Steven Pinker was one of the first to have his genome sequenced, and he wrote a long essay about the experience in the New York Times magazine in 2009. He sensibly concluded that your genome could tell you some things, but that there were more direct ways to find out about yourself. In his words: “If you really want to know yourself, consider the suggestion of François La Rochefoucauld: ‘Our enemies’ opinion of us comes closer to the truth than our own.” Pinker seems to have gained a whole new group of “enemies” with his recent Boston Globe op-ed calling on ethicists to leave scientists alone to pursue their research with new gene editing technologies. But it’s at least possible, if not entirely plausible, that Pinker actually agrees with his critics that genetic editing requires regulatory and bioethics oversight, and that he believes that such regulation needs more, not less, attention.
Pinker understands the power of language to shape beliefs. In his 2009 book How the Mind Works, he noted that “in everyday life” we will need language (and humor) to “undermine the pretensions of countless blowhards, blusterers, bullies, gasbags, goody-goodies, holier-than-thous, hotshots, know-it-alls, and prima donnas.” I’ll let him decide which one he most closely represents when he “claims authority on a pretext of beneficence and competence” (a strategy he says he despises in How the Mind Works).
In his recent op-ed, Pinker is, of course, beneficent, promising that science will slay premature death and disability. His promise, however, comes at a high price: we must ignore human dignity and social justice.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.