Sunday, October 17, 2004

Scientists Finding Ways to Make Us Slaves

Scientists find way to make us slaves
London Sunday Times| Oct 17 2004

ALDOUS HUXLEY may have got it right. In Brave New World, his classic futuristic novel, the author envisaged a society divided into castes from Alpha at the top to Epsilon at the bottom.

The Epsilons were content to plod on with tedious tasks, their brains numbed by drugs. Until now this has been the stuff of science fiction.

However, experiments conducted on rhesus monkeys have shown for the first time that animal behaviour can be permanently altered, turning the subjects from aggressive to “compliant” creatures.

The scientists did so by blocking the effects of a gene in the brain called D2, which cut off the link between the monkeys’ motivation and perceived reward. Humans have an identical gene.

The project was led by Barry Richmond, a government neurobiologist at America’s National Institute of Mental Health, who has detailed the findings in the journal Nature Neuroscience this month.

The work shows how the monkeys could be made to work enthusiastically for long periods without the need for a “treat”.

The experiments involved getting 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, 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.

“Most people are motivated to work hard and well only by the expectation of reward, whether it’s a pay cheque or a word of praise,” said Richmond. “In these experiments we found we could remove that link and create a situation where repetitive, hard work would continue without any reward.”

The original purpose of the research was to find ways of treating mental illness. “We make decisions all the time based on how valuable we think a reward is and how much time we think it is going to take to get it,” said Richmond. “In depression, people think no reward is worthwhile and all work is too burdensome. In obsessive compulsive disorder, people work and are never satisfied by what they have done. If we can find the disturbance in the brain circuitry related to emotions and reward, we might be able to relieve these symptoms.”

He said the technicalities of permanently altering human behaviour by gene manipulation are currently too complex and humans who underwent this treatment to become live manifestations of Huxley’s Epsilons would not function well.

“They would be indiscriminate and not be able to appreciate that their efforts were wasted if there was a problem further along a production line,” Richmond said. “It would be more to the point for us to motivate people using normal motivating factors.”

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 IVF clinics.

“There’s no doubt we will be able to influence behaviour,” said Julian Savulescu, a professor of ethics at Oxford University. He believes people have “a moral imperative” to genetically enhance their children.

Although he added: “Genetically manipulating people to become slaves is not in their interests, but other changes might be. We have to make choices about what makes a good life for an individual.”

Richmond’s findings were discussed at a Royal Society meeting organised by Bob Edwards, the scientist whose work led to the creation of Louise Brown, the world’s first test tube baby.

In a presentation entitled 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?” The advent of the technology is considered so serious in America that a meeting to discuss setting up a legal framework for “germline” genetic manipulation is being held in Washington DC in December.

Gregory Stock, author of Redesigning Humans and an ethics specialist from the University of California, is one of those invited to attend. “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.