German Debates on Neuro-enhancement

In May an entire issue of a German journal was devoted to the topic of neuro-enhancement, summarizing the ongoing academic debate among German and Austrian researchers.

The spring 2013 issue of the German journal “TATuP”, the leading German journal on Technology Assessment, picks neuro-enhancement out as a central theme. The discussion about neuro-enhancement was started by a report of the German Office on Technology Assessment at the German Federal Parliament (TAB). The journal deals with challenges of technological visions for technology assessment and points out the debate on neuro-enhancement as an example. Several articles try to answer the question of how to analyze and evaluate expectations for the future of neuro-enhancement.

For Reinhard Heil and Christopher Coenen (both ITAS Karlsruhe), the debate on neuro-enhancement (NE) today shows similarities with the debates on eugenics, techno-futurism and trans-humanism in Europe in the 19th and 20th century. In the 19th century, the idea emerged that science will be able to create bodies for humans in the future who are more consistent with the human spirit. Techno-futurism propagated the modification of the conditio humana in particular with technical means in order to improve cognitive and physical abilities and to prolong life. Heil and Coenen also refer to the CIBA-colloquium in 1963, where future transformations of man with biological and technical modifications had been discussed. Modern transhumanism understands, according to Heil and Coenen, humans as scientifically ascertainable deficient creatures which can be improved with technical and medical means (Nano-, Bio- and Neurotechnology). Eugenics, techno-futurism and transhumanism agree in the duty of men to take matters of their biological development into their own hands. Although the time of eugenic measures seems to be over, human enhancement can be seen as “liberal eugenics” in terms of technological means that are disposed to individuals with the aim to optimize one’s own capability and the capability of the offspring. Especially the debate on techno-futurism is seen as an early forerunner of the modern debate on NE. Heil and Coenen criticize that today’s debate on human enhancement does not consider these preceding debates and therefore ignores the – according to their opinion – highly ideological character of neuro-enhancement. 

Petra Schaper Rinkel (IAT Vienna) states that European discussions on neuro-enhancement coincide with prevailing self descriptions of modern societies. Issues and trends like self quantification, the “entrepreneurial self”, the optimization of the conduct of life to prevent medical diseases demonstrate the willingness of individuals to accommodate to these requirements and to increase individual competitiveness. Whereas technology and innovation policy used to focus on the optimization of institutional patterns, NE can now be interpreted as an attempt to optimize individuals for institutions and eventually for nation-state competitiveness.

 

Andreas Loesch (ITAS Karlsruhe) raises the question of how to discuss and implement regulatory procedures in the field of a technology that mainly consists of visions. At present NE technologies show only little medical effects. In his opinion, an ethical discourse based on technological visions would be misleading – it would frame the debate to these promises and expectations. Instead of a genuine ethical discourse based on technological promises, Loesch opts in favour of the use of the study of societal reactions to NE as a starting point for debates on regulation of NE.