Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

D'oh!

I essentially agree with Mr. G that Provigil doesn't really increase intelligence, it's actually a lot like the amphetamines that students take during exam week -- it creates a temporary state of hyperarousal which allows for intense concentration. But what if there was a treatment that could be given to children which would, in fact, cause them to have permanently enhanced mental capabilities?

Notice I didn't say, "make them more intelligent," because we already know that there isn't a single quality that's synonymous with intelligence. There are various capacities that don't necessarily go together. I would guess that John Coltrane had a reasonably high IQ but I really don't care. And Daniel Goleman's book Emotional Intelligence was very helpful to me in explicating the very different realms of intellectual and social competence.

Nevertheless, while success in school has something to do with diligence and motivation an hard work, we all know that some children have mental capabilities that make success in school come easily to them, and that others just don't do very well even if they try hard. Unless they happen to come from a wealthy and powerful family, or have some rare talent such as athletic ability or whatever it is that Jennifer Lopez does, their options in life will be very limited. So any parent would want the IQ booster for their child. And let's face it. We live in a complex society, and we have a need for people who can understand complicated ideas and do intellectually demanding work.

So why is Dr. Bashir a pariah? First of all, as with all enhancement issues, it's unclear where the line is between enhancement and achieving one's potential. We know that IQ (which is just one number that tells us little or nothing about many important capabilities, but it is used a lot in research) tends to be higher in children whose mothers are well nourished, don't smoke or drink too much alcohol, are breast fed, who subsequently have good nutritional status, who are not lead poisoned, who are raised in rich and intellectually stimulating environments, who have good teachers, and so on. I don't see how anybody can object to any of that but most children in the world today lack one or more of these advantages. Even so, what would be wrong with also giving children the magic pill, especially if we stipulate that we have fixed these other deficits for most or all children?

Granted the Law of Unintended Consequences, and that there might be many downsides we cannot foresee to a world full of Lisa Simpsons (of both sexes) and hardly any Barts, are there problems we can foresee? Is there something wrong with this picture?

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