Two brain studies in the news today: in the US, a study about human brain-like blobs implanted into the brains of rats, working on a pathological model of neurodivergent folks; on BBC they talked about a study hooking up lab-grown anthropoid brains to a computer, which they’ve made to play Pong: apparently they are sentient, as in they sense and react to their environment and are learning from their sensory inputs. Where are the ethical considerations here? They are nowhere: in both studies, the scientists involved assure us that if it were to become an ethical concern—it isn’t right now, they claim—then at that time they’d reevaluate. How laughable…
As for the first study, whose goal was to find a way to study human brain development in nonhuman test subjects, a story on All Things Considered attempted to raise the ethics of this hybrid creature they’ve created, but the researchers themselves and other neuroscientists quickly dismissed the concern as based in popular misconceptions, the sort of thing only an uninformed person would focus on. They’re just rats, they say. If they were using dogs or other larger mammals, then there could be concern, they speculate; but these are just rats. I struggle to think of many dismissals more callous than this one: we only made rats with human cognitive capacities, that’s all! Don’t worry about it!
First of all, there is a substantive difference between the brain of an animal and, say, the heart or the liver or the kidneys or the lungs. While of course much of our identity is bound up with and in our bodies, we know that our psychological existence is intimately located within our brains. You can transplant, say, the heart of a genetically modified pig into a person (or vice versa) without changing the creature’s identity overmuch. We can see this with transplant survivors, who (I imagine) may feel a sort of psychosomatic dissonance at having a part of another individual within themselves, but nonetheless are not cognitively altered, so that their fundamental identities remain unchanged.
The brain, on the other hand, is a special organ: it is the center of our being. To put that into another animal is a serious transgression. We cannot wait for human brain cells to be placed into a large mammal, as suggested at the end of the All Things Considered piece, to worry about this: The size of the host doesn’t matter. It’s the cognition of the brain cells that matters. This study guarantees a new species of mammal with anthropoid cognitive abilities in the body of a rat.
Yet instead of wondering at the being they’ve made from stem cells, their approach to ethical concerns is to inquire into the comfort of the anthropic rats as simple rats:
“Yet many ethical discussions have focused on the possibility that an organoid could attain human-like consciousness.
“‘I think that’s a mistake,’ Hyun says. ‘We don’t exactly know what we mean by ‘human-like consciousness,’ and the nearer issue, the more important issue, is the well-being of the animals used in the research.
“He says that wasn’t a problem in the Pasca lab’s experiments because the organoids didn’t seem to harm the animals or change their behavior.”
But these are not rats, as the All Things Considered summary also makes clear:
“Another experiment suggests the human cells could even influence a rat’s behavior,” they say, “The team trained rats to associate stimulation of their human cells with a reward – a drink of water. Eventually, the rats began to seek water whenever the human cells were stimulated.”
The problem here is that they’ve created an animal that is neither rat nor human and yet both rat and human. And yet they are distracting themselves with notions of ‘human-like consciousness’ as if you had to be human to be conscious, when we know now that even trees are conscious beings. This is literally the most damning hubris.
The study was published in the journal Neuron. I picture Futurama’s brains-in-jars, plugged into a supercomputer. In any case there are now anthropoid brains engaging with their environments like any other sensing, thinking being. They have senses and respond to what they sense. They are learning. These are therefore individuals and are therefore deserving of rights as a human-ish species. They are a new protected class.
Disturbingly, these researchers do not understand what they’ve done, as reported by the BBC (who, likewise, seem not to have understood what has been done):
“The mini-brains are likely to become more complex as the research progresses – but Dr Kagan’s team are working with bioethicists to ensure they do not accidentally create a conscious brain, with all the ethical questions that would raise.”
But these brains are literally sentient, whether or not they want to accept that. One researcher on the team uses that exact word, sentient; another refuses it and prefers ‘thinking-system,’ which would be laughable if the consequences were not so serious:
“Dr Kagan’s description of his system as sentient, however, differs from many dictionary definitions, which state it means having the capacity to have feelings and sensations.
“Cardiff Psychology School honorary research associate Dr Dean Burnett prefers the term ‘thinking system.’
“‘There is information being passed around and clearly used, causing changes, so the stimulus they are receiving is being ‘thought about’ in a basic way,’ he says.”
Well let’s just run through this with our brains, eh? ‘Sentience’ implies inputs received (senses) about which the brain takes a position (good, bad, neutral, etc), which are, in essence, ‘feelings.’ These feelings are then utilized to correct how these brains play the game. You would not be able to effectively critique these brains into better gameplay if they were not sentient.
Furthermore this study reflects on the first: these brain ‘organoid’ creatures are able to sense and respond to their environment like other living animals, which suggests any human brain matter implanted into another species creates a human-ish animal, a hybrid creature that is neither, say, rat nor human, and yet both within a rat’s body.
These things make me anxious because we are breaking the order of things, and for what? Eugenics, frankly.
I am not diseased. My brain is wired markedly differently from the vast majority of my species. I do not need curing because there is nothing to cure.
And yet, that is the point of the first study: they want to ‘cure’ ‘autism’ and other ‘developmental disorders.’
These are goals from the earliest era of modern biological science, that era that led to Nazi Germany, and eugenicists in the US Federal Government whose aims were to secure white superiority. It is time we reevaluated the goals of our ancestors in light of what we know today, as demonstrated by these two studies, the first especially.
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