Savulescu on Mathematical Enhancement

Over at Practical Ethics, Julian Savulescu has been thinking about the possibilities raised by the observation that brain stimulation would appear to have increased the mathematical ability of trial participants.  He concludes that the observation – and the implicit uses to which it could be put – are ethically important.

One of the arguments he produces is this:

[E]ven those at the top end of mathematical ability might benefit from enhancement.  If one takes those people in the top 1% of the population of IQ, the top quarter of that top 1% produce more than twice as many patents as the bottom quarter.  So even if you are in the top 1%, enhancing your IQ might enhance your creativity and inventiveness.  Kadosh and colleagues begin their article, “Dalton, Keynes, Gauss, Newton, Einstein, and Turing are only a few examples of people who have advanced the quality of human life and knowledge through their exceptional numerical abilities.”  But if we were to enhance the ability of such geniuses by even a tiny per cent, problems would be solved that would otherwise be unlikely to be solved.  Tiny improvements have great effect over large numbers of people over significant periods of time.  An important problem that has remained unsolved or unrecognized could be solved.  It is important to recognize that cognitive enhancement is an important social and economic issue.

There’s something about this that doesn’t add up (arf!).

The appeal to the number of patents produced, for example, is only superficially strong.  The main reason for this is that producing patentable work may well have something to do with intelligence or mathematical ability, but the relationship is much more complicated.  For one thing, we have to be clear about what’s being patented: many patents do not recognise breakthroughs, but minor improvements or variations of existing inventions (especially in the US, where the patent system has a notoriously wide scope).  In other words, it’s not obvious that the intellectual ability of the patent-holder is vastly important – it isn’t obvious that a super-brain would be important: the mere luck of having the opportunity to file a patent would count for a lot.

In respect of the major breakthrough patents, it’s possible that ability counts a bit more, but even here, it’s far from being self-evidently of central importance.  Notably, massive institutional support is likely to be a factor in a good portion of patentable work (and the same applies to an even greater extent to Nobel or Nobel-equivalent work – though it’s still just about possible for hobbyists or non-pros to function at this level, it’s very unlikely indeed).

We have to consider this point in relation to the high likelihood that these supportive institutions are likely to attract the best brains anyway – or, at least, to have the ability to sift out the less-than-best.  So there’ll be a natural agglomeration of talent there.  But if this is so, then – again – it’s less easy to see that boosted individual talent would make much of a difference.  If it’s true that the top 1-in-400 (that is, a quarter of the top 1%) produce such a disproportionately high number of patents, that’s plausibly because they’re the top 1-in-400, and so get the plum research jobs, rather than because they’re extra bright.  In short: relative, rather than absolute, intellectual advantage may well explain at least some of the disproportionality.

If there’s anything to this objection, it casts into doubt the claim that

 if we were to enhance the ability of such geniuses by even a tiny per cent, problems would be solved that would otherwise be unlikely to be solved.

This is because, if the objection’s sound, genius doesn’t after all have such a marked effect on the speed of discovery.  And, besides – the claim that some of the problems that Julian has in mind would otherwise be unlikely to be solved seems to come from nowhere; I’d want to know more about how these likelihoods are calculated.  Julian’s claim has a certain superficial attraction here, but the big question that has to be addressed concerns whether there’s more to it than that.

Julian finishes the post with the claim that

[m]athematics is not merely for boffins. It affects all of our lives, every day. Enhancing everyone’s mathematical abilities, even those of geniuses, is in everyone’s interests.

If all else is equal, this last sentence may be true.  But it remains to be seen that ability is so crucial, in comparison with – say – the social conditions in which discoveries are more or less likely to be made.  It might well be that we’d be better off still by not worrying too much about enhancement, and finding ways better to make use of the human capital that we have already.

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