History, Science and the Future of the Human Race — Walter Isaacson
History, Science and the Future of the Human Race — Walter Isaacson
When curiosity meets creativity, Walter Isaacson is there to tell the story. In each of his biographies, Isaacson serves as the ultimate reporter. He’s covered some most fascinating subjects in human history and shared their personal stories with the world. Isaacson discusses his creative process, the subjects of his biographies and the ethics of gene editing with host Charles Mizrahi.
• An Introduction to Walter Isaacson (00:00:00)
• Choosing the Right Subject (00:01:26)
• Sitting With Kissinger (00:08:19)
• Gratitude & Humility (00:11:21)
• Fairness in Biographies (00:12:16)
• Preachers vs. Storytellers (00:15:11)
• The Code Breaker (00:21:06)
• Designing Our Children (00:27:11)
• Morality, Ethics and Gene Editing (00:30:09)
• The Next Subject (00:37:31)
Walter Isaacson is an author, journalist and professor. After graduating from Oxford and Harvard University, Isaacson began his career in journalism. Since then, he’s served in several senior positions at news organizations such as TIME Magazine and CNN. In addition, he held a 15-year tenure as president and CEO of the Aspen Institute. Today, Isaacson teaches history at Tulane University and is a senior adviser for Arcadia Publishing.
Isaacson’s own published works include several bestselling biographies on genius minds and Nobel Prize-winners alike. You can find these books below.
Before You Leave:
WALTER ISAACSON: That’s the one thing that sets our species apart. We have a curiosity. They say cats have curiosity. No. We have a real curiosity every day — whether you’re Leonardo da Vinci, Ben Franklin, Charles, Walter or whomever. And that curiosity has led to our creativity.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: My guest today is Walter Isaacson. Walter is the bestselling author of biographies on Leonardo da Vinci, Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Henry Kissinger. His latest book is, The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing and the Future of the Human Race.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: In the book, Isaacson writes about how Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna and her colleagues launched a revolution that will allow us to cure diseases, fend off viruses and have healthier babies.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I recently sat down with Walter, and we talked about the ethics of gene editing, how he goes about choosing who to write about and what he hopes readers will get out of each of his biographies.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Walter, thanks so much for being on the show. I greatly appreciate it. I’ve been looking forward to this for the past couple of weeks — since I knew you were going to be on the show. And I want to tell you, [we’re] big fans in the Mizrahi household. I surveyed my kids. Everyone seems to have read one of your huge biographies.
WALTER ISAACSON: Thank you, Charles. Boy, it’s great to be on your show.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: All right. So, Walter, you’ve written biographies on the dead and living. You’ve written on Kissinger, Franklin, Einstein, Jobs, Leonardo Da Vinci and now, Jennifer Doudna. Before we get into any of them specifically, out of all the people in history — dead or alive — how do you pick the ones that you’re going to write about, and how do you immerse yourself in every aspect of their lives?
WALTER ISAACSON: Well, I like writing about creativity — who has it, how it happens and how you can nurture it. You and I have known a lot of smart people in our lives. And after a while, we’ve realized that smart people are a dime a dozen. They don’t always amount to much. What matters is being creative — being able to think out of the box, or as Steve Jobs would say: “to think different.”
WALTER ISAACSON: And so, those are the types of people I’m looking for. Those people are often able to be curious about a wide variety of disciplines — whether it’s Leonardo da Vinci or Benjamin Franklin. They like art and anatomy. They like math. They like music. They love the humanities and sciences.
WALTER ISAACSON: Steve Jobs, whenever he launched a product, which is at the intersection of two street signs — the arts and technology — he’d say: “That’s where we stand because that’s where creativity happens.” And so, those are usually the criteria I look for. And then, because I like writing about people who are curious, I tend to want to pick subjects I’m curious about myself. So, that’s why I picked Jennifer Doudna and The Code Breaker — this new book. I became deeply curious about the life sciences, health, medicine and biotech. And that was before COVID struck. Certainly, after COVID struck, we all became more interested in that.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Why did you pick Kissinger as your first? What year was Kissinger?
WALTER ISAACSON: Oh, Kissinger was back when I was just coming out of college and working at TIME Magazine. What happened was a close friend of mine and I, Evan Thomas, wrote a book called The Wise Men about six friends and how they helped shape America’s Cold War policy. It ends with the Vietnam War. And I wanted to continue it. I felt that Kissinger had had a lot of books that were very favorable and unfavorable. I wanted to try and write a fair and straightforward biography of how he balanced the power of diplomacy.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And he gave you access? You were a young student. How old were you at the time?
WALTER ISAACSON: I was in my 20s. And yeah, it was a topic that was very interesting to him — meaning, himself.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: But how does that come about? Some guy calls him up — a 20-something-year-old kid — who says: “I want to write a biography about you.” And he says: “Yeah, sure.” Or, is there more to it?
WALTER ISAACSON: I told him I wanted to write a biography about him. He had read The Wise Men. I was at TIME, and I was very young. But it was still a small media world there at TIME Magazine. He really does like to talk about his career. But also, he talks to journalists quite a bit. He’s famous for doing so. We had people we knew mutually — meaning Hugh Sidey, who worked at TIME Magazine with me.
WALTER ISAACSON: I think he initially said: “Well, fine. If you want to do a biography, go ahead. I’m not sure that I’m going to have much time to help you.” But then, as he kept hearing about the people I was calling and the things I was researching and reporting…
WALTER ISAACSON: I used to go over to his apartment at River House, have breakfast — which is not my favorite meal — and spend a lot of time while he explained things to me.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: What I find fascinating — and we’ll talk about Steve Jobs in just a minute — you not only wrote about these people from a distance, but you got up close and personal.
WALTER ISAACSON: That’s one of the lucky things in my life — having been a journalist — and having, like you, a personality that’s interested and curious in people. People like to talk. I learned that when I was first working for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans as a high school summer job. You’d have to interview people. No matter how young you are, they like to talk.
WALTER ISAACSON: And so, I had that reporters’ instinct. I could get to people and open them up — make sure they talked. I was very curious. I never had an agenda. Whether I was writing about Henry Kissinger or Steve Jobs, I just wanted to listen and tell the story. I’ve just been lucky. Of course, once you’ve written two or three books…
WALTER ISAACSON: What happened with Steve Jobs, [was that] I’d written about many other people, and he called me up at one point and asked: “Why don’t you do me next?” And I said: “All right. Yeah. Ben Franklin, Albert Einstein and then you?”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Wait. Hang on, Walter. He called you out of the blue? You didn’t know him?
WALTER ISAACSON: I knew him because of TIME Magazine — where I had been the editor, and, before that, the back of the book editor. I had met him a few times — especially in early 1984, when he had the original Mac. I was a very junior writer at TIME. I was the only one at TIME who was using a computer. So, when he came to meet the editors of TIME, they had to invite me because I was the only one who knew how to use a personal computer.
WALTER ISAACSON: And so, we got to know each other. He was my best friend. Every couple of years — whenever he had a new product that came out — he’d call me up and say: “This is a great product. Only you will understand it. You have to put it on the cover of TIME Magazine.” We’d eat at a sushi restaurant in lower Manhattan.
WALTER ISAACSON: At one point, in the early 2000s, he called me up and said: “Why don’t you do my biography next?” And I said: “Yes, Steve. OK. Ben Franklin. Albert Einstein.” It sounded a bit arrogant. I said: “But why don’t we wait 20 or 30 years until you retire?”
WALTER ISAACSON: Eventually, I realized that he had called me right after he’d been diagnosed with cancer. If I was going to do it, I had to do it. And it would be a unique opportunity to get up close with somebody who had transformed six or seven industries — from personal computing to cell phones, music, retail stores, digital animation and personal devices. I like talking about how business and technology transforms our lives. And I realized that it would be a unique opportunity.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Wow. I want to go back to Henry Kissinger for just a minute, so I can get it in my mind. You’re in your 20s. You’re having breakfast over at his house with your … laptop. I don’t know if you had a laptop in those days. I doubt it. Maybe it’s just your yellow pads, pens or whatever — taking notes. So, you’re sitting with one of the most powerful, influential guys in the world — who has a vast amount of knowledge and history. You’re sitting there, he’s eating scrambled eggs and you’re having coffee. And you guys are just chatting about things? Am I getting that right?
WALTER ISAACSON: Well, I wasn’t wasting his time. I’d say: “All right. Let’s talk about the Vietnam negotiations now. Or, detente with Russia. We would go step by step through the various parts of his career, including the parts that were problematic — like the secret bombing of Cambodia or the U.S. involvement in Chile during the Allende period.
WALTER ISAACSON: He very much wanted to explain himself. He would explain why the Paris Peace Accords fell apart at one point. You had to do what he said — the Christmas bombing. It was clear that I wasn’t fully agreeing with him. But I think that made him only more eager to push and try to make sure that I saw all of his sides.
WALTER ISAACSON: At first, I don’t think he was that pleased when the book came out. It’s favorable in parts and critical in parts. But I certainly tried to get everything accurate, quote him accurately and show exactly what he thought. The book was about him — not about my opinions.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And when you sat down with him, did he basically say: “Anything you want. There’s nothing off limits.” Or, he section off and say: “I don’t want you to talk about my childhood in Germany or my relationship with my father.” Was there anything that was out of bounds?
WALTER ISAACSON: No. In fact, his childhood in Germany … He wanted to live up to his father.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, I know. It’s good.
WALTER ISAACSON: My book begins with him packing up as a young teenager while the Nazi Gestapo police are in his apartment. As they’re leaving Germany — they were able to leave Germany, which was lucky for them. Young Henry Kissinger said to the Gestapo: “Someday I’ll be back.” And, of course, he comes back with the American expedition — the forces — after D-Day. He’s there with the occupying forces in his hometown of Germany.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Wow, that’s fascinating. Did you pinch yourself when you went there and say: “I can’t believe that this guy is telling me all these things”? He’s talking about the bombing of Cambodia. That’s wild stuff.
WALTER ISAACSON: One of the good things about being a journalist is that I still can’t believe, after 40 years in the trade, that I get paid money to ask interesting and smart people about things I’m curious about. And whether it’s Henry Kissinger, Steve Jobs, people I’ve written about who are alive or Jennifer Doudna — who has done the most transformative discovery of our lifetime: how to edit human genes…
WALTER ISAACSON: I pinch myself all the time — as we all should. You should. Your kids should. I assume most of our listeners should. We should pinch ourselves and say: “We ought to wake up every morning with a bit of gratitude and humility because we’ve been able to lead lives that are better than most people on this planet — for most of human history.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: When you’re writing these books — especially about the dead — about Ben Franklin or Einstein, do feel that you have an awesome responsibility to get it right? They’re not there to defend themselves. You know because you’re an accomplished author. You’re well-known. You’re a celebrity in that sense. What you put out there is going to be treated as gospel.
WALTER ISAACSON: Well, I do try to get it right and check all the facts. I try to make sure that if I make a judgment or say something, I include the subject’s point of view — and do that in a way that makes sure the subject will come out OK.
WALTER ISAACSON: With Steve Jobs, in the last year of his life, I spent a lot of time talking to him in Palo Alto. Near the end, I read him the last two chapters of my book. I hadn’t yet finished it, but I said: “Here are the judgments I’m making.” And I allowed him to push back on some. Even though I kept my own judgments, I quoted — as you’ll see in the last couple of chapters of that book — him saying: “No, here’s the way I see it.”
WALTER ISAACSON: I feel that there’s an absolute necessity to be fair. I will say that history is not done with just one layer on the canvas or one painter doing the brush strokes. After I wrote about Steve Jobs, Kissinger, Einstein, Franklin — and probably even Jennifer Doudna — other people have come along, and they add their own brush strokes to the canvas of history.
WALTER ISAACSON: There have been books about Henry Kissinger that were far less favorable than mine. I just read an upcoming book by Martin Indyk that’s very favorable about the way he did the Middle East peace process. There have been quite a few books on Steve Jobs that paint a slightly different picture. So, I tried to get mine right, but if people don’t agree with it, I say: “There are a lot of other books, too. You should read more than one book.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Walter, you’re such a nice guy. And you’re an honest man. I get that sense after speaking with you — the few times that we’ve spoken. I’ve read about Ben Franklin and Albert Einstein — your biographies — and I’ve read other biographies about them. Why do I feel so comfortable with yours? I’m comfortable in the sense that I’m not struggling. I don’t feel that you have an axe to grind. You’re standing there as a third party — just the facts. You’re like Sergeant Friday — just the facts. I guess I’m answering my own question. I don’t even need you for this one. But is that something you really work towards and are cognizant of?
WALTER ISAACSON: Yeah. When I was growing up in Louisiana, I had a mentor — Walker Percy — who’s a great novelist. He wrote The Moviegoer. When I told him that I wanted to become a writer, he said: “There are two types of people who come out of Louisiana: preachers and storytellers.” And he said: “For heaven’s sake, be a storyteller. The world’s got too many preachers.”
WALTER ISAACSON: A lot of journalists these days feel that they’re supposed to advocate and preach. I feel like I’m supposed to give you my opinions every now and then or make judgments when there are conflicting facts. But I feel that the main thing I’m supposed to do is tell you the story, so you can form your own opinions. I’m flattered you said what you did. But what I try to do is take the reader hand in hand and say: “We’re going to go on a journey of discovery together, and I’m going to be totally honest about where I got my information.”
WALTER ISAACSON: In none of my books is there ever an anonymous quote — including the Kissinger and Steve Jobs books. I’m going to be open and transparent about where my information came from. Every now and then, I’m going to tell you: “Here’s how I assess the situation.” But I’m going to make it clear that it’s only my opinion, and I’m going to give you some pushback from others who might see it differently. But mainly, I do it as a narrative storytelling. I’m not trying to prove a point. I’m trying to say: “Let me tell you a story.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: For those of you who’ve never read one of Walter’s books, definitely pick up one that resonates. The subject resonates with you. It’s really a treat. It’s sounds almost like a novel. I’m a big fan — and I’m not trying to be partial here — but when I’m reading your books, it’s enjoyable in the sense that you’re learning so much — not only about the subject, but also about the whole context of their times, scientific discoveries and human sides. You are able to write about their human sides in a way that makes it approachable — like: “Wow, that could be me.” I felt the same way Einstein did. I was reading some parts and said: “Yeah, I definitely feel that.”
WALTER ISAACSON: The whole point of being a biographer is to show how the personal interrelates and connects to the accomplishments. Even with Einstein and understanding who he was personally — how he dealt with his father or Mileva Maric, his first wife. [It] also ties into the story of how he makes the leap about figuring out what it would be like to ride alongside a light beam and catch up to it. What would happen if you traveled at the speed of light? And I think that whether it’s Steve Jobs, Jennifer Doudna or Henry Kissinger, personal experiences connect to the accomplishments you make in this world.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I want to hold off on Jennifer Doudna until the end. Just briefing through the book — I didn’t read that book extensively because it got too late — I found it a little different than your other books. You’ll tell me if I’m off on that. Or, maybe it was done that way. Out of Kissinger, Franklin, Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci and Jobs, which one did you walk away from and say: “Wow, I really learned a lot.”
WALTER ISAACSON: Well, I learned a lot from Jennifer Doudna because I didn’t know enough about life and nature. I didn’t know a lot about molecules. I grew up in the Steve Jobs era, so I know how to program a microchip. But now, it’s like: “Whoa. We have to learn how to program a molecule because that’s how we’re going to make new vaccines.” That’s how we’re going to edit our own DNA — and that of our children. So, that was a “holy cow” experience, and it was easier, frankly, than general relativity — the math of which is still daunting.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: One second. With Jennifer Doudna’s book, The Code Breaker — which I want to talk about just a moment because it was fascinating stuff. The hair on the back of my neck goes up. It’s so crazy. Did you have a scientific background? Or, did you learn all of this on-the-go with her?
WALTER ISAACSON: Well, I love science. And my father was an engineer. My uncle was a scientist. My brother’s an engineer. So, I love science, and I grew up doing it. I studied science, biology, physics and computers in college. I wish I was a more professional scientist.
WALTER ISAACSON: On the other hand, perhaps, the fact that I have to learn it — from scratch — makes me better at conveying it in a way that’s simple enough, so those who have not studied biology or physics can understand gene editing — or for that matter, Einstein. So, I throw myself into the science.
WALTER ISAACSON: When I did Jennifer Doudna, I figured, OK, we’re talking about editing human genes. I have to do that myself. So, I spent time in the lab with two graduate students, who taught me how to edit our own DNA — the cells of a human. So, I did it. Now, when you read the book, you’re not going to have to go through all the biology of it because I try to make it into a story that an average reader can appreciate. But in order to do that, it’s helpful for me to dig down into the science, so I appreciate it more deeply.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: How did you find her? Let’s go right to The Code Breaker because there’s no getting around that. It seems to be a sea change in that it’s a little different than everything else you’ve written. I don’t know. When I started reading parts of it, it seemed like you had a lot of enthusiasm towards it. You’re really excited about it. Even in the pictures — in the book — you’re in the lab, and you’re smiling. You’re really psyched. Am I right or wrong on that? Am I picking something up?
WALTER ISAACSON: Look behind me — right there on top of that picture. Well, only you can see it. We’re not doing a visual show. That’s The Double Helix — James Watson’s book about the discovery of the structure of DNA. I found it because my book on Jennifer Doudna begins as her dad leaves The Double Helix on her bed when she’s in middle school. She realizes it’s a detective story — a mystery about life that has all sorts of clues. How do you unravel the mysteries of how our bodies work, how we fight off diseases and how we fight viruses?
WALTER ISAACSON: So, I went back and searched through all my bookshelves. I found that my father, when I was six years old … I opened it up, and there’s my little scrawl as a 16-year-old. It had all the things that I underlined about words I didn’t understand — like “biochemistry.”
WALTER ISAACSON: I found that book, and I realized that the mystery of life is something I’ve always been interested in. There’s something profoundly joyful about understanding how something works — especially when that something is ourselves.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I want to tell you: I’m not a science guy. When I read Einstein — by the way, you did a great job with the math. You made it very palpable.
WALTER ISAACSON: [There were] only two equations in the book: E=mc^2 and one that even I don’t understand — which is the mathematical expression of general relativity.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Right.
WALTER ISAACSON: You don’t have to understand it, but here it is.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: It’s good. It didn’t slow down the story all, which was great. Instead of going off and explaining the math, you just touched on it and went on. But with Jennifer Doudna — first of all, how did you find her? When did you find her?
WALTER ISAACSON: Well, about six or seven years ago, I was finishing up Leonardo da Vinci, and I was looking for a way to do the revolution in biology. I had done the revolution in information technology — the digital revolution and infotech. And it was like: “OK. The next big one is life sciences — editing our genes and making vaccines out of genetic coding.” It’s just like we’ve been doing.
WALTER ISAACSON: I looked around, and there are all sorts of people in this book. There’s George Church of Harvard and the wonderful Feng Zhang of M.I.T. There’s Emmanuelle Charpentier from Europe. I met all of them. But the more time I spent with Jennifer Doudna — who I met at an Aspen conference [because] I invited her when I worked at the Aspen Institute — I realized that, as a young graduate student, she had helped figure out the structure of RNA. And then, she used the ideas about the structure of RNA to help figure out how this gene editing tool known as CRISPR works.
WALTER ISAACSON: And then, she got this horrible nightmare that somebody wanted to learn about it. And it was Adolf Hitler. So, she got in the forefront of figuring out the policy and ethical issues of gene editing. And then, she turned her attention to the coronavirus. So, I said: “She’s the main character. She’s the person I want to follow.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: When did you start writing the book?
WALTER ISAACSON: Well, I started writing the book about three years ago — after I’d spent three years on research. But, about a year and a half ago — as every listener will remember — suddenly, we all got shut down by COVID. I told my publisher: “All right. I’m not going to turn it in now. I’m going to wait another year or so because this changes the story somewhat.”
WALTER ISAACSON: So, the last 20% of the book is about Jennifer Doudna — and her fellow scientists — turning their attention to fighting the coronavirus. Then, of course, she wins a Nobel Prize right in the middle of that. And so, finally, the book has a big ending — which is them discovering ways to fight the coronavirus, the creation of vaccines based on RNA — this wonderful molecule that was her hero and mine in the book. I took an extra year or so, and that’s why the book came out just a couple of months ago.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Well, it was perfect timing. Everything lined up for this one, right? COVID came. You had access to labs. You could stand right beside these people. Everyone had a lot more time on their hands. The clock was ticking down. As you’re watching this in real time, you’re watching a basketball game, and you got there in the first quarter.
WALTER ISAACSON: I hope that part of the book does reads that way because I wrote it as if we were watching it unfold in real time. So, it’s not simply a history of going into the Wayback Machine and asking people: “What did you do that day? What did you do when you discovered this?” It was like a play-by-play in my notebook of how they discovered ways to fight the coronavirus.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: When you go and interview these people — and learn the biographies — do you actually take a notebook and pen and write? Or, do you have a laptop? What do you do?
WALTER ISAACSON: Sometimes, I have a tape recorder for an official interview. But generally, I have a pen and paper. Paper is a great technology. It’s got a long battery life — almost infinite. As I know from reading Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks, even after 500 years, they’re still intact. The operating system. You don’t have to figure out how to boot it up. So, I keep a lot of notes on paper.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You started in The Code Breaker, Part One: The Origins of Life. You quote Genesis 2:8-9. The Lord God made a garden in Eden. And there, he put the man he had made out of the ground. The Lord caused to grow every tree that is beautiful and good … the Tree of Life. Why did you start with that?
WALTER ISAACSON: Read the next line.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: “…tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.”
WALTER ISAACSON: The tree of knowledge of good and evil. The good Lord — or nature and nature’s God — were able to create lots of species over the past 3.5 billion years. But he created one particular star. She or he created one particular species that worships at the Tree of Knowledge and also has to understand the nature of good and evil. And that’s what this book is about. It’s about being curious about the most important discovery of our time —which is how to edit our own genes.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Could you touch upon that? We’re taking it for granted that we all know what that is. Tell me why. If I came from Mars, what does it mean to edit genes, and what are the benefits thereof?
WALTER ISAACSON: Every species on this planet, for three billion years, has been subject to evolution that comes randomly and often haphazardly. Now, one species — and it happens to be us — has the talent and temerity to say: “I’ve invented a little tool that can take my own DNA, or the DNA of other humans, and change it.”
WALTER ISAACSON: That’s wonderful because we’ve already used it to fix the mutation that causes sickle cell anemia, other blood diseases or blindness. And we’re using it to fight cancer. But it also needs to be part of the tree of knowledge of good and evil because we will now be able to hack our own evolution — unlike any other species ever.
WALTER ISAACSON: We’ll be able to say: “Let’s design our children.” People will be able to say: “I want my kid to be taller, have a bigger muscle mass, or have blood that carries more oxygen because I want her or him to be a sprinter.” Maybe we’ll even be able to affect memory — or for that matter, mental processing power. Certainly, we’ll be able to affect things like hair and eye color.
WALTER ISAACSON: Already, somebody has made inheritable edits — meaning edits in an early-stage embryo that are now part of the human species because they’ll be inherited — and tried to take out the receptor for HIV — the virus that causes AIDS. That was done in China in an unauthorized way. Well, after this coronavirus thing, maybe we’ll become a species that edits our genes to be less susceptible to viruses.
WALTER ISAACSON: But you can see that this is something that we have to take a breath, pause and say: “What are the implications of letting rich people buy better genes for their kids? What are the implications of editing out the diversity in our species? Do we even want to edit out deafness and blindness? Do we want to edit out some of the things that make us a diverse species?” These are moral questions that the scientists aren’t going to answer for us.
WALTER ISAACSON: I want you to read the book and understand the potential of gene editing because there will be people like you, me, our listeners and their children who are going to have to say: “All right. When should we authorize this? What do we use it for? Should we use it to fight sickle cell?” Yeah, probably — and Huntington’s, Tay-Sachs and cystic fibrosis. I think most people would say yes.
WALTER ISAACSON: Should we use it to fight depression? Should we use it to fight schizophrenia? Should we use it to fight for somebody to have better blood oxygen levels? I go step by step, case by case and hand in hand with the reader to say: “Let’s think this through together.” And I’m going to spoil some sales of the book, but there’s no last chapter that says: “Here are the answers.” It’s a slippery slope, and we have to do it step by step and cautiously to be less slippery. But I say: “There’s not an easy set of answers that I’m going to give you. I’m just going to join you on the journey as we all think this through.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: We’ve become godlike in a sense. We’re able to reengineer what has not been reengineered for over 100,000 years.
WALTER ISAACSON: Yeah, it’s like Prometheus on the wing town to Zeus snatching fire from the gods. We’ve now snatched fire from the gods. And like Prometheus, we have to be somewhat careful of how we use it. To get back to that quotation you did earlier, we’re like Adam and Eve, and we’ve bitten into the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. And now, we have to understand not only the Tree of Knowledge, but also good and evil.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: The layups are Alzheimer’s, ALS, sickle cell, blindness and deafness. But there’s a flipside to all of them. What about the caring and the sympathy of certain people? It brings out their personalities. And to do good and care about those [who are] less fortunate — we created a race of super people who never get these sicknesses. They never get any of these things. I’m not saying that they’re good or bad. I’m not trying to be that bold.
WALTER ISAACSON: But yeah, you’re right. Michael Sandel talks about empathy. He’s a Harvard philosopher. But an even more interesting philosopher in my book is David Sanchez. He’s a 17-year-old kid who loves playing basketball — except when he doubles over and pain in the middle of the court because he has sickle cell.
WALTER ISAACSON: At Stanford, where he’s being treated, they tell him: “We may be able to edit your genes and reproductive cells now — your sperm — so that your children won’t have sickle cell.” At first, he says: “That’s great!” And then, he says: “Well, maybe we should let it be up to my kids — after they’re born — to decide.” Then, you ask: “Why?” And he says just what you said, Charles: “Empathy. Having sickle cell taught me empathy. It’s taught me to care about others. It shaped my character. It taught me how to get up off the floor and persist.”
WALTER ISAACSON: And then, I asked him a few months later. I said: “David, would you really want your kids to be born with sickle cell if we could edit it out?” And he said: “No, I’ve decided that I would like to have my kids edited so they aren’t born with sickle cell.” And I asked: “Well, what about the empathy?” And he said: “I’d try real hard to teach them empathy, but I don’t want them to feel the pain that I feel.” I’m not saying he’s right. I’m saying it’s good that he had first thoughts, second thoughts and third thoughts — even about something as simple as sickle cell. I think we all have to have first, second and third thoughts as we discuss this.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah. I’m just thinking of Alzheimer’s, for example. When a parent or loved one gets it, a whole ecosystem — if you will — of family becomes different. They start caring and speaking. There’s so much sympathy and appreciation of life, memory and family. God forbid anyone should have this. I’m just saying that you bring up a lot of great philosophical points. Initially, you say: “Of course! Let’s get rid of all these things.” But there’s a price. There’s something we pay for that as a species.
WALTER ISAACSON: But before we go too far down that road, let us remember that, as a species, we have — over the centuries — found wonderful ways to make ourselves healthier. We have found everything from inoculations and vaccines to pasteurizing things and fighting polio…
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Smallpox and measles.
WALTER ISAACSON: And also, antiseptic. Of course, we should use all of our talents in order to make ourselves — and our children — healthier. Every species on this planet uses every trick in their playbook in order to survive and produce healthy offspring. So, I think it’s a good thing. And it’s a great thing that things like sickle cell, Tay-Sachs, Huntington’s…
WALTER ISAACSON: I get three or four emails a day — after I wrote this book. People tell me: “Let’s worry about the ethical issues. Maybe we shouldn’t go so fast down this path.” But I got one this morning, and I’m still choked up about it. It’s a picture of a wonderful family — parents and their two boys. The four-year-old boy has — I think — Angelman syndrome or something. [It’s] a single gene mutation. That means he won’t be able to walk. He’s said: “My kid’s going to die soon. Can’t you get me in touch with the scientists who could save him?” And I get it.
WALTER ISAACSON: I got one about somebody’s granddaughter — a picture of her in the swimming pool saying: “They say she’s not going to live more than another three years. Is there some hope here?” So, we have to say yes. I’m not sure we want to edit out everything in our species, but we should go down this [road] with some clear-eyed hope that is going to make us healthier.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: It’s also the arrogance of me — or someone — saying it. We should think about who is not afflicted or doesn’t have a family member. If it’s your kid, wife or spouse who has it, boy, oh boy. You wanted this yesterday. Leave the ethical questions alone.
WALTER ISAACSON: I’ve been to a lot of bioethics panels — where they have all sorts of religious leaders, people from whatever communities, doctors and scientists. And I say: “Where are the parents of patients? Where are the parents of the 12-year-old or four-year-old girl or boy? They should be on this panel as well.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Wow, great. What’s your next book?
WALTER ISAACSON: I don’t know yet. I really don’t. In fact, in about an hour, I’m talking to some people to try and figure it out. It’ll be about somebody who has a wide-ranging curiosity — who’s taking on the great technologies and science of our time. [They will] probably have a type of curiosity that is interested in everything from the humanities to technology and science. That’s the field I like to plow because all of us can be that way. We can all be curious about more subjects — just like I became curious about health sciences and biology.
WALTER ISAACSON: I think that’s the one thing that sets our species apart. We have a curiosity. They say cats have curiosity. No. We have a real curiosity every day — whether you’re Leonardo da Vinci, Ben Franklin, Charles, Walter or whomever. And that curiosity has led to our creativity.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I guess you’re looking for Renaissance people.
WALTER ISAACSON: Well, that’s why Leonardo da Vinci. He was the definition of the Renaissance.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: He’s asking the same question: “Why is the sky blue?”
WALTER ISAACSON: And Einstein asked that.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah!
WALTER ISAACSON: I took a walk today. We finally had a nice blue sky. I see the blue sky most days, but I forget to ask: “Why is it blue?” It’s not all that difficult, but Leonardo had it in his notebook, and he sprayed mists of water and purified water to figure it out. And Einstein had it. He used Lord Rayleigh’s formula to try and diffract light. We’re not going to do all those science experiments. But every time you look at the blue sky, you ought to be a little curious — why is it blue? And then, go home and do a Google search because everything in life is interesting.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I remember reading about Richard Feynman — a great 20th century physicist. He said his curiosity was sparked: “By my parents. When I would ask ‘why’ questions, they would always answer.” And he would continually ask. What do most parents do? They say: “Enough. Stop asking silly questions.” And here, it was constant. For example, when I went to Yeshiva, where we learn Talmud, the answer wasn’t so important. It was the question. You had to have a sharp question.
WALTER ISAACSON: That’s a great way to culminate a discussion like this. All of us can nurture curiosity in ourselves. And more importantly, we can nurture it in children. You see that all the time — people walking with a kid, and the kid says: “Why does the duck have webbed feet?” And the grown-up says: “Quit asking so many stupid questions.” Don’t do that. Say: “Keep asking questions.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Outstanding. The great Walter Isaacson. Walter, I want to thank you for your time. I could speak to you for hours. I find it so fascinating that you’ve given us a gift. You spent countless hours writing, rewriting and getting your facts right. So, even though your books — for many people…
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I look at a book, and I say: “Wow. It’s over 600 or 700 pages? I love it.” There’s going to be so much information in there. And you pack your books. What’s your longest book? Is it Leonardo?
WALTER ISAACSON: I don’t know. Steve Jobs or Leonardo. I think Einstein. They all clock in at about 500 pages. But I hope they read like stories. I hope they speed along because they’re supposed to be detective stories and journeys of discovery.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: What I liked about Leonardo was that you put a great bunch of great pictures in there. There were really great diagrams of his papers and notebook.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Wow. Walter, thank you so much. I wish you continued success. Thanks again.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Charles Mizrahi Show. If you’re a new listener, welcome! If you’ve been listening for a while, we’re glad to have you back. Either way, we’d love to know what you think of the show. Please leave a review if you listen on Apple Podcasts. Reviews make it easier for others to find the show. You can also see the video of the interview on The Charles Mizrahi Show channel on YouTube.
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