Will We See “Monstrous” Neuroscience?

By Neuroskeptic | November 30, 2018 2:32 pm

The science story of the past week was the claim from Chinese scientist He Jiankui that he has created gene-edited human babies. Prof. He reports that two twin girls have been born carrying modifications of the gene CCR5, which is intended to protect them against future HIV risk.

It’s far from clear yet whether the gene-editing that He described has actually taken place – no data has yet been presented.  The very prospect of genetically-modifying human beings has, however, led to widespread concern, with He’s claims being described as “monstrous“, “crazy” and “unethical”.


All of which got me wondering: could there ever be a neuroscience experiment which attracted the same level of condemnation?

What I’m asking here is whether there are neuroscience advances that would be considered inherently unethical. It would, of course, be possible to carry out any neuroscience experiment in an unethical way, by forcing or tricking people into participation. But are there experiments which would be unethical even if all the participants gave full, informed consent at every stage?

Here are a couple of possibilites:

Intelligence enhancement: Suppose it were possible to substantially boost human intelligence through some kind of technological means, perhaps a drug, or through brain stimulation. I suspect that many people would see this prospect as an ethical problem, because it would give users a definite advantage over non-users and thus, in effect, force people to use the technology in order to keep up. It would be a similar situation to the problem of doping in sports: if doping were widespread, it would be very difficult for non-dopers to compete.

Cognitive enhancement would be especially unfair if it were expensive, which would mean that only already-advantaged people would be able to benefit from it and hence become even more advantaged. But even if the method was very cheap, not everyone would be happy with its becoming de facto mandatory.

There have been many real-life claims of technological cognitive enhancement, however none of them have become very popular, and I don’t believe any of them to work.

Elective ‘psychopathy’: Suppose a neurosurgeon devised an operation which was able to eliminate emotions such as regret, and guilt, by removing or modifying part of the brain. In other words, this procedure would turn you into something like the stereotypical/Hollywood ‘psychopath’. I’m sure there are some people who would willingly have this operation.

However, I suspect that most people would say that such an operation was unethical and should not be performed, even on people who freely chose to undergo it.There would be worries that the operation would cause people to harm others; but even beyond that, I think it would be seen as unconscionable by rendering people less moral on the inside.

This operation is hypothetical, but it’s probably closer to reality than an effective means of cognitive enhancement. There is plenty of evidence on the role of the prefrontal cortex in moral reasoning and moral feelings (e.g.). While I’m not aware of any studies showing that prefrontal lesions can actually selectively eliminate the conscience, who knows what the future holds?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: ethics, media, papers, select, Top Posts
  • Natasha_St

    Great article! For me the main problems are:
    -no clear rules and oversight in terms of new technology i.e. we have GCP and relevant laws from MHRA, FDA and EMA but they are not addressing directly CRISP , AI and BCI
    -lack of consolidate approach in countries in EU ,USA and Asian countries(Japan, Russia, India)

    • alizardx

      Regulatory agencies don’t directly address what would be required to oversee AI or BCI research and probably shouldn’t. Sufficient computing power to do significant AI work simply requires a big enough bank account, open an AWS account & instantly rent a computer cluster. BCI basics are high-impedance op amps and analog to digital conversion. CRISPR, PC, reagents, lab glassware and relatively inexpensive apparatus. All 3 scenes have growing numbers of hobbyists and corporate researchers who don’t have to report to government agencies or academic organizations.

  • OWilson

    You raise a very interesting point.

    The issue comes down to the fact that “ethical” and “unethical” and “moral” are a subjective human constructs.

    They don’t exist in nature, and can be a limiting factor in scientific research and advancement, depending society’s current attitudes.

    Our present culture readily accepts that flowers, fruits, animals and pets can be genetically modified for maximun beauty, size, taste, and even agressiveness, but contemplating genetic modifications, including natural ones already existing in the human races is seen as an affront to today’s society, and will remain so for a long time, for better or worse.

    • Albionic American

      I guess you haven’t heard of transhumanism.

      • OWilson

        I have, but I don’t put much stock in just another organized group of humans deciding what are the chararistics best encouraged to enhance “societal values”, as they see them. :)

        Self styled elites, deciding the future of the human race, has a distinct odor!

    • James

      I don’t think the proposition “Murder is wrong” reflects a subjective preference or prevalent social attitude. Also, I’m not sure you have to be a metaphysical objectivist about morality in order to be an epistemological objectivist about morality.

      • bgalbreath

        “Murder is wrong” is an analytically true statement. We wouldn’t classify a killing as a murder unless we had already classified as is wrong.

        • James

          Let X be the set of things described by the term murder. Then you can amend my first statement and say “All members of X are wrong and X is nonempty”.

    • Jason Meade

      “The issue comes down to the fact that “ethical” and “unethical” and “moral” are subjective human constructs.

      They don’t exist in nature, and can be a limiting factor in scientific
      research and advancement, depending society’s current attitudes.”

      True. However, despite “only” being human constructs, they are very much real. Every bit as real as money, empathy, mercy, justice, and hope.

      To eliminate ethics and morality in the name of science makes us less human from the get-go (it isn’t exactly a great foundation for building a better tomorrow by excusing intentional suffering today). Not to mention that this argument of letting morality/ethics/emotion get in the way of scientific efficiency/advancement has been the rallying cry for eugenicists, proponents of genetic/racial purity, and advocates of genocide to “justify” some of the most horrific and shameful things throughout modern history.

      • James

        Strongly agree with the first paragraph. The philosopher John Searle makes this point. Something doesn’t have to exist “out there” to be real, and there are many things that may be a consequence of human subjectivity but which we can agree admit objectively correct or true answers. For example, we can all agree when a person has scored a goal in soccer, even though what count as a goal is wholly a consequence of human social norms. (I don’t actually agree with the premise that morality is subjective; my point here is just to say that, even if it were subjective, I do not think the desired conclusion follows.)

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  • Mike Bridges

    Some might see enhancing intelligence as unethical, I don’t for several reason. One is that intelligence is one of the things that makes us human, being more intelligent would make us more human. Another is that all of us benefit not from just our own intelligence but from each others – for example I benefit from the intelligence possessed by the people who designed my phone.

    • James

      Intelligence is something which makes us human, but it is not the only thing. Exclusive enhancement of intelligence may jeopardize other traits which make us human.

  • MadDonkey

    How unethical would be the opposite? The DRD4 gene affects personality, and especially the long odd variants, the 5 and 7 repeats, make the carriers violent and antisocial, while those with the 2r variant have a peaceful personality and almost never commit acts of violence. The 5 and 7 variants are several fold more common among murderers, rapists and practicers of fight sports than in the general population. I can see the modification being mandatory, and the carriers of the 7/5 alleles being barred from certain professions in the near future.

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  • Cjones1

    I read about a year or two back that French (?) scientists had identified that part or port of the brain that, when stimulated or sailed, causes the brain to perceive ghosts. I wasn’t so sure. Perhaps the way to the undiscovered country had been blazed. There are so many stories since antiquity of a spiritual realm, but there are many warnings of good and bad to be found there. It is probsbly not a good thing to unlock the door to the dark side. We can only hope that the oath to do no harm is applied.

  • Tom Aaron

    There 180 nations in the world. No shared sensibilities on ethics. It doesn’t really matter what ‘we’ think. Get ahead of the curve on Artificial intelligence and Bioengineering or be left behind. Enhanced intelligence will be done in China…if not China then India…if not India then…

    Also, humans aren’t ‘sacred’. We are part of Nature. Our brains are a product of evolution…particles of matter and energy. A carbon atom in our brain is no different from a carbon atom in a rock.

    • OWilson

      You realize of course that this technology, while raising the averages of everybody’s “cuteness” and IQ, could never produce the relatively cutest or brightest, due to the law of diminishing returns.

      The technology in your computer or smartphone does not give you any advantage over anyone else, if everyone has them.

  • Loran Tritter

    This is just super-rapid evolution by other means. Potential pitfalls abound, but the long-term upside is enormous. Look for new religions as part of the response.

  • Anja

    “Cognitive enhancement would be especially unfair if it were expensive, which would mean that only already-advantaged people would be able to benefit from it and hence become even more advantaged.”

    Read this and immediately thought of the higher education system in the States.

  • Alex

    Thank you for this article, definitely an interesting and complex issue. I suspect however that part of this issue is similar to an optical illusion, caused by our cultural biases. We live in a culture of being “more”, of “enhancement”, constant growth and infinite progress. Moreover, we live in a very competitive society, where any advance is synonym to competitive advantage. Therefore it is logical that we are attracted towards any type of enhancement that might provide us any type of “advantage”. Are we missing something?
    Let’s consider for instance a different culture and practice (it’s just an example) such as zen: as far as I know, zen focusses on the “emptiness”, the process being quite the opposite of our “western processes” which are based on “adding more”. Sure enough, zen is very unlikely to provide us MRI devices or starships. However it might address “qualia” problems related to our meaning and consciousness.
    We already have computers and algorithms that surpass us in terms of “intelligence” for certain tasks. It is very likely that through nanotech / biotech we’ll be able to interface with future devices and enhance our “computing power” and knowledge. However this won’t tell us much about the “qualia” problems, as these “problems” are not only related to our intellect, but to our emotions, intuitions and instincts too.
    Otherwise stated: despite a higher “computing” intelligence, we won’t be happier or wiser. And I don’t believe that gene-editing via CRISPR or similar would do the job either. Luckily enough, it seems that life is more interesting and complex that what we tend to reduce it to. There is no shortcut in this direction :)

    • Jason Meade

      “as far as I know, zen focusses on the “emptiness”, the process being
      quite the opposite of our “western processes” which are based on “adding

      Not so simple as that. It is more a state of tranquil acceptance which allows one to still the mind, not so much emptying it. The Zen school of Buddhism does not seek to have an empty mind, but rather one in which your meditation openly confronts your mental turmoil, analyzes it, accepts it as part of who you are and part of the everything, and seeks to reduce the negative impact such things have on your mind (with the aim of seeking to have zero negative impact long term, in part by avoiding that which creates the negative impact when such action/inaction does not negatively affect others).

      Even this is a severe oversimplification and reductionist explanation of one aspect of the Zen school of Buddhism (there are many different schools of Buddhism, to boot, with [at least] four distinct major sects). But we have “Americanized” Buddhism (and meditation), just like everything else we get our hands on, and turned it into a simplistic, easily marketable, feel-goody, bite-sized trade good:
      “Take these delicious magic pills . . .” er, uh, I mean to say . . . “take this simple ten minute meditation course, and your life will be magically transformed forever with little effort on your part! Only $19.99/month!” (plus taxes, fees, and the cost of materials. Additional charges and expenses may apply. Prices subject to increase without notice. The “nonprofit” cannot be held liable for failure to meet promised results. Results may vary, depending on individual propensity of effectiveness of the placebo effect.).

      • Alex

        Thank you for your input Jason! You provide a clearer definition and perspective of Zen. The contrast appears better 😉

  • Lucius_Severus_Pertinax

    If they could rewire the Brain to make Broccoli taste like Bacon, Soy taste like Summer Sausage, etc., etc., in short , make things that are GOOD for you taste like things that are BAD for you but taste really GREAT; well, who would have a Problem with THAT?

    Ok, maybe Cardiologists would; it might put a lot of them Out of Business!

  • Steve F1

    it’ll be weaponized in misquote bites to dumb down certain races of people the elite have trouble controlling that have been immune to the libtards programed brainwashing

  • stargene

    Whether or not Dr. He’s work is monstrous or otherwise unethical, there
    is a great danger in any such powerfully transforming research being
    coopted by business agendas, which increasingly targets short term
    profits far above anything else..anything else being a distant second.
    For identical reasons, it is unwise for humanity to entrust having its
    very DNA being in any way by corporate interests.

    • OWilson

      Not to mention governments who’s decisions are backed with guns, jails and fines!

      They also arguably operate on on a short term agenda. Once elected, two years to appoint and reward their donors, then two years of lavish spending to get re-elected and hang on to power!

      Oh, and those massive debts they run up while in office?

      Hey, let somebody worry about that, long after they have left office!

      At least your relationships with corporations are for the most part voluntary and mutually beneficial! :)

      • James

        “Voluntary and mutually beneficial” is questionable.

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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