Alt-Coin Trader

Neuroscientists Don’t Believe in Souls—But That Doesn’t Mean They Can’t Sell Theirs (to the Pentagon)

It is because I have such high hopes for neuroscience that I’m so upset by two trends in financing of the field. One involves neuroscience’s growing dependence on the Pentagon, which is seeking new ways to help our soldiers and harm our enemies. For a still-timely overview of neuroweapons research, check out the 2006 book Mind Wars by bioethicist Jonathan Moreno of the University of Pennsylvania. (PR disclosure: I brought Moreno to my school to give a talk on March 10.) Potential neuroweapons include drugs, transcranial magnetic stimulators and implanted brain chips that soup up the sensory capacities and memories of soldiers, as well as brain-scanners and electromagnetic beams that read, control or scramble the thoughts of bad guys.

When Moreno was writing his book, neuroscientists were reluctant to talk about their affair with the Pentagon and seemed embarrassed by it. No longer. Last year the National Academy of Sciences published a 136-page report, Opportunities in Neuroscience for Future Army Applications, that makes an unabashed pitch for militarizing brain research. The authors include the neuroluminaries Floyd Bloom of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and editor-in-chief of Science; and Michael Gazzaniga of the University of California at Santa Barbara. Both are members of the U.S. Council on Bioethics.

Here are some ethical questions: Will the militarization of neuroscience really make the world safer, or just trigger a new arms race? Have researchers considered how non-Americans are likely to perceive our neuroweapons program? Some neuroscientists dismiss bionic warriors as a sci-fi fantasy unlikely to be realized soon, if ever. But then should researchers exploit the U.S. military’s gullibility?