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The offbeat Bioethics Forum at Promega explores the nature of life
Can it bring the local biotech and IT communities together?

Credit:Linton: 'Who are we? What's out there? Why do we exist?'

Imagine a serious discussion about LSD. Not "oh wow" accounts from nostalgic baby boomers or "oh hell" accounts from cops and mental health professionals. But something measured yet edgy about how the hallucinogen expands consciousness.

That's what the 270 attendees heard last April at the 12th annual International Bioethics Forum in Fitchburg. Sponsored by the nonprofit educational institute founded by local biotech leader Promega, the two-day event was a head-turning examination of creative insight.

I suspect that UW-Madison, for all its resources, couldn't have matched the quality. The forum offered a 360-degree perspective on the nature of creativity. The lean-forward audience heard experts on neuroscience and shamanism, the cartoonist Lynda J. Barry on artistic expression, and UW-Madison's resident polymath, David Krakauer of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, discussing collective experimentation.

This made for a dizzying intellectual experience even without psychologist James Fadiman, who helped conduct the last federally approved LSD research in the 1960s, explaining how LSD sensitized artists and scientists to pattern recognition. I bring this up now because the forum should be considered a premier event for Madison's burgeoning knowledge industries and their inordinately curious workers. But it's not.

That is a consequence of the silo worlds of information technology and life science in the Madison area. I saw none of the familiar faces of the downtown tech scene in the audience. And these are people who readily kick into networking mode at the random pop of a beer cap and the opening of an Ian's pizza box.

Shortly afterwards I circulated an email to several tech leaders, asking why they had passed up such a stimulating convocation. The answers that came back might be expected: Too busy. Didn't hear about it. Not interested. Stephen Anderson of Bendyworks admitted he just didn't know much about the biotech community, adding that those folks were probably just as ignorant about his software community.

The funny thing is that these two worlds are already colliding. Krakauer, for one, sees the boundaries disappearing in the work of nanotechnology, the manipulation of the smallest things, "as we move into an age of organic programming and evolutionary engineering."

Mark Clear, executive director of the tech group Accelerate Madison, got to the core of the problem when he wrote me: "The convergence of our industries is moving quickly but lags in some areas: like talking to each other."

Maybe that will change with the 2014 International Bioethics Forum.

The forum is put on by the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute, which shares space with Promega's production facility. (The company sells more than 3,000 biotech testing products worldwide.) As I wrote in a profile of Promega founder Bill Linton ("Capitalist with a Soul," 9/6/2013), extensive community-building efforts distinguish Promega as one of Dane County's signature companies.

Its educational nonprofit, led by Karin Borgh, does science-related education for professionals and students, including the impressive African American Ethnic Academy that I wrote about in the Linton profile. The BTCI's annual Wisconsin Stem Cell Symposium is a major event for researchers. But it's the annual Bioethics Forum that seems to captivate Linton, whose relentlessly curious mind is his defining characteristic.

When we recently talked, Linton explained that the annual forum always picked topics -- What is the nature of life? What is the nature of death? -- in which the answers weren't settled. "Sometimes people would leave with more questions than they came in with," he says with a laugh.

This year's forum -- "3.8 Billion Years of Wisdom: Exploring the Genius of Nature" -- promises more of the same. Nothing conventional, but an examination of the "many beautiful examples of life forms accessing information that we simply cannot explain, but call 'instinct,'" as the promo material says. It runs May 1-2 on the Promega campus.

This is the fifth year the forum has burrowed into consciousness. "There are different points of view of consciousness in nature and taking it a step further -- not just of consciousness, but also of intelligence. Does the very embodiment of matter, particularly as expressed in life forms, exhibit a form of intelligence that doesn't quite fit the human definition of IQ?" Linton asks.

"Nature seems to have evolved with the ability to combine intricate, amazing complexity in ways that are astounding and that we don't understand," he adds. The great controversy, he continues, is whether evolution is a blind, random process that sometimes produces advantageous mutations. "Or is there something else happening that is not totally blind randomness?"

This question certainly stopped me in my tracks.

Linton points to the statistical unlikelihood of a light-sensitive organ like the eye evolving in nature eight or nine times from completely different origins. "The fact is, it seems like nature wants to enhance its ability to take in sensory information, and then do things with that information. Some people say that the nature of the universe is trying to find a way to ask the questions: Who are we? What's out there? Why do we exist?

"In a way, when we ask those questions, it's nature [expressing] itself, because we are a product of this natural process. That's pretty amazing for nature to have brought in this element of consciousness."

To be sure, this was not my typical afternoon telephone interview.

The forum will gather lots of like-minded thinkers. Here's a sampling:

  • Wade Davis, an ethnographer and popular TV documentarian, is the "explorer in residence" at the National Geographic Society.
  • Dayna Baumeister is an expert in biomimicry, which looks to natural models and systems to solve complicated human problems.
  • Suzanne Simard researches the complex feedback and communications between plant and soil communities in forest ecosystems.
  • Both Michael Harner, an anthropologist, and Susan Mokelke, an educator and lawyer, study shamanic practices of indigenous groups.
  • Shades of James Fadiman, Simon G. Powell, is a student of hallucinogenic mushrooms and the author of The Psilocybin Solution: The Role of Sacred Mushrooms in the Quest for Meaning and of the forthcoming Magic Mushroom Explorer: Psilocybin and the Awakening Earth.

Last summer when I asked Linton why the forum failed to draw the software crowd, he chalked it up to cultural differences. "We live in the same world, but we use different languages. People get hung up on their ideas and terminology. If we called it the International IT Ethics Forum, they would probably come."

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