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« A Disappointment To Michael Moore | Main | Senate Introduces New Parliamentary Rule »

Already Irretrievably Sliding Down The Slope

Stanley Kurtz is seemingly disturbed by trends in neuroscience:

So we ought to be “tweaking” the biological architecture of male and female brains? We are headed for dangerous times. The new interest in brain biology is a two edged sword. It has raised legitimate questions about social constructionist orthodoxy. Those questions ought to be debated. But the new brain biology is itself on shaky ground and should not be treated as an alternative orthodoxy, much less as a license to tamper with the human brain.

There's a new book on this and related subjects coming out soon, that I'm reading and will be reviewing when it does. The bottom line is that this work is going to progress, because some of it will be therapeutic, which is to say that it will fix things that all agree are broken, and such fixes will be (other than the potential implications) uncontroversial. The problems that Professor Kurtz and people like Bill McKibben and Leon Kass are going to have is that the line between therapy and enhancement is always going to be blurry, and their arguments against this particular medical progress will always appear arbitrary in light of past medical progress.

By what logic will they propose that neural implants that allow the blind to see are somehow beyond the pale, but that glasses or laser surgery are all right? And if such an implant can help someone with an IQ of 40 achieve some semblance of intellectual normality, why would that be wrong?

But once such capabilities become reality, it's only a matter of time before someone with normal IQ, or even higher than normal, will want to interface to a computer to enhance their memory. It may even be that some women, who are good at math but would like to be brilliant, will take advantage of the technology (i.e., "tampering with the human brain"). In many ways, of course, we already do this, albeit in a very crude manner, via monitor and keyboard. Where will they draw the line, and on what basis?

The title to this post implies that we are on a so-called slippery slope, and indeed we are. But part of the slippery-slope argument relies on the fact that there's something very bad, something to be avoided at all costs, at the bottom. But it's a slope that we've been sliding down since the first homo something or other picked up a rock and took down a prey with it, significantly enhancing the effective reach of her body, or since the first accountant figured out that by making marks on a tablet he didn't have to rely solely on his memory of a transaction. It may not be obvious, but those acts were the enhancing of the human body and mind via technology, and they're no different in kind than "tampering with the human brain," whether via drinking a cup of java, or in-serting stem cells to regrow neurons in Alzheimer's patients.

The bottom of the slope may very well be a post-human future, but it should be one for individuals to decide, not governments. If Stanley wants to argue the ethics of this, that's a reasonable thing to do, and I encourage him to evangelize to as many as he can of his position, so they can make more informed ethical choices as to which procedures to use as the technology continues to develop. I get frightened, though, when such arguments start to spill over into discussions of public policy, and passing laws against treatments that may save, extend, and enhance human life, however the meaning of that phrase continues to evolve in the future as it has since we first became human.

[Update about 11:40 AM EST]

I have one more question for Professor Kurtz, given his concerns about gay marriage. Suppose we find that there is something different about the brains of gay men and women (a proposition for which there's already abundant and growing evidence). If we can come up with an affordable, painless therapy that "fixes" this and converts them from "gay" to "straight," should we a) allow them to take advantage of it, or b) forbid them from doing so, or c) require them to? And should "straight" (i.e., exclusively heterosexual) people be allowed to become gay, or bi?

Posted by Rand Simberg at March 02, 2005 06:43 AM
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I'm beginning to think that such enhancements may become completely necessary in the future. The Summers flap has had me thinking about the incredibly precise mental states that and peak performance that must exist for a brain to do high-level work in Mathematics, and the more abstract sciences. I remember reading once that virtually all professional mathematicians do their best work before they are 25 - after that their brains are beginning their long, slow decay. If this is even approximately true, we may be approaching a point where one can not learn enough of a field to do good original work before one no longer has the brain power to do that work. If this actually occurs, it could cause a significant slowdown in scientific and technological progress.

Posted by Eric at March 2, 2005 07:42 AM

One thing that bothers me is that if we chose not to do this sort of experiment, then who will? There's a lot of value in boosting intelligence even if there should be grotesque or ultimately fatal sideeffects. It seems dubious to me to abandon an area of knowledge on the basis of morality especially if less ethical groups take over.

Going off topic, I'm starting to think that morality, or at least morality that isn't based on rationally thought out ethics is itself wrong. What's routinely missing is the consideration of harm (particularly to third parties). If I "tamper" with my brain, how do I harm others? If I don't harm others, then why should it be immoral?

Posted by Karl Hallowell at March 2, 2005 09:35 AM

I don't know, Karl. Ask the drug warriors.

Posted by Rand Simberg at March 2, 2005 09:43 AM

Several comments about IQ increase:

First, I think it will be incremental. The extropians like to beleive that there will be some kind of therapy that can boost us all to, say, 300. I think this unlikely. Much more likely will be therapies that can boost someone from 95 or 105 up to around 135. Or someone from 135 up to 165. I also believe that neuroscience will lead to therapies that can increase "emotional balance", which is at least as revolutionary as IQ increase. Rand, you and I have know many high IQ people and many of those people have tended to be emotionally screwed up.

In any case, I do believe that neurological "self-enhancement" is coming, although it will be less profound than the extropians and tranhumanists would have us believe. I also believe that it will be nearly impossible for the U.S. federal government to restrict these therapies. Much of them will be gene therapy, which means you only need it once and it is permanent or semi-permanent. This means that if it is banned in the U.S., you hop a flight to China, Thailand, or whereever else to get the therapy and you get a holiday trip as well. This is called medical tourism or outsourcing and is already a big business. Its going to get alot bigger. Even if there are no restrictions on "self-enhancement" therapies in the U.S., you will still be hopping on the flight simply because it will be alot cheaper than getting it in the U.S., especially because you will be paying "out of pocket" for these therapies.

There will probably be a congitive "arms race" among the various Asian countries (and the rest of the developing world as well) to boost their national "human capital" in order to accelerate their economic development. This is a trend that the luddite-infested West will have very little power to influence.

In fact, if any of this stuff is banned in the U.S., there will be many American entreprenuers (such as myself) that will start-up medical tourism businesses for the clinics that will spring up in holiday beach resorts in Thailand, India, Philippines, and what not.

The luddites (both left and right) need to wake up, smell the coffee, and learn to live and let live.

Posted by Kurt at March 2, 2005 12:39 PM

The real danger, of course, is that somebody else might decide what "enhancements" you need.

Posted by Joseph Hertzlinger at March 2, 2005 02:47 PM

Yes, there is always the danger of misuse.

I'd be happy with a "monkey brain" interface - there have been recent experiments where a hundred or so microwires are inserted into the surface of a monkeys brain where neurons control movement. Over time they can learn to "think" move a robot arm. Give me something like that to control a virtual keyboard, a radio receiver implant in an ear, glasses with a virtual display overlay and a pocket computer with an internet feed. Then, Google truly would be my ELTM (Extended Long Term Memory). It may not be a full fledged brain implant, but the technology already exists. Granted, I'd want to be sure the electrodes could be planted safely and wouldn't cause future problems ...

Posted by VR at March 2, 2005 05:47 PM

Eric: that old saw about mathematicians has recently been debunked. Great work in mathematics (and citations rate!) has now been found to drop off once a mathematician is married with children.

Once the kids arrive, who can be THAT focused?

Posted by David Mercer at March 2, 2005 08:31 PM

"Great work in mathematics (and citations rate!) has now been found to drop off once a mathematician is married with children."

It sure tallies with the anecdotal evidence around Caltech. I suppose that puts gay mathematicians (without kids) at an advantage.

Posted by Kevin Parkin at March 2, 2005 09:56 PM

Opposition to so-called "gay marriage" does not mean a person is a so-called "homophobe". Equating the two is simply another tactic to shut down debate on a subject in which the advocates show they don't want one by their reliance on compliant judges to do their dirtywork for them. So much easier than pursuading people to your point of view.

Posted by Raoul Ortega at March 3, 2005 10:25 AM

Raoul, I neither said, not meant to imply, that Professor Kurtz is a homophobe. I was simply pointing this out as a potential solution to the gay marriage "problem."

Posted by Rand Simberg at March 3, 2005 10:35 AM

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