Biotechnology, Ethics & The Future

While I’m sure there are many lasting impressions from the 20:20 Vision Symposium, it seems that a universal memory were some of Laura Deming’s closing comments. I personally appreciated her undomesticated energy and enthusiasm. Her passion and precocious talent make her a poster child for the virtues of self-directed learning in my mind. Yet her unbridled quest for life-extension quickly revealed some serious tunnel vision: when asked if she thought about the ethical dimensions of her work in biotechnology, she bluntly said, “no.” The auditorium seemed to recoil in response. These comments, and this sentiment in general, underscore the importance of a liberal arts education.

Nothing exists in isolation. Everything is interconnected. Science has revealed this truth in spades. So, while scientific and technological breakthroughs may be incubated in a lab or workshop, they quickly reverberate into social, economic and environmental domains. As increasing breakthroughs in biotechnology may banish infectious and chronic diseases into the annals of history, this long fabled fountain of youth might also unleash unintended consequences. This is why all scientific and technological progress must be matched with ethical and humanistic progress. If our external development quantum leaps past our internal development then we unknowingly sow the seeds for the terror of tomorrow. Nuclear fission takes a high level of cognitive development, but doesn’t guarantee that those who know how to split an atom have the intelligence to use it wisely – if at all. Hiroshima and Fukushima are grim reminders of this principle.

As science and technology continue to develop at an exponential rate, how can we ensure that our internal development is keeping pace? Taking an interdisciplinary approach could be a good place to start. I can envision a Civ-like class that learns about not only the science of biotechnology, but also explores the economic, social and ethical dimensions that come bundled in the manipulation of genes.  For example, biomedical engineering should be learned alongside a close reading of Frankenstein, an investigation into moral philosophy, and scenario planning into its socioeconomic impact.

James Baldwin once said that, “Not everything faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” So my question to you is: how should we face the seismic changes that are taking place on planet earth (biotechnology being just one of them) that promise to reconfigure what it means to be human?

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