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Better than human

Why is the world's most prestigious science journal peddling the snake oil of cognition-enhancing drugs?
Michael Cook | 17 December 2008
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Publication in the British journal Nature is the acme of academic achievement, a byword for quality and the touchstone of scientific opinion. So when its editor co-authors an article putting the case for a technology which has been called the world's most dangerous idea, you've got to ask: what have these dudes been smoking?

The theme of the article, "Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy, is that we would all benefit from using mind-sharpening drugs regularly to help us to wring our IQs dry. Students and scientists around the world are already breaking the law to get them. In the United States, it is claimed, nearly 7 percent of all college students have used stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall. On some campuses, pill-popping is almost epidemic, with 25 percent of students using them in the past year.

So, provided these popular drugs are safe, why not make them available, ask Nature editor Philip Campbell and a handful of neuroscientists and bioethicicsts. Cognitive enhancement, unlike enhancement for sports competitions, could lead to substantive improvements in the world, they assert. (Provided, of course, that the top brass in the Mexican drug cartels and the Russian Mafia aren't in on the secret.) What about students who can't afford them? No problem. We'll create a level playing field by passing out free drugs to all students before their exams.

Is this article just an anomaly, a rush of blood to the brain? Not at all. Dr Campbell has been crusading for the legalisation and social acceptance of brain-enhancing drugs for at least a year, with editorials, surveys and forums.

He's not alone, either. Many smart scientists want better brains in their Christmas stockings. Many smart businessmen are selling them. That's why you can click on an advertisement in Scientific American for a "scientifically validated" product called iMusic which will make you "more alert, more mentally active, more productive, more confident and increase your IQ and $earning$ potential". That's why spammers sell Ritalin on the internet, along with other even more dubious enhancement products. Nature conducted an informal survey earlier this year which found that about one in five scientists was using them for help in concentrating or memorising. Although most did not use stimulants, 80 percent defended the right to use them.

Dr Campbell and his colleagues calmly counter and dismiss the obvious objections to their zany proposal: that these drugs are not safe, that parents will force feed their children, that peer pressure will compel people to use them, that poor people can't afford them and so on. Like all new technologies, cognitive enhancement can be used well or poorly. We should welcome new methods of improving our brain function, they explain.

Even though a couple of the authors have links to pharmaceutical companies, their ultimate goal is not making money by marketing a Viagra for the brain. Some of the enhancements they propose are not drugs at all, but other new technologies like brain stimulation and prosthetic brain chips. Rather, it is to promote the notion of human enhancement, or as it is sometimes called, transhumanism. One of the article's co-authors is a British transhumanist, John Harris, who seems to have been anointed as Nature's house ideologue. A sign of the increasing credibility of this idea is that he was described recently by the London Times as one of the "top fifty people who influence the way we eat, exercise and think about ourselves" and one of the world's top three bioethicists.

The link with transhumanism is, by far, the most disturbing aspect of Nature's campaign to legalise cognitive-enhancing drugs. Fundamentally, transhumanism is human enhancement on steroids. Its shills believe that homo sapiens 1.0 is evolving too slowly and want to accelerate us, or some of us, into homo sapiens 2.0. This is precisely the point of Harris's latest book, Enhancing Evolution. "Darwinian evolution has taken millions of years to create human beings; the next phase of evolution, a phase I call 'enhancement evolution', could occur before the end of the century," he wrote in the London Times earlier this year. "The result may be the emergence of a new species that will initially live alongside us and eventually may entirely replace humankind."

Does this strike you as a tad ambitious? Or far-fetched? Or even gob-smackingly mind-bendingly tutti-frutti? Perhaps. But bigger and better have always been seductive. Why else are so many kids on Ritalin? Why else do athletes take steroids? American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, who described human enhancement as the world's most dangerous idea, warns that "society is unlikely to fall suddenly under the spell of the transhumanist world view. But it is very possible that we will nibble at biotechnology's tempting offerings without realizing that they come at a frightful moral cost".

One of the most perceptive critiques of human enhancement appears in a 2003 report by the President's Council on Bioethics, Beyond Therapy. "Persuasively rejected," sniff Campbell and Harris et al. Hmmm. Perhaps they hadn't taken enough Adderall to grasp Beyond Therapy's analysis (largely the handiwork of Leon Kass, of the University of Chicago, it seems). Perhaps, more to the point, they know a lot about enhancement, and very little about what it means to be human. After all, they are thorough-going materialists who believe that humanity is just another animal, just a genetic code. It has no free will, no capacity for reason, no ability to transcend matter. Enhancement means tinkering with its circuitry, not growing in wisdom or virtue. There is a whole dimension to the human experience to which they seem oblivious.

The Beyond Therapy report is far deeper. It points out that enhancement could be incredibly destructive: "Not the agelessness of the body, nor the contentment of the soul, nor even the list of external achievements and accomplishments of life, but the engaged and energetic being-at-work of what nature uniquely gave to us is what we need to treasure and defend. All other 'perfections' may turn out to be at best but passing illusions, at worst a Faustian bargain that could cost us our full and flourishing humanity."

Speaking of Faustian bargains: remember Timothy Leary, a respected Harvard academic who preached the transformation of humanity through drugs in the 60s and 70s? His favourite was LSD – and it ruined thousands of lives through suicide and mental breakdown.

However shoddily these academics have argued, at least they have linked responsibility to the use of drugs. Shouldn't they also consider responsible use of editorial privilege? To use the world's most prestigious science journal as a platform for this snake oil will bring science itself into disrepute. The warning bells have already rung. Human embryonic stem cells are a key technology in the transhumanist programme. Is that why scientists around the world were so easily duped by the fraudulent results of Korean stem cell scientist Hwang Woo-suk?

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

This article is published by Michael Cook and MercatorNet.com under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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