TCS Daily

Brains: Good, Bad, and Modified

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - June 5, 2002 12:00 AM

This week's edition of The Economist asks an important question: Why are we spending so much time worrying about cloning and genetics, and so little time worrying about neuroscience, when the latter poses at least as much of a threat? And The Economist is right: cloning might produce a duplicate of Big Brother, but neuroscience might make us love Big Brother. And sooner than we think.

Making people love Big Brother will probably be fairly easy. If you can control people's brains, you can control pretty much everything about them, and you needn't resort to the crude techniques used on Winston Smith in George Orwell's 1984. Last fall I told New York Times reporter Gina Kolata that with nanotechnology it would be possible to use tiny devices that would invade brain tissue and manipulate people's neurotransmitter levels to achieve just that. But I was being optimistic about the steepness of the technical requirements. Although such a feat would be easy with nanotechnology, it could be done now with less sophisticated methods already available; what nanotechnology (or perhaps advanced biotechnology) will make possible is the wide-scale use of these techniques on unconsenting populations. Except that even that assessment is too optimistic.

You can control the brain chemistry of large, unconsenting populations with less sophisticated technologies if you get enough government involved. In fact, we're already doing that at the behest of many in public schools, for what else is it when children, usually boys, who in a prior age were simply regarded as unruly are now given Ritalin and other medications intended to change their classroom behavior by changing their brain chemistry? While professional doomsayers and White House committees study the ethics of cloning, millions of American children are - and this is not alarmism, but literal truth - having their minds controlled by the government, with surprisingly little debate. Why the disparity in attention?

One reason, of course, is abortion and the publicity it generates. The way in which abortion has distorted our national debate on biomedical ethics is worth a column on its own, but there's no doubt that, as Nick Schulz has pointed out here, the cloning debate is largely driven by the abortion debate. The same has been true with issues of In-Vitro Fertilization, surrogate motherhood, and stem-cell research. Ethicists who talk about issues relating to the abortion wars get more public attention, more opportunities for op-eds in the New York Times, and more clout within their field than ethicists who talk about other issues. Abortion-related ethics talk is career-enhancing. Not surprisingly, that's where most of the ethicists have gone.

Since the neurological sciences pose such risks for misuse, perhaps they deserve more ethical scrutiny. But there's a counterargument here: despite the lack of outside scrutiny generated by their distance from the abortion debate, the researchers don't appear to be doing anything wrong. The Economist article reports this shocked reaction from a neuroscience pioneer asked about misuse: "Humans? Who said anything about humans? We work on rats." And, indeed, there are no reports of scientists using - or even talking about using -- electrical brain stimulation, neurotransmitter manipulation, or other techniques in ethically troubling ways. And this is despite their work receiving little in the way of special scrutiny from regulators, or extended attention from bioethicists.

What this example suggests is that the case for genetic science being overscrutinized is at least as strong as the case for neuroscience being under-scrutinized. If this is so, then the great mass of "ethical" discussion relating to cloning and other genetic science arguably has very little to do with actual ethics, and very much to do with the abortion wars and the enhancement of ethicists' careers and resumes.

Regardless, the bioethics community looks bad. Either neuroscience is receiving too little attention - suggesting that the bioethics community is too busy chasing soundbites to focus on the greater good - or cloning, etc., is receiving too much attention - which, come to think of it, also suggests that the bioethics community is too busy chasing soundbites to focus on the greater good. Perhaps the ethicists should spend a little time looking at their own profession.



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