What do you do about when you find the biological roots of behavior?
Virginia Postrel: What does it mean to understand human beings as biological creatures, as material, as manipulable? Aside from the obvious benefits of being able to cure diseases and extend life, which have their own implications for societies . . . If everybody starts to live a long time what does that mean? We’re already experienced a doubling of life expectancy worldwide over a hundred years or so. Really quite remarkable. That changes the way societies organize themselves. Not in the sense that people say, “Okay. Now we’re going to get married later and have fewer children.” But it happens partly because of life extension. There’s that . . . sort of the obvious social consequences, but then there’s the deeper philosophical issues. If we are really material, what does that mean? How do we think about that? What do we think about consciousness? If it’s an emergent property of chemical reactions as opposed to a little ghost in your head, does that make you feel worse about yourself in the same way that maybe if you have to give up and be . . . universe centered on earth and man, does that make you feel worse about yourself? You know amazingly enough we got use to that, and we don’t feel worse about ourselves than we did with the earth as the center of the universe. I think we’ll get over this other too. But it raises a lot of issues. What do you do about when you find the biological roots of certain kinds of criminal behavior, or socially destructive behavior? How do you deal with that? It’s a deep, difficult question, especially if the person hasn’t actually done anything bad. How do you think about that? Or if they have done something bad, then you can say we identified the gene that led to this personality disorder. Does that get them off if they killed six people or something? So that, I think, is one big area.
Recorded on: 7/4/07