Book Review: The Ethical Brain

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by: Roger Dooley

The Ethical Brain by Michael S. Gazzaniga (2005, Dana Press) should be required reading for anyone who debates ethical issues that can be illuminated by modern brain science. Neuroethics is an emerging field, and this book is a nice primer for those who will follow the future discourse in this area. While some areas of ethical discussion today may be immediately obvious as being influenced by neuroscience, others are less so.

Gazzaniga starts off by dealing with the most controversial and emotion-laden topics (and perhaps those where neuroscience has the least to contribute) – abortion and euthanasia. On the topic of abortion, he tries to provide a neuroscientific definition of when life begins, and actually arrives at several possibilities. With the real-world battle lines drawn between those who think a unique life begins at the instant of conception and those who think anything inside a woman’s body is merely tissue, it seems unlikely that a calm, rational, and science-based discussion will take place anytime soon.

Once it leaves these politically charged areas, the book gains momentum. The probability of parents using a combination of genetics and brain science to produce more intelligent children gets quite a bit of treatment. While at the moment the science and technology don’t exist to accomplish that, Gazzaniga sees that its future availability is inevitable. He’s optimistic, though, that a wave of eugenics won’t sweep the world.

Of particular interest is Gazzaniga’s treatment of memory and how it is used in the modern justice system. Our laws and courts have always held eyewitness testimony as the gold standard for evidence to convict an individual of a crime. Gazzaniga points out a great deal of research exists that shows the fallibility of memory. Its storage is imperfect to begin with, it can deteriorate with time, and it is easily altered by subtle suggestions. Memory has evolved in a way that was useful for human survival, and photographic recording of the details of an event confers no evolutionary benefit. Gazzaniga predicts that in coming years major changes will take place in how the courts weigh eyewitness testimony. (Significantly, one of this week’s top stories is the release of Alan Crotzer, who incorrectly jailed for 24 years based on faulty eyewitness testimony.)

Gazzaniga presents each topic in the book in a similar way. He begins with a discussion of the underlying neuroscience and research findings, and then segues into a discussion of the topic and how brain science can inform it. He provides his own opinion, but leaves plenty of room for readers to draw their own conclusions. Other topics he covers are improving the brain with drugs, criminal behavior allegedly caused by brain damage or abnormality, and the overall use of brain science to understand religious beliefs and ethics.

Blogger Todd Zywicki did a lengthy review of The Ethical Brain here. The Neuroethics and Law Blog has a series of posts about the book, and this one is a good starting point to link to some of the past coverage.

This book won’t settle the debate on any of these topics, but it does provide a basis for discussing them in a rational manner. Even those not haunted by neuroethics concerns will find it an interesting read – the scientific background Gazzaniga provides for each topic will give readers a new perspective when they read their daily newspaper.

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