The Neuroethics and Feasibility of Genetic Engineering on the Nervous System


Certainly a precautionary, rather than a reactionary approach to NGE would seem best. As is true of the vast majority of ethics, it is difficult to be sure what sort of impact NGE will have on social conscience, but in this case uncertainties are far greater and far more variable seeing as this report has been largely conducted on a field that does not actually exist (though that I for one hope is nascent). I have had to speculate on the science, in order to construct speculative neuroethics on the subject.

What has become clear, however, is that despite misgivings over even GE’s place in medicine, NGE is not necessarily as socially uncomfortably as one might expect, and in fact its effects are little different in many cases to those of pharmaceuticals. Synthetic neurobiology is simply and alternative approach with a different set of tools and possibilities; some overlap, others do not, many need to be explored not for the sake of science but for the sake of human life, its preservation and improvement. In the case of using NGE against diseases such as AD, public opinion may well support this extreme form of genetic engineering, though with some types of enhancement and therapy it is a lot less clear and probably will prove to be far more polarising. Ultimately, the latter will only come to fruition if there is a market for it and so public wants and needs and the response of biotech industries will decide its fate outside of the ethicists’ debate, as with much modern technology, especially biotechnology. With the line between patient and consumer becoming ever harder to draw, we may see the genetic lottery of life become a genetic supermarket (Elliott 2007).

This does not mean that the debate should not be had, merely that it will become largely reactionary and not precautionary, whereas given modern medical culture the reverse is true in that sphere. The threat of NGE to selfhood is something which depends more on one’s personal philosophy than any external, objective truth, though it is certainly neuroscientifically seductive (if not neuroscientifically correct) to conclude that there is not self, just a jumble of sensations and experiences that NGE changes without there being some core, fundamental alteration. At any rate, we change over the course of our lives, in a physical and therefore neurological sense, and thus psychologically – our personality, our memories, our loves and hates. We cannot even be sure that the atoms in our body are the same as those that made us up seven years ago, and so if we cannot maintain a modicum of physical integrity how can we expect there to be a psychological one that may be undermined by NGE?

There is, lastly, the case of widespread NGE use such that we turn to the search for a perfect human nervous system. The ethics here can be seen as a matter of individual liberty and wellbeing, and the fundaments of the neuroethics may only concern the technologies’ regulation and availability. This comes from starting with the question ‘what can we do with this technology?’ and then seeing all the possible problems that may fold before our new Promethean science, and we are convinced that it is worth a shot. If we start with ‘what will this technology do to our nature’ then it becomes a question of collective wellbeing, but not one about imposing limitations per se. The trade-off between these two starting points is the same as the trade-off between the individual and the collective (Elliott 2007). For example, if we could cure every blemish the nervous system can currently sport, we could greatly improve the quality of life for some, but what does this say of our society if we begin to view the lack of neural perfection in one arena or another as an epidemic? In order to find a neuroethically comfortable answer along this route, we must come to a medical and philosophical consensus on what concerns and desires are legitimate. The level of mastery sophisticated NGE represents may leave inadequate cultural space of alternative ways to live human life in society. That is not to say we must remain passive in the face of death and disease, but it is to say that we should not be so keen to embark upon the ethic of the sportsman, that of control, perfection, competition and dominancy. We may overlook the value of the ‘aesthetics’ of life and adopting the ethic of the hitchhiker, who meanders and bumps with the road they are on. In the words of James Edwards, ‘It would be a life that conceives itself less as the creation of something hard and enduring and more as the increasingly plastic and receptive medium in which things leave their marks and traces’ (Edwards 2000) .


Introduction: Medicine and Synthetic Biology

Medical Neuro-Genetic Engineering

Therapeutic Neuro-Genetic Engineering

Enhancement Neuro-Genetic Engineering

The Core of the Neuroethical Debate