Thursday, May 07, 2009

The School of Athens and Bioethics

Raphael’s The School of Athens presents a scene familiar to anyone who has spent time in the world of bioethics, a swirl of heated discussion among passionate individuals from many backgrounds.  The painter draws his viewer’s eye to the very spot I occupy every day as director of a public policy think tank in Seattle: the intersection of reality, possibility, and belief. 

As biotechnology continues to outpace the imagination of all but the visionary, individuals face real life scenarios that were beyond our collective imagination a decade ago.  Whom I would add to Raphael's visualization of knowledge and great conversation today? Or, put another way, what knowledge do we now have that the earlier philosophers did not? How has that knowledge – scientific, aesthetic, political, psychological - changed how we understand what it means to be a moral human being?

I would add representatives from the fields of genetics, sociobiology, evolutionary psychology and neuroscience. Genetics helps us understand our origin in and connection to the natural world. Sociobiology takes that knowledge further and helps us understand the complex relationship between nature and nurture. Evolutionary psychology will help us understand the emotional and cognitive adaptations we make to technological gains. Advances in neuroscience are going to pose some of the most important ethical questions yet about what it means to be human — challenging our concepts of free will, gender and genetic determinism, and what sets us apart from other species.

I believe the most important conversations in this century will be between the scientists and the broader community as we struggle to understand the implications of new technologies. Let's make sure we are all in the picture.

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