As every conference attendee knows, a few minutes with a researcher is worth many hours of reading their work. What researchers say in person will be up to date, generally unvarnished and to the point. Compared to writing, conversation is speedy, interactive, and tends towards confession: the spoken word accompanied by the revealed emotion, a multi-level signal, rich in content. Ambiguities can be probed with short queries about meaning and anything contentious subjected to rapid forensic examination, in a two-way process which homes in on core issues. All this would take weeks by email, and in 5 exchanges would lead to boiling rage on Twitter.
Minneapolis is a fine city, with an excellent gallery. Cranach knew a thing or two about the human condition.
ISIR2019 was a conference at which one was spoilt for choice, since within speaking distance over coffee one could chat with Charles Murray, Steve Hsu, James Lee, Greg Cochran, Greg Clark, Razib Khan, Bruce Lahn and Neven Sesardic and many others. At breakfast with Tim Bates I met an amiable couple and, assuming they were wild-variant humans who happened to be staying at the hotel, launched immediately into a general enquiry about life in Minneapolis. They were a sparky and fun couple, and later in the day I realized I had been giving car buying advice to Prof Tom Bouchard, a legendary figure in twin research.
Even better, all of the prominent researchers were excited to see so many younger researchers, whom they quizzed enthusiastically. There is an excellent crop of young scientists already making their mark, and they were the de facto stars of the event, because established participants are all too aware that a decade ago such new talent was rare: it was a conference for older researchers. (ISIR offers special inducements for researchers at the start of their careers). http://www.isironline.org/category/awards-2/student/
The first day of the conference had a Symposium on Science and Ethics of genetic engineering, with Greg Cochran, Steve Hsu, Razib Khan, Bruce Lahn and Neven Sesardic. Sesardic argued that John Rawls’s work was a far from perfect guide to ethics in this field. Impossible to cover each contribution, but a general theme was that “designer babies” were unlikely, mostly because of doubts about unintended consequences. Crispr techniques are accurate for point deletions and small sequence insertions, but not so accurate when dealing with longer stretches of DNA. The panel as a whole was cautious about any gene editing procedures at this stage, though Razib Khan said that some in the genetics world, while condemning He Jiankui for his work on twin babies susceptible to HIV, were also grudgingly impressed with what he had done.
In answer to a question, Bruce Lahn said that genetic engineering in mouse was accurate, and came up with very few unintended effects, of the order of 1%. There was a common agreement among the panel that the appropriate ethical standards would prevent such experimentation in the West, but uncertainty about whether this would be the case in China. This raised a possibility that whichever nation relaxed ethical standards to allow experimentation might gain a considerable advantage over other, merely by the deletion of intelligence-lowering mutations. The panel also noted that screening for Down’s syndrome was now routine. In-vitro fertizilation was now running at over a million births a year, and these children has been previously stigmatized as “test tube babies”. Attitudes change if people are give the ability to choose new techniques.
This is a very brief summary, but here is the sequence as I see it, from those likely to happen soon to those much further downstream and happening later, if at all:
1) In countries where pregnancies can be terminated, more pre-natal screening, not only for Down’s syndrome, but for other forms of severe mental handicap and, when possible, for some genetic disorders like cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s chorea.
2) In the case of in-vitro fertilization, far more screening based on polygenic risk scores for a wider variety of disorders, concentrating initially on those with the very highest scores which put embryos most at risk. This depends on having viable foetuses to select from. No changes are made to the foetus, but choice is guided by polygenic risk scores.
3) Limited use of Crispr on foetuses to remove mutations directly linked to serious genetic disorders.
4) Crispr being used more generally to remove SNPs which increase vulnerability to a broader range of genetic disorders.
5) Crispr being used even more generally to remove SNPs which increase vulnerability to psychiatric disorders and low intelligence.
6) Crispr or other techniques being used to create “disease resistant” embryos.
Incidentally, one prominent researcher said that he and his colleagues were perplexed as to exactly what had been said at the London Conference which had caused so much trouble. I replied that I too was perplexed, but thought that it was because one of the 59 papers given at UCL was about eugenics, arguing it would only be contemplated in the setting of Malthusian over-population, and that it would not select for intelligence, but for a propensity to be happy. “Really” he replied “but that is far, far less than we have discussed here today”.
Strange are the ways of humankind.