Friday, July 16, 2010

Is Science On The Verge Of A Brave New World - Or A Nightmare?

This article on neuroscience and its relationship to social questions makes for an interesting read. It is extracted from a talk at the Marxism conference in Britain by Stephen Rose, an award-winning neuroscientist. Rose discusses the kinds of things that usually never appear in science magazines and journals, or even in the broader discussions in the media. For instance, he makes important points about the reductionism of neuroscience - this idea that our consciousness is simply a product of the mechanical/chemical functions of the brain. Of course the physical processes of the brain are important. But you cannot reduce us to our "central processor". We are embodied, for instance, which means that besides thinking "2+2=4" or "The blue sky is pretty today", we also are processing thousands of stimuli from every part of our body - maintaining the homeostasis that allows us to exist (for instance, constant temperature, the utilization of caloric energy), our other autonomic functions from our heart-rate to our balance - all of this is in addition to the full range of conscious sensations that we experience, hierarchize and sort at any given instant. And beyond the interactive macrosystems of the body, are the microsystems of the cells. The more scientists look into the functioning of cells, gene expression, protein functions and interactions, the actions of the organelles that make up cellular structures, enzyme function, etc. the more they realize what an unbelievably complex orchestra of interactions goes on to keep us alive. All of these elements - and their interaction with the natural and social worlds that we inhabit - are what make us as conscious beings. That's why I believe that the idea that some futurists have that we will "reverse engineer the brain" in a decade or two are hopelessly optimistic and naive as to the significance of doing so. A robot that has a human-speed parallel processor will still lack everything else that makes us human.
At a more mundane level this reductionism means reducing what are effectively social diseases of the mind to problems of brain function. Depression is seen to be somehow genetically coded or a brain disease, meaning it only needs to be treated with the right drugs to be solved. Same with other psychological disorders, or even the physical manifestations of social inequity, like obesity and diabetes. This is convenient for drug manufacturers but doesn't solve the social conditions that create depression or sets the foundation stones for the prevalence of schizophrenia amongst workers vs the rich.
Rose is also correct to point out that a significant portion of the cutting edge science is actually being funded and driven by the military - at least in the US and, perhaps, in Europe. DARPA - the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency - is a big funder of some of the most cutting edge science, including neuroscience. They are exploring things like mind control using electromagnetism, selective memory erasure through the use of enzymes as a means to allow soldiers to commit heinous crimes and not suffer PTSD, etc. Some of this stuff is quite frightening.
All of this is true and worthy of concern and comment. However, I can't help but feel that - at least in the article form of Rose's talk - he is missing the point a little bit. And I think that this is a tendency on the left, at least the Marxist left - to reduce all capitalist-funded and state-funded research to the potential and real negatives, such as those discussed above. Yet, this has the danger of making us look like Luddites. I remember distinctly, for instance, the dismissal of the significance of the internet in the 1990s. It's true that the internet didn't solve oppression, exploitation or the domination of the capitalist controlled mass media. It's true that the internet was invented and developed with the support of DARPA for more efficient military communications. There is no denying any of this. But if you were to tell someone today that the internet is unimportant and has changed nothing they would rightly think that you were off your rocker. As futurist US Ray Kurzweil is fond of pointing out, when he was at MIT in the early 1970s, the super-computer on campus took up a whole room and cost tens of millions of dollars. Today there is more computing power and greater access to information in a palm-sized iPhone, which can access "all of human knowledge" via the internet. And who could imagine the speed with which the scandals about G20 policing broke without smartphones, youtube and twitter? The internet and computing has, quite simply, transformed our relationship to information. The fact that you're reading this right now and that I'm engaging in a discussion based upon an article that was posted across the ocean is proof of that as well.
We have to take the same approach to the present explosive developments in neuroscience, biotech, genetics and robotics. There is a real sense amongst many people that these areas are on the verge of becoming the next IT. People, including progressive people, are very excited about the research into gene therapy. There have been big leaps, for instance, in the ability to treat macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa in rats through the use of viruses that carry the corrected gene. Those viruses then swap in the functional gene for the faulty ones in the retinas of diseased rats. Such rats have had a significant restoration of sight. Similar promise is held for ALS (a neurodegenerative disease, made famous with the film Lorenzo's oil), Parkinson's Disease, Alzheimer's along with new treatments for HIV/AIDS, cancer and even heart disease.
Now, a lot of this stuff has to be taken with a grain of salt and research to cure diet-related diabetes with gene therapy, for instance, is probably hogwash. And researchers are discovering that genetic is very much more complicated than simply reading a very long book and changing some grammar here and there. This has led to the development of new fields and new approaches such as epigenetics, proteomics and others. But to suggest that there aren't big strides being made because of the reductionism of capitalist science - both in its conceptual framework and its need to produce sale-able products - is itself reductionist and rather dogmatic. We need to be able to find the correct balance in our assessment of technological progress. And we need to see that capitalism still remains a very dynamic system, capable of significant advances technologically. It's just the chaotic and distorted way that those advances come about - in the US through the channel of the military (though this is different in Japan and China) - means that advances that should unambiguously alleviate the human condition and liberate us from drudgery and the horrors of disease, all too often only adds to the horror - with advanced weapons systems and surveillance technologies, for instance - or is reserved only for the wealthy. And the subordination of research to military purposes or to satisfy the drive for profit means that scientific advance is slowed or abandoned if it doesn't serve those ends. We are for more science and more funding for research but research to meet human needs.
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