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SCIENCE MUSINGS

Who gets to have the new smart pills?

"I am a little world made cunningly of elements and an angelic sprite," wrote the poet John Donne in about the year 1609. He meant, of course, that he was a creature of matter and spirit, body and soul. Today, we would amend his lines to read: "I am a little world made cunningly of elements." Full stop.

Without the elements, there is no self. This is one of the most firmly held convictions of contemporary science.

The self does indeed have two components, but both are embedded in matter. One part of the self is physical features determined by genes. Race. Gender. Eye color. Body shape. Certain aspects of intelligence.

The second part of self evolves as our bodies interact with the environment. Memories. Emotional development. Muscle tone.

The corollary of a purely elemental self is that the self can be changed. Whatever is material can be engineered.

Geneticists foresee a time when genes can be changed at will. Inherited diseases and genetic abnormalities will be suppressed; the first steps in this direction are already here. Designer babies are further down the line -- if we are rash enough to go there.

The second, adaptive part of self can be engineered, too. The pharmaceutical industry stands ready today to chemically modify memory, learning, emotion, behavior, athletic ability, sexual prowess, and almost any other aspect of the adaptive self you can imagine.

There's nothing new about the chemical modification of self. Humans have been changing themselves with alcohol, hallucinogens and aphrodisiacs since the dawn of time. But we're getting better at it now.

The September issue of Scientific American is devoted to our developing understanding of the human brain and the ways neuroscientists stand ready to modify mental function. "Better Brains" is the cover headline.

We are not talking here about therapeutic drugs -- medications for depression, attention-deficit disorder, stress, or erectile dysfunction, for example. We are talking about a bulging cabinet of chemicals for improving normal brain function. Memory enhancement. Increased awareness. Better cognitive performance.

We are talking about "smart pills."

Infant formula that revs up mental development. Dietary supplements for seniors that postpone mental impairment. And, while we're at it, how about a drug-laced "soft" drink for the rest of us -- call it CaffeinePlus -- that gives us the ability to learn faster and remember more.

"The prospect of enhancing normal brain function is real," states Scientific American. "And with it will come a host of ethical issues concerning who has access to what."

Will smart pills go only to those who can afford them, adding one more level of inequality between rich and poor, as some ethicists fear?

For generations the rich have given their kids a cognitive advantage with better diets, posh private schools, summer camps, private tutoring.

If anything, brain enhancers that are as ubiquitous as Coca-Cola might be less unjust than what passes for equality now.

But do we really want to buy intelligence off the shelf? What sort of strange new world are we about to enter? John Donne penned his lines at about the time Galileo turned his telescope to the heavens and discovered that the universe isn't centered on humankind. It was an epochal moment in human history, the cusp between tradition-based knowledge and scientific empiricism.

"The new philosophy calls all in doubt," he wrote. He worried that traditional "inequalities" that defined society -- between prince and subject, for example, or father and son -- could not be sustained in the brave new world of empirical science and technology. He was right. We are far more committed today to the essential equality of all men and women than were our pre-Galilean ancestors.

Better may or may not be best. But whatever chemical enhancements of self the future brings, it should bring them with equity to all.

Chet Raymo teaches at Stonehill College. His most recent book is "The Path: A One-mile Walk Through the Universe."

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