I should warn you: I took a cognitive enhancement drug before I began to write this. A central nervous system stimulant, to be precise. I took it to increase my capacity to think clearly, and to keep me focused. It gives me an advantage over the girl at the table next to mine – I’m going to be able to keep working longer and more productively with my enhanced brain than she is. Until she buys a dose too, anyway. It’s perfectly legal – in fact, there aren’t any specific regulations on it at all.
Okay, so I had a coffee. You probably had one too this morning, without considering that you were, in fact, enhancing yourself. Caffeine crosses your blood-brain barrier and inhibits your adenosine receptors from reducing your synaptic activity, so that morning brew has artificially altered your brain chemistry to your advantage. Until those molecules are rendered pharmacologically inactive, you’re something more than a normal human. Right now, I’m Superman, though I might avoid the tights.
Admittedly, there’s a world of difference between my mildly increased alertness and the potential of biomedical enhancement. Leaving the hyperbole behind, technology and biotechnology are promising us abilities beyond those of mortal man. Prosthetics, developing at a rapid rate to meet the needs of military amputees, can in some cases now be grafted directly to a patient’s own nerves. Maybe not today, but in time it will be perfectly feasible technically to endow one of these robotic limbs with a strength beyond that of flesh and blood. Nootropic drugs – cognitive enhancers, akin to the one coursing through my nervous system – offer improved memory, increased metabolism, augmented thought processing, and, potentially, an extended lifespan. More controversially, perhaps, there are genetic manipulation techniques that could render us immune to diseases, specify our attributes or even grant us traits we could never have inherited from our parents.
These are much more than just theories. For instance, Melissa officinalis, the herb ‘lemon balm’, has produced a “significant increase in the speed of mathematical processing, with no reduction in accuracy” in human tests performed by the University of Northumbria. We hear stories of star athletes banned from competition for ‘doping’; another, unsporting, form of enhancement. And on a similar theme, the transtibial prostheses of Oscar Pistorius. the famed ‘blade runner’, have generated controversy over whether this gives him an advantage as a sprinter.
In academia, there has been decades of debate over the ethics of such technologies. Scientists and philosophers on both sides have sparred without resolution in the pages of journals, both praising the prospective benefits and admonishing us against the theorised risks to our health and humanity. If I alter my natural state, am I playing God or subverting nature? In my effort to break the limits of humanity, might I lose my inherent dignity? And how could I possibly predict any side effects, in years ahead?
They’re valid questions, and debate could rage unabated for years to come. Some of them might never be answered, at least not to everyone’s satisfaction. Take embryonic stem cells: a field of research with wonderful therapeutic possibilities, but fraught with argument over morality, the right to life and what constitutes a human. Cloning, too, is a hotbed of contention, as are developments in the creation of synthetic life. These biotechnologies offer us much, but has their maturation been stalled to some degree by the questions that, rightly, needed to be asked?
That is the important difference which sets past and future biotechnologies apart: we can address these questions in advance. Prior to the resounding success of Dolly, cloning was largely science fiction in the public consciousness. Before the birth of Louise Brown, IVF treatment simply wasn’t something the general population had sufficient awareness of to conduct a reasoned debate. Discussion and dispute came after the scientific advance, along with reactive legislation like the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, which established regulations on in vitro work long after the practice had become widespread.
Now we’re in a different position. We use technologies and pharmaceuticals to augment our capabilities every day. The development of new ones isn’t a surprise. We are in the perfect position to debate standpoints and conceive laws ahead of time, instead of playing catch-up to the science. And given the potential of enhancement techniques, can we afford to lose progress by not thinking through the issues beforehand?
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to enhance my cognition. This time with foam. And sprinkles.
- Kennedy DO, Little W, & Scholey AB (2004). Attenuation of laboratory-induced stress in humans after acute administration of Melissa officinalis (Lemon Balm). Psychosomatic medicine, 66 (4), 607-13 PMID: 15272110
This is an edited version of David’s original essay. Views expressed are the author’s own. David blogs about bioethics on Biojammer.
Over the next couple of months, we’re publishing the shortlisted essays from the 2012 competition. Read all, and the 2011 essays, in our archive.