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December 8th, 2008:

The Algernon Conundrum

My previous entry on drug prohibition (December 5, 2008) triggered a great deal of discussion, and prompted someone to send me a link to a story on chemical cognitive enhancement. People are using a number of drugs and non-regulated chemicals to give themselves a performance edge at work or school, and the question of whether this is a good thing or not is complex. Caffeine tops the list of cognitive enhancers by popularity; I also have an intuition that certain “smart drinks” containing herbals like ginko biloba really work because they have more caffeine than Mountain Dew. Most cognitive enhancers are stimulants of some kind, and people who depend on them often lose sleep, which some research suggests is behind a great many health problems from obesity to hypertension. Other less obvious effects may exist. Caffeine is ancient but most other nootropic drugs are not, and we have no clue what they might do to the human system over an adult life of forty years or more.

However, someday we will know. The question then becomes: If we can improve brain function with chemicals that have no adverse effects, should we? And if those chemicals actually make human beings brighter, less angry, more social, or more effective in other ways, are there grounds for restricting their use? One could argue that life’s game is now all about brains and personality—brawn went out of fashion as a career choice a generation ago—and letting people “cheat” with pills or patches is fundamentally unfair to those who can’t afford the pills or patches or by some odd quirk of physiology do not respond to them. Beyond that, objections thin out pretty quickly. The benefits are immense, and if the costs were modest, we could make the enhancers available to anybody who wanted them.

The remaining objection is subtle: There are rarely any free lunches. Assuming that we can find cognitive enhancers without some sort of damaging side effects might be naive. Evolution made us as we are, and did so at the cost of billions of “bad throws” of the genetic dice. Making better humans may come at a cost, and the SF writer in me wants to ask questions like this: Suppose you could boost your intelligence radically using a chemical that cranked up brain chemistry at the cost of burning your brain out after forty years or so. I’m not talking about a little better detail recall or a little more personal energy to work through your do-it list. (That’s what people who use Ritalin or Provigil today are achieving.) I’m talking about being able to grasp and integrate massive amounts of information into your daily experience of life; of being able to hold dazzlingly interesting discussions with other people that range across all human knowledge; of being able to understand the ways that widely separated facts interlock and shed light on things that you would never have thought were related at all. Burning through a do-it list a little faster is just a temptation to add more drudgery to your life. But being able to kick back and your chair and Put It All Together, wow! That would tempt me. I’m not naturally prone to envy, but I confess to being a little envious of the dazzlingly bright people I’ve met in my life. Looks, eh. Wealth, eh. Power, yukkh. Brains, yeah.

Now, suppose that being such a person would reduce the length of my life from eighty-five to sixty years. Would I still be tempted? That’s a tough question, especially if the last twenty-five years of my life were assumed to be lived within a gradually deteriorating body. To have a dazzling mind while still having a body capable of making use of it—that’s the temptation. If the cost is early death, well…what would you do?

I call this the Algernon Conundrum, from Daniel Keyes’ seminal story and novel, Flowers for Algernon, which I read in high school and which affected me deeply. A mentally handicapped man becomes a genius through medical intervention, but the effect is short-lived, and discovered to greatly shorten the life of the lab mouse (Algernon of the title) that first underwent the procedure. Charlie soons reverts to his original self, with the implication that he will die far younger than his peers. The novel side-stepped the obvious question: Was it worth it? That was forty years ago, and I still haven’t decided. I doubt I’ll live long enough for it to be a choice I’ll have to make, but I often wonder how our grandchildren will deal with the difficult tradeoffs that medical technology will inevitably offer them. Drugs? Getting high, well, that’s going to be the least of it.