To Scientific American, Re: Contradictory Stance

Your recent special issue on neuroscience (September 2003) shows, unsurprisingly and with few exceptions, a striking uniformtiy of voice and vision about the topic. The cover declares the issue to be about “Better Brains: How Neuroscience Will Enhance You” (emphasis added). The articles adopt your usual tone of inevitability and mostly-desirability, and the culmination is a piece (“Is Better Best?”) by a “noted ethicist” who “argues in favor of brain enhancement.” Despite a few nods, so little of the possible “improvement” is truly questioned.

Are these technological developments inevitable? Is “the essence of humanness to try to improve the world and oneself” as Arthur L. Caplan claims? Does every religion on the planet see “the improvement of oneself and one’s children as a moral obligation,” as Caplan also claims? Hardly. These questions are answered in the affirmative not by the laws of nature or by anthropological reality but by the culture of global civilization, a culture that is driving itself into the ground through its ceaseless pursuit of “development,” justified by its looking narcissistically (and falsely) at itself as the torch bearer of the very condition of humanity.

Nobody should be surprised to see these assumptions unquestioned in your publication, a publication that is more often than not about technology boosterism far more than science. Nobody should be surprised to find that an ethicist who makes such conclusion is the kind of ethicist who would become “noted” within our culture. And nobody should be surprised to hear the best conclusion to be the usual, ages-old rhetoric about making sure that improvements aren’t banned yet that access is also ensured for all. Sadly, the very pursuit of growth and development creates social structures in which it is impossible to grant access to all. This is the heart of civilization’s problems, and it makes all the rhetoric rather empty.

Mind you, I’m no Luddite. Like Caplan, “I see little wrong with trying to enhance and optimize our brains” — or in pursuing countless other technologies. The problem is that our culture puts faith in the idea of economic and technological improvement as the solution to all our problems, when so much of that very improvement yields the very causes of so many of our problems. The pursuit of improvement is not evil, but adopting its ceaseless pursuit as the very basis for organizing our societies ironically ensures that no fundamental improvements can ever occur. Further, putting faith in anything is hardly true to science.

It is a nice coincidence that this special issue, an extreme example of your publication’s touting of technology and improvement, includes the concluding part of Michael Shermer’s piece on the “noble savage” (“The Domesticated Savage”). Shermer has always struck me as an incredibly thoughtful and levelheaded guy. Yet here even he, one of the ultimate skeptics, falls prey to our culture’s pervading ideology. Instead of acknowledging that the human brain has evolved to best cope with relatively small social structures, he suggests that we must continually “expand the circle of whom we consider to be members of our in-group.” This may seem merely a comment in favor of expanding human rights, but it also smacks of globalization, world-statism and utopian (read impossible) brotherhood-of-man wishes — all ideals that, again, ironically subvert any possibility of good things for all people.

For three years, I’ve read your magazine from cover to cover. And in that time, I’ve found myself continually frustrated at your publication’s habit of speaking out of both ends of its mouth without even realizing it. The simple fact is that you can’t properly promote science the skeptical method as long as you insist on devoting so much effort to promoting science the overblown enterprise that is subservient to growth economics. If Scientific American were to take this idea seriously, the resulting content could change the world in ways that all the neuroscientists and nanotechnologists can’t even begin to imagine. As long as Scientific American doesn’t take this idea seriously, its contribution toward fundamentally “improving” the world — and toward the pursuit of genuine science itself — will remain hopelessly limited.

My subscription expires this coming December, and I believe I will let it lapse.

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