This Ruthless World

Adventures in absurdity

Relax, Medical Science IS Your Friend

It’s Luddism Appreciation Week over at Slate, apparently, first with a comically pretentious essay arguing that reading e-books is not real reading (please print out this entry on fine vellum and stroke it sensually, if you want the next ten minutes of your life to count) and now with one that explores the hypothetical existential crisis spawned by hypothetical brain implants designed to improve memory and cognitive function. All our i-goods and Internet addiction notwithstanding, technophobia remains a popular exercise in pseudo-intellectualism.

Imagine yourself living in a world where medicine is really primitive. One day, you read an editorial in your newspaper that discusses a futuristic new development in medical technology, called “anesthesia”, and specifically, the implications of being fast-asleep while a bunch of doctors do stuff to you. Clearly, the advent of this “anesthesia” thing means lots of people will wake up in recovery rooms to find that they’ve been turned into Frankenstein’s Monsters, because if there is one thing that’s certain in life, is that you can’t trust scientists. Or, imagine the article is instead about organ transplants finally becoming a reality. What is the first thing you think? Gangs grabbing healthy people off the street in broad daylight and butchering them for their organs, right? That’s what it sounds like to me when people talk about the “moral and philosophical implications” of hypothetical medical technologies of the future — ignore the realities of how or why new medical technologies are developed and focus on the most gruesome, least likely scenario.

Mention cloning in conversation, and the first thing that pops into most people’s minds is the super-rich manufacturing “designer children” who will take over the world, or keeping subterranean cities with thousands of clone captives for the purpose of organ replacements. I’ve met few people in my life who didn’t think the very idea of cloning was dangerous to the fate of humanity, democracy and apple pie. Never mind that the technology for cloning tissues and, perhaps, organs or body parts will probably long precede the technology for cloning healthy individuals with a normal life span. Never mind that cloning technology would bring us organ transplants without spending years waiting for a donor or having to suppress the patient’s immune system; cancer treatments that not only get rid of diseased tissues, but replace it with healthy ones; real limbs and eyes in place of prosthetics; and more effective treatment of conditions that range from severe disfigurement to brain damage. (Also, meat without killing animals or the environmental damage that results from raising livestock, but that goes beyond medicine.) No, let’s ignore all that realistic nonsense and instead delve into the craziest, most unlikely possibilities — creepy, diabolical copies of dead children we’ve seen in movies and so forth.

Brain implants improving memory, attention span and cognition? Think of what such a thing could do for people on the Autism Spectrum. And, before anyone jumps down my throat, I am not talking about people with Asperger’s Syndrome; despite the fact that popular culture pretty much equates autism with Asperger’s, the reality is that “aspies” represent only a narrow fringe of the Spectrum. I am talking about the majority of autistic people — those who need round-the-clock care and supervision, people who cannot communicate (often despite desperately wanting to, and having adequate intelligence for it), people who are incapable of functioning in the larger world because they are instantly overwhelmed by multiple simultaneous stimuli that their neuro-typical peers easily process and appropriately respond to without even consciously registering the sensory bombardment. There are lots of people who are quite obviously disabled because their brains cannot perform a certain function — people who suffer from Parkinson’s Disease, schizophrenia, PTSD, retardation, auditory processing disorders, aphasia, severe ADHD, cortical blindness, seizures, motor planning difficulties or paraphilias that lead their sufferers to violent and criminal behavior. Imagine what it would be like to achieve dramatic, lasting improvement for such patients without a life-long drug regimen. Sure, if you take a severely autistic individual and give him the kinds of implants that will enable him to speak, interact with others, and pursue an education and a career, that will change him into a “different person” — but the identity issue here is puny indeed compared to what he, and those that care for him, would gain: a normal life.

Perhaps it is my personal experience raising a developmentally disabled child that informs my perspective (bias?) on brain-altering technologies — but I think it takes a special kind of aloofness to the prevalence of suffering in the world and its intensity as experienced on a personal level, to see such technologies primarily in the context of their speculative “dark side”, to look at something that would improve the cognitive functions of mentally retarded patients and worry about people of normal intelligence turning themselves into evil geniuses. This has always been my problem with existential issues — they are only issues for those who are suffering from a lack of real problems in their lives (and, if I might speculate here, probably a want of empathy, too).

Yes, doctors sometimes do crazy things to patients under their care — but this is very rare, and there are legal mechanisms in place to deter such conduct and punish it when it occurs. Organ theft happens, but again, it’s very rare, and it’s illegal everywhere in the world; the problem, at any rate, isn’t the existence of organ transplant technology. Poor women do get pressured into serving as rent-a-wombs for the more affluent, but that is a problem created by poverty and social inequality, not the medical advances that have made surrogacy possible. And should brain chips become a reality, they are unlikely to turn humanity into a mass of dehumanized, soulless androids — but they will sure help A LOT of very sick people. It’s not wrong to worry about medical ethics — but if you lose sight of the fact that there exist millions of people who desperately need these futuristic advancements in medicine, I’d say you are on the wrong side of the ethical issue.


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7 thoughts on “Relax, Medical Science IS Your Friend

  1. I think it is well to keep in mind the ethical implications of how we make advancements and what we do with them, but I agree with you that “wanting to be able to do something new” in medical science is not usually a bad thing. For heavens sake, in Europe it was considered very unsafe to *wash* medical patients, until an intrepid nurse insisted on keeping all her patient and their surroundings very clean.

    It truly is an existential crisis, though, because we have trouble nailing down what makes us human. Then it’s like, “Oh crap, don’t mess with the balance! We’ll turn into monsters!” Augmenting the brain…I don’t know. The brain houses our mind, but it isn’t really our mind. It’s an organ that we already tinker with by the things we do and think. And surgeons already cut out parts of brains to cure seizures and tumors. While I cringe at the “post-human” philosophy, I think technological medical treatment of the brain is probably fine in most circumstances. I mean, what part of the brain does my “self” live in? Would curing my emergent ADD turn me into something inhuman? I doubt it.

    Thanks for the thoughtful article!

  2. Great post, well considered – but you missed the most important point. With brain augmentation we might be able to implant some sense into the atavistic hysterics who cry doom at every new invention 😉
    Did you know that in 18C people feared that ‘too many books are causing an information overload’ – sound familiar!
    While it is important to keep a moral view, it can be shown that morality has increased and improved in the last 100 years as technology has risen and religion declined (Channel 4 (UK) Sex, Death and the Meaning of Life – Ep2).
    Finally, we have massive inequality, over-fed rich and starving poor, increasing selfishness, continuing bigotry… so what would be so bad if we did change who we are?!
    Thanks for the brain food 🙂

  3. Doctors, much like politicians, are not really the ones that will harm.
    The black market trade in just hearts, livers and kidneys is a Billion dollar plus industry and growing.
    Just those three organs.
    There is a very profitable industry in ‘transplant tourism’.
    The problem we have with advancement is not the medicine or in politics, the policy.
    The problem comes in when business enters and finds a way to make a profit and ignores the safeguards.
    Money is needed for R&D in medicine.
    So are ethics.
    Investors recognize profits – not ethics.

  4. Reblogged this on The Last Of The Millenniums and commented:
    Should ethics in medicine override at all times, profit?

  5. It’s ironic that so many people who are not scared of cloning or organ transplants, still make it a point to avoid genetically modified food. But thinking that a modified tomato will turn you into a monster is a no different that believing that a surgeon will turn you into a monster while you are asleep after anesthesia.

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