The government shutdown. A volatile stock market. Climate change.
It's so easy to get discouraged by the latest headlines, argues Steven Pinker, that we lose sight of the bigger picture: life today is actually improving.
"To appreciate the world, we've got to look at numbers and trends."
Pinker, a cognitive psychologist from Harvard, says in his book "Enlightenment Now" that we're living at the greatest moment of progress in history, thanks to reason, science, and humanism. But today, he says, these ideals are under-appreciated, and we ignore them at our peril.
So he set out to provide a vigorous moral defense of the values of the Enlightenment by examining the evidence for their effectiveness. Across a range of categories from happiness and health to peace and safety, Pinker examines the data and reassures readers that this is a pretty great time to be alive. As we kick off the new year, he's hopeful that our embrace of science and reason will lead to an even more prosperous future. But political and cultural hurdles must still be overcome before the heroic story of human progress can continue to unfold.
Pinker spoke with our Editor-in-Chief Kira Peikoff in advance of the book's paperback release, which hits stores next Tuesday. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
One anecdote you describe in the book was particularly striking: how the public reacted when the polio vaccine was announced. People took the day off work to celebrate, they smiled at each other in the streets, they offered to throw parades. Today, it's hard to imagine such prevalent enthusiasm for a new advance. How can we bring back a culture of respect and gratitude for science?
That's such a good question. And I wish I knew the answer. My contribution is just to remind people of how much progress we've made. It's easy to ignore if your view of the world comes from headlines, but there are some built-in biases in journalism that we have to counteract. Most things that happen all of a sudden are bad things: wars break out, terrorists attack, rampage shootings occur, whereas a lot of the things that make us better off creep up by stealth. But we have to become better aware of them.
It's unlikely that we're going to have replications of the great Salk event, which happened on a particular day, but I think we have to take lessons from cognitive science, from the work of people like Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, showing how misled we can be by images and narratives and that to appreciate the world, we've got to look at numbers and trends.
The cover of "Enlightenment Now," which comes out in paperback next week.
You mention that the President's Bioethics Council under Bush was appointed to deal with "the looming threat of biomedical advances." Do you think that professional bioethicists are more of a hindrance than a help when it comes to creating truly enlightened science policy?
I do. I think that there are some problems in the culture of bioethics. And of course, I would not argue against that the concept of bioethics. Obviously, we have to do biomedical research and applications conscientiously and ethically. But the field called Bioethics tends to specialize in exotic thought experiments that tend to imagine the worst possible things that can happen, and often mire research in red tape that results in a net decrease in human welfare, whereas the goal of bioethics should be to enhance human welfare.
In an op-ed that I published in the Boston Globe a few years ago, I said, deliberately provocatively, that the main moral imperative of bioethics is to get out of the way since there's so much suffering that humans endure from degenerative diseases, from cancer, from heart disease and stroke. The potential for increasing happiness and well-being from biomedical research is just stupendous. So before we start to drag out Brave New World for the umpteenth time, or compare every advance in genetics to the Nazis, we should remember the costs of people dying prematurely from postponing advances in biomedical research.
Later in the book, you mention how much more efficient the production of food has become due to high-tech agriculture. But so many people today are leery of advances in the food industry, like GMOs. And we will have to feed 10 billion people in 2050. Are you concerned about how we will meet that challenge?
Yes, I think anyone has to be, and all the more reason we should be clear about what is simultaneously best for humans and for the planet, which is to grow as much food on this planet as possible. That ideal of density -- the less farmland the better -- runs up against the ideal of the organic farming and natural farming, which use lots of land. So genetically modified organisms and precision agriculture of the kind that is sometimes associated with Israel -- putting every last drop of water to use, delivering it when it's needed, using the minimum amount of fertilizer -- all of these technologically driven developments are going to be necessary to meet that need.
"The potential for increasing happiness and well-being from biomedical research is just stupendous."
You also mention "sustainability" as this big buzz word that you say is based on a flawed assumption that we will run out of resources rather than pivot to ingenious alternatives. What's the most important thing we can do as a culture to encourage innovation?
It has to be an ideal. We have restore it as what we need to encourage, to glorify in order to meet the needs of humanity. Governments have to play a role because lots of innovation is just too risky with benefits that are too widely diffuse for private companies and individuals to pursue. International cooperation has to play a role. And also, we need to change our environmental philosophy from a reflexive rejection of technology to an acknowledgement that it will be technology that is our best hope for staving off environmental problems.
And yet innovation and technology today are so often viewed fearfully by the public -- just look at AI and gene editing. If we need science and technology to solve our biggest challenges, how do we overcome this disconnect?
Part of it is simply making the argument that is challenging the ideology and untested assumptions behind traditional Greenism. Also, on the part of the promoters of technology themselves, it's crucial to make it not just clear, but to make it a reality that technology is going to be deployed to enhance human welfare.
That of course means an acknowledgement of the possible harms and limitations of technology. The fact that the first widely used genetically modified crop was soybeans that were resistant to herbicides, to Roundup -- that was at the very least a public relations disaster for genetically modified organisms. As opposed to say, highlighting crops that require less insecticide, less chemical fertilizers, less water level. The poster children for technology should really be cases that quite obviously benefit humanity.
"One of the surprises from 'Enlightenment Now' was how much moral progress depends on economic progress."
Finally, what is one emerging innovation that you're excited about for 2019?
I would say 4th generation nuclear power. Small modular reactors. Because everything depends on energy. For poor countries to get rich, they are going to have to consume far more energy than they do now and if they do it via fossil fuels, especially coal, that could spell disaster. Zero-carbon energy will allow poor countries to get richer -- and rich countries to stay rich without catastrophic environmental damage.
One of the surprises from "Enlightenment Now" was how much moral progress depends on economic progress. Rich countries not only allow the citizens to have cool gadgets, but all kinds of good things happen when a country gets rich, like Norway, Netherlands, Switzerland. Countries that are richer on average are more democratic, are less likely that to fight wars, are more feminist, are more environmentally conscientious, are smarter -- that is, they have a greater increase in IQ. So anything that makes a country get richer, and that's going to include a bunch of energy, is going to make humanity better off.
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.