At the highest levels of business and government, his counsel is sought on matters of science, technology, medicine, ethics, politics and history.
Jamie Metzl has advised Walmart, a slew of biotech startups, and the World Health Organization. He served on the White House National Security Council and as an executive of the Asia Society. He led public discussion about the origins of the COVID-19 virus and founded an international movement to help address the world’s collective-action problem.
His credentials include a PhD in Asian history from Oxford University, a law degree from Harvard and five books, including two science-fiction novels and the non-fiction bestseller Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity. A native of Kansas City, he received his undergraduate degree from Brown.
In a coffee shop near New York’s Central Park, where Metzl trains for ultramarathons, Brunswick Partner Raul Damas talked with him about the next stage of human reproduction, and why storytelling can help leaders of business prepare for a radically transformed future.
Given your range of interests, what’s your method for taking in information so that it’s not overwhelming?
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by data and drown in it. That’s why we need to train our minds to do three things. First, be as open and curious about the inputs as possible. Then quickly form hypotheses. And then, most importantly, continuously challenge those hypotheses.
That process helps us find the stories that can serve as organizational frameworks in our minds and make sense of the world around us, the simplicity on the far side of complexity. Without those binding narratives, we’ll be overwhelmed by raw information. With them, we can more easily assess what data is most relevant to us and where it fits in our mental maps.
That human tendency to tell stories often includes a simple hero-villain dichotomy, and I think we saw that in conversation about the COVID pandemic. How would you respond to that?
Sometimes, that framework serves us well. More often, reality is more complicated. For example, even if the pandemic began with a lab accident in Wuhan, which I believe it most likely did, it could well be that Chinese scientists were trying to develop treatments and vaccines, with very good intentions, and made a mistake. Here in the United States, the NIH and CDC made a lot of mistakes, including by providing grants to Chinese labs with insufficient transparency provisions and messing up the testing in the early days following the outbreak. But that doesn't mean we should ascribe bad motives. I believe that in most cases people try to do their best within the systems and structures in which they operate.
So, we have to evaluate individual behaviors in the context in which people operate, their cultures, government systems and social norms. A binary “good people/bad people” framework often leads us to miss that rich contextual framework and a deeper understanding of the bigger story. When we do that, we limit our possibilities when we should instead be expanding them.
Throughout the pandemic we’ve heard “follow the science.” That’s seemed easier said than done. Why?
I believe in following the science, but that doesn't mean scientists are infallible. They are people like us, making decisions with imperfect information. In the earliest days of the pandemic, the available information was highly limited. Unfortunately, some people have become more dogmatic about “following the science” than the scientists themselves. Rather than blindly “following the science,” we should follow the scientific method. That means questioning what we know within the framework of scientific analysis.