Sunday, August 24, 2008

Book Review for 'Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique'

A very good and thought provoking review by Daniel J. Levitin in the NYT.
Brain Candy

...In a hair-raising final chapter, Gazzaniga turns to the question of whether technology may eventually make us something other than human, exploring such potential enhancements as brain implants and germ-line gene therapy, which alters the DNA in sperm, egg or embryo (thus passing the changes on to future generations). It’s one thing to eliminate genes that cause cystic fibrosis or muscular dystrophy, which tests already allow us to detect in developing embryos. But what happens, Gazzaniga asks, when we identify genes that indicate a high probability of developing diabetes or heart disease in middle age? Will we toss the embryo, “start all over again and try for a better one?” Or change the offending genes based on probabilistic outcomes?

You may reject out of hand the idea of a neural implant, a computer chip grafted to your brain. But the lines become blurred. We already alter our neuro­chemistry through caffeine and alcohol (not to mention Prozac). People with thyroid or pituitary problems use pills or injections to restore their hormonal balance. Others have cochlear implants or electrodes to stimulate injured parts of the brain. If a chip could mediate thyroid function, that doesn’t seem so different. A neural implant might also stimulate the prefrontal cortex and brain stem the way caffeine or Ritalin or Prozac do. But will we accept an implanted memory restorer for people with Alzheimer’s? What about intelligence-enhancement chips for schoolchildren? Gazzaniga imagines the conversation: “Honey, I know that we were saving this money for a vacation, but maybe we should get the twins neural chips instead. It is hard for them in school when so many of the other kids have them and are so much smarter.” If this is fundamentally different from discussions about glasses, hearing aids or Ritalin, that difference is not obvious....


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