Walter Isaacson on CRISPR, Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race (#503)

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“The molecule is going to become the new microchip.”

— Walter Isaacson

Walter Isaacson (@WalterIsaacson) is a professor of history at Tulane, has been CEO of the Aspen Institute, chair of CNN, and editor of Time. He is the author of Leonardo da Vinci; The Innovators; Steve Jobs; Einstein: His Life and Universe; Benjamin Franklin: An American Life; and Kissinger: A Biography. He is co-author of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made.

His new book is The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race.

You can find our first conversation from 2017 at

Please enjoy!

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, or on your favorite podcast platform.

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The transcript of this episode can be found here. Transcripts of all episodes can be found here.

#503: Walter Isaacson on CRISPR, Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race

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What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.


Want to hear Walter’s first time on this podcast? Listen to our conversation in which we learn life lessons and tactics from Steve Jobs, Ben Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci, and more.

#273: Lessons from Steve Jobs, Leonardo da Vinci, and Ben Franklin


  • Connect with Walter Isaacson:

Tulane University | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube


  • Despite a keen interest in his life and times, why did Walter decide against writing a biography of jazz legend Louis Armstrong? What other projects has he similarly set aside? [07:23]
  • Why did Walter add the job of college professor to what most mere mortals would consider an already overflowing schedule? [09:53]
  • What makes home home? [11:42]
  • What is CRISPR — who developed it, how has it been used so far, and what is its potential? [15:14]
  • How did The Double Helix by James Watson influence a curious young Walter, and why did he choose Jennifer Doudna to be the protagonist of his latest book? [18:52]
  • With fallible human motivations driving the use of this technology and the unintended consequences that are bound to result, What might a CRISPR-edited world look like — for better or worse? [22:09]
  • How is CRISPR technology applied to adults, and what implications does this have, for instance, for competitive athletics and anti-doping efforts? [27:25]
  • Walter riffs on innovation revolutions surrounding the three fundamental kernels of our existence: the atom, the bit, and the gene, and how he hopes The Code Breaker might galvanize future generations of scientists and scientific thinkers in the same way he and Jennifer Doudna were inspired by The Double Helix. [29:42]
  • What does the education look like for someone who wants to better understand the molecule as the new microchip? [35:19]
  • In a field with no shortage of legitimate geniuses, what makes Jennifer Doudna special? How was she able to work out a puzzle that had, until that point, eluded the efforts of every other scientist who tried? Was it just a matter of asking better questions? [39:47]
  • As a biographer of many fascinating minds, with whom does Walter think Jennifer Doudna most closely compares? [46:53]
  • How 19th-century computer pioneer Ada Lovelace and 20th-century computer scientist Alan Turing came to different conclusions about questions we may not even be able to answer in the 21st century. [48:57]
  • Does Walter believe there’s a necessary seeking of wonder or awe — a motivation — behind the breed of curiosity shared by Lovelace, Doudna, and Franklin? [52:32]
  • When science makes the leap from curiosity-driven discovery to practical application, a race to get credit and funding for related discoveries generally follows. What did this competition look like for Jennifer Doudna and partner Emmanuelle Charpentier when they realized that CRISPR could ignite a scientific revolution, and against whom did they compete? What are the pros and cons of such competition, and what prizes really motivate the participants? [55:12]
  • What insights, counterintuitive wisdom, and memorable points about pandemic life past and present have been made clear to Walter by the work of fellow author (and, coincidentally, neighbor!) John Barry, who wrote The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History? [1:02:59]
  • Like Albert Hoffman, Robert Oppenheimer, and Victor Frankenstein, scientists sometimes have to face the misapplications of (and the monsters created by) their discoveries. After a nightmare about how Hitler might have abused CRISPR technology, how has Jennifer Doudna been reckoning with the moral implications of her own work? [1:05:20]
  • Is it possible to create globally enforceable guard rails for how CRISPR technology should be used, or is it too late now that Pandora’s box has been opened? What makes its regulation more tricky than other potentially destructive technologies, like nuclear weapons? [1:08:11]
  • Is there any aspect of The Code Breaker that Walter worries some people might misinterpret or miss entirely? [1:10:35]
  • Why it might finally be philosophy’s time to shine as a practical skill set, and responsibly asking “why not?” is just as important as asking “why?” [1:12:59]
  • Parting thoughts. [1:17:25]


The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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3 Replies to “Walter Isaacson on CRISPR, Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race (#503)”

  1. Hey Tim, I have a special skill. You cannot beat me in an argument lol. So far I use it for nothing much except thinking, or arguing. The former is not tangible, as far as I know … I think. The latter is why I’m single lol. I’ve cycled through spouses forever, but this damn virus shook me out of it lol. No literally. And technically, that would likely be correct too. I feel I should teach you this arguing thing, in return for your bit in the bid to free lsd. Thx for trying to free lsd. It deserves it.

  2. Re crispr…if you have a lawn then a bad red blade can be cut out with a pair of scissors (ie sickle cell) but for better muscles, brains, etc you need a lawn mower which will have unintended consequences.
    Mark Elliott MD

  3. Hi Tim, Thanks for your comments on the importance of basic science. As a basic scientist myself I understand the importance of fundamental discoveries, but I think this is not a concept that is well appreciated by the general audience. Great podcast, thanks for all you do.