Monday, October 18, 2004

Science Turns Monkeys Into Drones, Humans Next

Science turns monkeys into drones
Humans are next, genetic experts say
Lois Rogers
The Times, London
Sunday, October 17, 2004

LONDON - Scientists have discovered a way of manipulating a gene that turns animals into drones that do not become bored with repetitive tasks. The experiments, conducted on monkeys, are the first to demonstrate that animal behaviour can be permanently changed, turning the subjects from aggressive to "compliant" creatures.

The genes are identical in humans and although the discovery could help to treat depression and other types of mental illness, it will raise images of the Epsilon caste from Aldous Huxley's futuristic novel Brave New World.

The experiments -- detailed in the journal Nature Neuroscience this month -- involved blocking the effect of a gene called D2 in a particular part of the brain. This cut off the link between the rhesus monkeys' motivation and reward.

Instead of speeding up with the approach of a deadline or the prospect of a "treat," the monkeys in the experiment could be made to work just as enthusiastically for long periods. The scientists say the identical technique would apply to humans.

"Most people are motivated to work hard and well only by the expectation of reward, whether it's a paycheque or a word of praise," said Barry Richmond, a government neurobiologist at the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, who led the project. "We found we could remove that link and create a situation where repetitive, hard work would continue without any reward."

The experiments involved getting rhesus monkeys to operate levers in response to colour changes on screens in front of them. Normally they work hardest and fastest with the fewest mistakes if they think a reward for the "work" is imminent.

However, Mr. Richmond's team found that they could make the monkeys work their hardest and fastest all the time, without any complaint or sign of slacking, just by manipulating D2 so that they forgot about the expectation of reward.

The original purpose of the research was to find ways of treating mental illness, but the technicalities of permanently altering human behaviour by gene manipulation are currently too complex, he said.

However, he and other scientists acknowledge that methods of manipulating human physical and psychological traits are just around the corner, and the technology will emerge first as a lucrative add-on available from in vitro fertilization clinics.

"There's no doubt we will be able to influence behaviour," said Julian Savulescu, a professor of ethics at Oxford University.

"Genetically manipulating people to become slaves is not in their interests, but there are other changes that might be. We have to make choices about what makes a good life for an individual."

In a presentation at a Royal Society meeting titled Designing Babies: What the Future Holds, Yuri Verlinsky, a scientist from the University of Chicago who is at the forefront of embryo manipulation, said: "As infertility customers are investing so much time, money and effort into having a baby, shouldn't they have a healthy one and what is to stop them picking a baby for its physical and psychological traits?"

Gregory Stock, author of Redesigning Humans and an ethics specialist from the University of California, agrees.

"I don't think these kind of interventions are exactly round the corner, they are a few years away, but I don't think they are going to be stopped by legislation," he said.