By Kathleen Taylor
Ours is a world full of science. Much of that technology and knowledge, from mobile phones to the understanding of gravity, currently comes from what we call ‘the natural sciences’: those which study the material universe. In school, we learn to distinguish physics, chemistry, geology, and their natural kin from life sciences like biology and psychology. Our ideas of what science is, and indeed what we are, have been shaped accordingly.
The brain supremacy, that coming era in which neuroscience will challenge physics for cultural dominance, is about to reshape those ideas as never before.
In school and elsewhere, we also learn the science status lesson: physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology. Physical sciences are ‘harder’, in the sense of more rigorous. They’re more scientific, their experiments more carefully controlled. Life sciences are ‘softer’, ‘wishy-washy’, potentially less scientific. That this may be because the life sciences deal with far more complex and difficult material is not what one would say to make friends with a physicist; nonetheless, no spew of particles from the Large Hadron Collider can match the fiendish intricacies of a human brain. But we judge sciences by results, more than how hard the questions are.
The life sciences have also been hampered, relative to their natural cousins, by the very attitude the dichotomy implies: that they are somehow ‘unnatural’, playing God in a way that atom-smashing doesn’t. That feeling has eased enough to allow, for example, anatomical dissection, but it has by no means vanished, and it delayed the growth of modern life sciences like neuroscience and genetics. Physics and co. had several centuries’ head start, and they have delivered more goods, to date.
Why does this matter? Because until quite recently, Western science has been mainly physical science, and physics in particular is still seen as a dominant force in shaping people’s ideas about science and scientists. Ask people to name five famous scientists, and chances are at least four of the five will be physicists, with Einstein and Newton leading the field (see for example this list). Stephen Hawking and Brian Cox are likely to feature as well, so this is not just about physics’ longer history. If any life scientist registers, it’s probably Darwin.
And yet it is the life sciences, and particularly the sciences of the brain and mind, which are changing most rapidly. This is the era of the brain supremacy, in which we are likely to gain precision control — and perhaps remote and non-invasive control — of the human brain, and thus of human minds. That advance could transform our lives, perhaps even our natures. The physical sciences have had tremendous success in problem-solving, but the problems society needs to prioritise are getting harder. Worse, some of the solutions to earlier, easier problems have since spawned fearsome challenges of their own: our dependence on fossil fuels is one obvious example.
The hardest problems are those where realistic solutions require human attitudes to alter considerably over a short time. The physical sciences can change attitudes indirectly, for example by producing new technology or measuring and reporting dangerous phenomena like pollution. Brain research, however, offers the possibility of adjusting attitudes directly, by changing their neural underpinnings.
Animal research has already manipulated memories, switched genes on and off or added new ones, and controlled the activity of individual brain cells (for example by optogenetic methods). Research in people is reading dreams and using brain activity to infer what someone is thinking. The brain supremacy is taking shape much faster than modern physics did. This has huge implications for how we – including scientists – think about science, society and ourselves.
Why? The soundbite answer is: natural sciences study matter; life sciences study things that matter. Hence the sense of ‘unnatural’, perhaps? — unease about meddling with human nature runs deep. The dichotomy between life and physical sciences reflects a basic perceptual distinction between living and non-living, animate and insensate stuff. As young children, we learn these categories so quickly that thinkers including Dan Dennett (in his book Freedom Evolves) suggest we’re primed to do so by evolution.
We also learn their moral implications. For some things, we’re expected to pay attention to their welfare. Other stuff is just stuff: to be used, traded, ignored, or destroyed as suits us. Its welfare, dignity and feelings (if they exist) need not concern us. In between lies uncertain middle ground, where the moral rights of certain kinds of humans and animals — how much they matter to the rest of us — are bitterly contested.
Until recently, the moral rights of the matter studied by science was mostly not of interest. Few people care whether protons feel pain when they’re smashed together, or whether worms object to being dissected. Medicine was always a controversial exception. Yet even there, the use of animals was justified both by serious clinical need and by the belief that animals don’t matter as much as people do.
But now, as the brain supremacy unfolds, we’re turning the tools of science on ourselves, the beings we feel matter most of all. The moral instincts that hold the self to be sacred are honoured, at least in principle, by the person-centred ethics of medicine. They fit less well with the ethics of traditional physical science, and even less well with the morals of the marketplaces through which scientific findings filter into everyday life. We have not yet fully recognised the implications of our growing ability to analyse, and marketise, the brain.
When neuroscience grants us the superpower of precision brain control, we may for instance at last be able to cure not only dreaded brain disorders like Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia, but the disorders of ideology, short-sightedness and willpower which make some of our biggest problems so intractable. Yet the same superpower could mean that science-fiction tropes like telepathy and brainwashing become marketable realities. The ability to interpret, record and share dreams sounds like harmless fun. What about the power to edit our minds, and the minds of our children? Who will decide on who gets edited, and how?
The gifts of the brain supremacy could help us to a world with far less suffering. But they’re dangerous gifts, and they need to be handled with care.
Kathleen Taylor studied physiology and philosophy at the University of Oxford. After a research MSc at Stirling University, working on brain chemistry, she returned to Oxford to do a DPhil in visual neuroscience and postdoctoral work on cognitive neuroscience. In 2002 she won two writing competitions run by the Times Higher Education Supplement, one for science writing and one for an essay in the humanities/social sciences. She has written on a range of topics from consciousness to cruelty. Her most recent work, The Brain Supremacy: Notes from the frontiers of neuroscience, published in October 2012.
Image credit: Brain image courtesy of Peter Hansen, University of Birmingham, and Piers Cornelissen, University of York. Do not reproduce without permission.