Re: Risk, Reward, and Human Enhancement

From: Daniel Burfoot (
Date: Thu Jan 03 2008 - 20:49:55 MST

On Jan 4, 2008 10:11 AM, Rolf Nelson <> wrote:

> On 1/2/08, Daniel Burfoot <> wrote:
> > Ultimately the only way to discover if the drugs work for real people in
> the
> > real world is for lots of people to use them.
> Not sure I follow. If controlled double-blind clinical trials are
> unable to give us sufficient data, it seems unlikely that
> uncontrolled, uncoordinated, inconsistently-reported one-off
> experiments (or, as scientists like to call them, "useless anecdotes")
> would be a more reliable source of data.

Here's what I mean. Say the world had never known about the drug "alcohol".
Then some people at a pharmaceutical company discovered it and showed that
it was safe in controlled clinical trials, and could be used for some
medical purposes (say as a low-grade anaesthetic). They also showed that it
produced a state called "drunkenness", associated with mild euphoria and
disinhibition, which let's for the sake of argument assume is a good thing.

Now, if the discovery of alcohol happened in modern times, people would be
very suspicious. They would worry that drinking a lot has bad side effects
(they'd be right). They'd worry that it kills brain cells (check). They'd
note that it is habit forming (yup). In the face of all these potential
hazards, most people would avoid the drug, and so humanity would fail to
discover that alcohol consumed moderately is basically a good thing. Of
course, it might still be used to a limited degree for its original purpose.
You could do a similar thought experiment for coffee.

So the analogy to the mind-enhancement drugs is as follows. Let's say some
drug exists (maybe it's known about today) which really improves mental
function when used moderately, but has some side effects on par with
alcohol. Because of the side effects, use of the drug is limited to people
with some deficiency (ADHD, chronic fatigue syndrome) which the drug is
intended to cure. Thus society at large does not discover the real potential
of the drug.

Consider also steroids. People who take steroids achieve unmistakable (and
often otherwise unobtainable) boosts in athletic performance. Of course,
there are also bad side effects. But if instead of boosting muscle mass, a
drug boosted brain function (by a comparable amount) the side effects would
have to be pretty damn bad to justify NOT using the drug on a wide scale.

Re: comments by Samantha and Bryan - I'm thinking of drugs along the lines
of Modafinil and Ritalin, which are currently available by prescription.
These basically act to increase (deepen) attention, which isn't exactly
intelligence but is certainly related. I'm not talking about cutting-edge
experimentation here, that should be left to the labs.


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