Two hundred years from now, nobody will remember George W. Bush. Nobody will remember what was happening in Iran, Iraq, or Ukraine. What they will remember is that this was the beginning of the age of biotechnology, the self-transformation of what we presently think of as the human race.
That’s the subject to which the President’s Council on Bioethics is devoting itself today and tomorrow in a series of deliberations about the beginning, end, and manipulation of life. The council is a ridiculous paradox: an almost completely ignored and powerless body that happens to be debating the most consequential events of our day. It’s meeting in Washington’s Decatur Carriage House, a building so small that there’s seating for fewer than 50 observers. Still, less than half the seats are taken.
Two of the 20 or so spectators are priests. The whole building looks and feels like a church. A quartered circular window centered high on the far wall brings to mind stained glass. Only the faintest gray penetrates the skylights in the cathedral ceiling. Dim lights are cast upward from the rafters. Electric candles glow in glass goblets mounted to the walls.
What is this poorly attended church struggling to convey to the outside world? The material revolution around and within us. This morning’s topic is what human beings should do with the time we’ve got on our hands now that science is doubling our life spans. Take cruises? Play with the grandkids? Learn macramé? Buy pills to get rid of wrinkles or regain erections? Will boomers be as self-absorbed in old age as they’ve been in middle age? Will the economy cater to them? Will they just collect checks and treat themselves to a good time? If so, will younger folks do something about it? How nasty will this get?
It’s an intriguing topic, with enormous—and for many people, possibly fatal—economic and political consequences. But you’d hardly know it from the lifelessness of the proceedings, which achieve a status hitherto unknown in Washington: too boring to televise on C-SPAN. The reason for this is simple: The council consists of, and takes testimony from, the sort of people who have spent enough time probing deep questions to cultivate expertise and esteem. These people used to be called monks. Today we call them nerds.
I like nerds. I often play chess with a member of the bioethics council, and if playing chess with a nerd doesn’t make you a nerd, I don’t know what does. Nerds care about facts and doing the right thing. They ask probing questions and challenge assumptions. The nerds in this room can translate between the red-state language of religion and the blue-state language of policy. Washington needs more of them. If it weren’t for nerds, nobody here—as opposed to at the Vatican—would be seriously debating bioethics.
But nerds have trouble communicating the essence of the council’s mandate: humanity. It starts with the stuffy titles. One member of the council is the Daniel Noyes Kirby Professor of Law and Professor of Ethics in Medicine. Another is the John Denis McGarry, Ph.D. Distinguished Chair in Diabetes and Metabolic Research. Today’s second presenter will be the Chauncy Stillman Professor for Ethics, Morality, and the Practice of Law. I’m a fan of the council’s chairman, Leon Kass. But should I address him as the Hertog Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute? Or as the Addie Clark Harding Professor in The College and the Committee on Social Thought at University of Chicago?
The council doesn’t discuss events or stories. It discusses “papers.” This morning’s presenter, Professor Thomas Cole of the University of Houston, offers typical council fare. He cites Plato, Aristotle, and Nietzsche. He speaks of postmodernity, authenticity, and commodification. He translates the decline of pension plans as “ontological insecurity.” He doesn’t talk; he reads. The paper, not the person, is the star. The paper is so central, and the person so immaterial, that when Cole loses his place in the text on two occasions, the council endures half a minute of silence while he struggles to get back on script.
This isn’t much of a problem, since the person is ignored. As Cole begins to speak, Kass literally turns his back for most of the hourlong presentation. The other council members stare down, avoiding eye contact with Cole, who in turn avoids eye contact with them. These aren’t gestures of disrespect for Cole. They’re gestures of respect for his paper, which the members are reading, and for his computerized presentation, which Kass is watching on a projection screen against the far wall. Cole taps a button on his laptop, and up pops a quote from Cicero. Nerd heaven.
It’s the unscripted moments, when the person breaks free of the paper, that show a flicker of the humanity to which the council is officially devoted. At one point, Cole departs from his script to recall a beautiful novel. Some members look up and smile. In another aside, he quotes a comic’s request “for your applause in advance.” Kass breaks into a grin. Later, the group chuckles as Cole jokes, “Older people are notoriously absent when you offer a course in aging.” Several seem touched as he ruminates on his hopes of retiring to the Texas hill country. After he finishes, council member Michael Gazzaniga notes dryly that the chief reason people get happier as they age is that they learn to “ignore negative information.” Bald, white, and gray heads laugh around the table. Of the 14 members on hand, only three look young enough to give you a decent game of tennis.
But age isn’t necessarily the council’s problem. Paul McHugh, an elderly member with a thick New England accent, shatters that assumption with a spicy impromptu rebuttal. He scoffs at kindness and other “soft” virtues enumerated by Cole (Kass bursts out laughing as McHugh attributes these to Sesame Street) and speaks up for the more “vigorous” virtues of courage, self-reliance, and critical judgment. He says old people like him need to get out of the way when they’ve lost the energy and imagination to fight inertia in the workplace and the community. Eyes light up around the table and the room. McHugh thumps his microphone as he puts it away, then flexes his fingers like a prizefighter itching to get back in the ring. When Cole questions something he said, McHugh grabs his mic and fires back. His words are about weakness and age, but his actions refute them.
There’s a hot debate to be had in this room—and outside this room in the decades to come—about what, if anything, old people owe the rest of society as they proliferate and survive longer and longer. You get a glimpse of it when Cole projects onto the screen a quote about the “vapidity” and “self-indulgent stupidity” of seniors who just eat, play bingo, and consume “excessive” drugs. You get another glimpse when council member Gil Meilaender jokes, to much laughter, about how annoyed he is to be told “that I have an obligation to continue to grow.” But papers can’t engage in that debate. Only human beings can. And that’s what the council must learn not just to say, but to do.