When Genius Flourishes, the Problems Get Tougher

This is our Age of Discovery. Versus just a generation ago, humanity today contains twice as many literate brains. We are healthier. We are better educated. (There are more higher degree holders living now than ever lived prior to 1980.) We exchange vivid ideas globally, instantly and at near-zero cost. In every field, from astronomy to zoology, discovery is now a 24/7 global effort. And outside the lab, millions of citizen-scientists help crunch through thousands of giant-scale datasets, answering big questions now that previously would have taken generations to resolve.

These conditions describe an ideal world for scientific flourishing — and it is well underway. Last summer at Harvard, over 130 scientists, businesspeople and government officials from five continents met to explore present and future pathways for synthetic biology — creating genomes, including human genomes, from scratch. In just a couple decades of furious genetic research, the life sciences have suddenly, irrevocably put nature’s power to create and modify life into human hands. It’s a crude power now, but already it offers a profound possibility: that we will one day soon set aside medicine’s traditional mandate — to treat the body — and adopt a more radical vision: to transform the body so that our present limits no longer apply. What is already certain is that there is no going back.

This power presents us with the most profound choices we have ever faced as a species. And like many new powers — in artificial intelligence, robotics, quantum and nanotechnology — may be outpacing our wisdom and institutions for handling it. The last Age of Discovery, during Europe’s Renaissance, is replete with examples of what can go wrong when exploration, discovery and technological change outpace society’s understanding of it. Copernicus’ sun-centered model of the heavens was condemned as heresy; Columbus’ voyages spread pandemics on both sides of the Atlantic; gunpowder caused the collapse and rise of whole empires.

The stakes today are higher. We cannot step 500 years into the future, but we can be certain that when the history of the twenty-first century is written, a title theme will be how we developed our new powers of nature — and the wisdom or folly with which we exercised them. We urgently need to have far-reaching public conversations about these far-reaching issues. Which is why the least surprising aspect of last summer’s Harvard gathering is also the most disappointing:

The press were not invited.