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British Government Looks to Ban Intelligence…Enhancers July 31, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Human Enhancement, Transhumanism.
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If I told you that a government was planning on banning performance enhancing drugs because of issues like preventing unfair advantages, you’d probably think I was talking about sports.  You would be wrong.  The British government has recently asked their expert on illegal drugs to look into whether nootropics, intelligence-enhancing drugs, should be banned.  The use of nootropics is becoming a very common phenomena as students and workers search for every possible advantage they can find to get an edge in school or in the workplace.  One study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that in 2002 more than 7 million Americans used intelligence-enhancers, with 1.6 million of those being student age.

So why is the British government spending it’s valuable time talking about banning smart drugs?  It began with a study published by the Academy of Medical Science entitled “Brain Science, Addiction and Drugs.”  The study looked at three types of drugs (recreational drugs, medicine for mental health and cognition enhancers,) assessed the risk of there use and recommended what steps be taken.  I’ll skip the first two parts and go right to cognitive enhancers.  In brief, the study looked at the types of cognitive enhancers that are currently on the market and looked at what effects they have, how they improve cognition and what potential risks come with there use.  The list of drugs was fairly extensive and included some well known ones such as methylphrenidate (Ritalin) and modafinil (Provigil.)  According to the study most of the substances listed have been shown to improve cognition in one way or another (short term memory, learning, focus) though not all improve all areas of cognition and some may even detract from some areas while improving others.

Where the study became interesting is where they began to discuss the ethical issues involved in intelligence-enhancers and what form of regulation may need to be put in place.  The first paragraph of this section went right to the heart of the matter stating:

“Any potential human enhancement challenges traditional ideas about medicine, i.e. that the role of medicine is to overcome some sort of impediment to normal physical or mental functioning, and thereby restore an individual to ‘normal’ health.”

This is a common belief in most of the medical community and has been used by prominent bioconservatives such as Leon Kass as an argument against human enhancement.  Naturally I disagree with this position and it is interesting do note that the study did not come out unequivocally in support of it and made note of the fact that physical enhancement (i.e. cosmetic surgery) has been gaining widespread acceptance.  Unfortunately, it then made quite possibly the stupidest argument against enhancement I have ever heard:

“Currently, individuals with higher than average cognitive abilities are valued and rewarded, but making such attributes available to all individuals could reduce the diversity of cognitive abilities in the population, and change ideas of what is ‘normal’.” (emphasis mine)

If by reduce the diversity of cognitive abilities they mean reduce the number of stupid people then I agree that is what cognitive enhancement could very well do.   What I have a hard time seeing is how this could be anything but a good thing.  In many cases diversity is very desirable since an abundance of different traits in a population often enhances that species adaptability and thus odds of survival.  However there is no benefit to having a diversity of cognitive abilities, to having a population where some people are less intelligent, less creative and more forgetful.  This is akin to saying that some forms of medicine should be abolished because it is might reduce the diversity of health in a population.  There is no benefit to taking this action, and generally that’s a good enough reason not to do it.

As to the popular argument as to whether use of cognitive enhancers should be banned in certain situations such as athletic or competitive event the study didn’t take one side or another, only stating that more discussion was necessary.  It did trot out the same tired argument we hear every time this discussion comes up, that performance enhancers are an unfair advantage.  This was a stupid argument against enhancement in sports and it’s a stupid argument now.  Genetics and upbringing already give some people an advantage over others and if anything cognitive enhancers could help to level the playing field.  It also didn’t address the largely arbitrary way we decide which drugs should be banned and which are acceptable, such as why a powerful stimulant such as caffine is not being considered in this ban or why dangerous drugs like nicotine or alcohol are legal while drugs like cannabis are not.  Please note that I am not advocating the banning of said drugs, quite the opposite, I merely wish to point out the ban’s arbitrary nature.

The study did contain one thing that advocates of human enhancement can look to approvingly.  In closing the study stated :

“Further debate is needed about whether it is, in fact, desirable for pharmaceutical companies to have explicit programmes for developing
cognitive enhancing drugs to be used by ‘healthy’ individuals in non-medical contexts.  If such programmes are found to be desirable, incentives for their development should also be considered.” (emphasis mine)

Could a top science academy be advocating the potential of human enhancement?  Could we be seeing the beginning of a redefinition of the purpose of medicine?  Time will tell.




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