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The Sciences

Will We See "Monstrous" Neuroscience?


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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?

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