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Science and Ethics

  • Posted on October 18, 2013 at 10:00 AM

This post is a continuation or expansion of last Friday’s post, A Scientific Link. Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.

If you’re a consumer of science fiction, then you’re familiar with the way writers ask “what if” questions in order to explore possible consequences of scientific endeavors. To get a big dose of this, you can watch Fringe.

Basically, science is amoral—not immoral, meaning in violation of moral principles or wrong, but amoral, meaning without morality or not concerned with right or wrong. Legally, we try to assert morality into scientific endeavors by limiting what scientists are allowed to do. Individual scientists may bring their own morality to bear on their work. However, science as a discipline is amoral. It’s about curiosity and testing theories, not about whether or not something should occur.

Therefore, we can look to science to answer “how” questions, like “how does this work” or “how do we do this;” but, we cannot look to science for the answer for “what” questions, like “what should we do” and “what shouldn’t we do.”

When it comes to autism and science, we’ve reached the point where we need to focus less on “How does this work?” and “How do we do this?” Instead, I propose that the primary question we should ask is, “What should society/scientists be allowed to do to peoples’ brains?”

In scientific terms, the brain is the storehouse of memory, thought process, and other components that make up personhood, like personality and emotions. We know that people with brain injuries, stroke, and Alzheimer’s, for example, can undergo significant changes in how they express who they are, because these conditions impact their brain.

Yet, when it comes to autism and other neurological disorders, there are many people in our society who claim the right to seek a cure due to the disruptiveness of the behaviors people (i.e. children) with autism exhibit. They seem to ignore the implications of messing with a child’s brain. By curing someone of autism, for example, you will need to fundamentally change how their brain works, which involves fundamentally changing their brain, which involves fundamentally changing who they are—or, at the very least, how they are able to express who they are.

On the surface, when you’re talking about people profoundly limited by their autism, this may seem like a good thing. I know how it feels to want your child to talk. I know how it feels to want your child to be able to be “more himself,” by taking away the frustrations that make him act out. So, yeah, I get it.

At the same time, I don’t. Because the kind of cure that could impact autism isn’t going to function at the surface of things, it’s going to have a dramatic impact on a person’s brain—if it works at all. In other words, it’s not going to make a child “more himself;” it’s going to change who that child is. It’s going to change the way he (or she) processes information. It’s going to change the way he (or she) experiences the world. It’s going to change the way he (or she) thinks, and probably what he (or she) thinks about and remembers, what those thoughts and memories mean to him (or her), and who knows what else.

Basically, one of the working theories is that autism occurs because of a combination of overabundant and underabundant neural pathways. If you start to mess with those pathways, then you are going to change who the person is, just like a stroke will change who someone is or at least how he or she is able to express who his or her own personhood.

I’ve read enough about tiger moms and other dysfunctional families to know there are parents out there who would love to be able to forcibly re-write their child’s brain to make their child who they want their child to be. I don’t see the potential “cure” for autism as being any different. The question then is: Should parents (or doctors or guardians or anyone) have that right? Does society have the right to rewire someone’s brain to make them more socially acceptable?