rapes because he can get away with it. It would be a bad thing for the rest of us if criminals and/or sociopaths become a whole lot smarter.

  22. Didn’t we already do this? Just not in pill form. It’s called the Flynn effect.

  23. JayMan says:

    A drug that boosts IQ? Be sure to tell Ron White that there may be a way to fix stupid… 😉

    • billswift says:

      IQ is only moderately related to stupid. Intelligence increases people’s ability to rationalize bad decisions and wrong answers more than to get things right in the first place. (There have been several papers showing this that have been discussed on Overcoming Bias and LessWrong, I don’t feel like looking up exact references right now.)

  24. AG says:

    This smart drug might give democracy a chance to flourish.
    People Aren’t Smart Enough for Democracy to Flourish, Scientists Say

  25. Nick says:

    Why are we assuming the IQ drug is developed in a vacuum? We’ll eventually be able to control other personality aspects too–mental illness, criminality, neuroticism, religiosity, etc. And if you’re not happy with the social effects of the new IQ drug, they’ll have a pill for that, too.

    Long term, the main problem will be boredom. Once you’ve discovered everything there is to discover and fixed society’s ills, what the heck are smart people going to do all day? Hang out on the holodeck?

  26. Tusky says:

    One thing that happens is that (at least in the “minority” races), is that clannishness, nepotism, and outright racism increases. Why? Well, today the value of IQ is evident in that salaries bid on the combination of smarts, effectiveness, and trust. If everyone has smarts (assuming effectiveness can be learned or is widely distributed), then trust is the key criteria for hiring. And sharing that connected feeling of color or language creates a strong first step for building trust.

  27. Anthony says:

    We already have drugs that enhance certain cognitive abilities.

    Caffeine is probably the most obvious one. At a health clinic near where I live (near a university), they refuse to prescribe Ritalin, presumably due to large numbers of students trying to get it to help with studying. Modafinil is another example. Nicotine also seems to be in this category.

    • gwern says:

      Caffeine is more than a little questionable because of how tolerance builds up, and the usual concerns about homeostasis negating stimulants. Caffeine does enhance in unaddicted people – but who is that? No one. Addicts may only be restored to baseline…

  28. Pingback: Intelligence Enhancement « The Veil War

  29. Hey There Gcochran9,
    Thanks for the above, As a mother and a science fiction fan, I really hope my children will grow to enjoy it as well. So far they’re too young to read novels, but that doesn’t mean I can’t get them started.

  30. harpersnotes says:

    Something roughly like Brave New World where perhaps the government decides on limited numbers of lottery vouchers so that society will end up on some desired level of (er..) diversity of percentages of alphas, betas, gamma-minuses, and so on. In the context of drugs that enhance cognition, some will have enhancers perhaps begun in infancy while others will be given de-enhancers. (In Brave New World it’s alcohol put into the bottles gestating the fetuses.)

  31. harpersnotes says:

    Something roughly along the lines of Dune, where there the way spice is used results in different enhancements of cognition. Space Guild Navigators versus Mentats versus Bene Gesserit. Suppose there are a panoply of different types of cognitive enhancement drugs with differing effects. Very roughly micro-dosing of LSD in Silicon Valley (Guild Navigators?) versus various stimulants (cocaine, Adderall) in Investment Banking (Mentats?) and JFK’s Dr. Feelgood type drugs for the politicians (Bene Gesserit?) Mentat assassins might use drugs that increase their propensity to reason like persons high in the Dark Triad traits. Considering further the idea of different types of cognitive enhancements, both schizophrenia and autism are sometimes thought of as possibly relating in some circumstances to very high intelligence – So drugs that enhance intelligence but come at a cost of becoming slowly developing psychopathology. Philip K. Dick seemed to write pretty good stories about somewhat highly intelligent people undergoing psychosis. I wonder if it would be possible to write a story about an autistic-spectrum enhanced genius put into a situation where they were forced to switch to using psychosis promoting cognitive enhancers to try to get out of a desperate situation.

  32. ben-canaan says:


    This is the first time I’ve seen you mention a Canavan carrier effect (even if as a throwaway example). Is this documented? Might be rather different in nature from the carrier effects from Ashkenazi lysosomal storage disorders. Curious because I’m a Canavan carrier and have never seen any comment on this.

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