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food for thought about how we think

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Related reading:

Building a Better Mouse Brain
reported by Wired.com, 9/1/99

Altered genes produce smart mice,
tough questions
Boston Globe, 9/2/99

Brainy Mice Raise Hopes
For Human Memory Drug
San Francisco Chronicle, 9/2/99


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Are Smart Mice
Really Smart?

commentary by Patrick Gunkel
Woods Hole, MA


Editor's Note: Pat Gunkel, a neuroscientist friend affiliated with MIT, sent in   these provocative comments after reading about the "Doogie" strain of  mice with "smart genes" being bred in a lab at Princeton. As Pat describes below in his inimitable scholarly prose (dotted with parentheticals), we need to be thinking carefully about where such work could lead before monster mice and other less obvious horrors emerge from our tampering.

The engineering of “Flowers For Algernon” mice, upon which we are now embarked, is so novel, amusing, or even charming that a number of very real and potentially grave dangers to both Bios and Man have been overlooked so far by everyone.

In the genetic engineering of smarter, and ever smarter, mice, we must be careful, and possibly EXTREMELY careful, that (all of) our handling of (any and all of) the mice, not only at the time but FOREVER (which also means of all of their DESCENDANTS as well), precludes the very possibility of the escape and explosive multiplication of such Einsteinian mice in the Natural world, as well as the chance of the successful transmission of the ‘genius’ genes of the supermice to ordinary mice by cross-mating. (Assuming, at least, that the new genes are stable rather than ephemeral in populations.)

It needs to be remembered that rats and mice have played major roles throughout the history of civilization. They have stolen, and added to the cost of, food grains in field, storage, production, and distribution; and one wonders if they may have been overlooked vectors for crop diseases as well. They have been responsible for epidemics that have periodically sickened and killed much of the human race, thereby disrupting the economic life of societies or even altering their cultural evolution.

Mice with enhanced intelligence might be expected to outsmart, out-compete, even fight and kill off, and hence to spread and supplant — possibly very quickly — normal, and by comparison stupid, mice all over the Earth (even natural mice know how to sail the Seven Seas, by boarding ships being loaded at docks). Brilliant mice would tend to displace other fauna as well, robbing them of their trophic and ecological niches in increasingly clever, indeed educated, ways (parallels to the effects of the spread of Man are absolutely inescapable).

Such ingenious mice, again possibly like Man or his ancestors, may through assortative mating select for intelligence and hence constantly augment it; in fact, being smaller, more numerous, and shorter-lived, supermice might evolve even faster THAN faster than hominids. If so, where would this process end? Would Man’s (current) mental level be reached in a fraction of the time, and just as hurriedly and unstoppingly superseded? (The almost human brilliance that Irene Pepperberg has shown to be possible in a parrot, whose brain is only 2% as big as ours, is an object lesson here, and perhaps a warning.)

Scientists themselves, of course, will meanwhile inevitably seek to create ever smarter mice in the laboratory, and even Business will at some point want to jump into and maximally quicken such research or engineering efforts, so as to eventually be able to harness the phenomenal potential of small mammals as industrial slaves or even in the service sector. The cheapness of raising, housing, testing, and breeding such mice, and ease of automating all of this (or the science and engineering itself), and the (comparative) absence of moral restraints, should add further steam to the advances, as will the likelihood that the discoveries made about the bases and diverse ways of expanding murid wit will cause pure and applied progress in this whole area to obey a particularly beautiful, robust, and sustained exponential law. Smart mice, even before they begin to educate, as well as biologically engineer, themselves, will presumably, and again much as has Man, find more and more REASONS to explore and exploit the whole of Nature, and fewer and fewer reasons to have any restraints or shyness in doing so. For this reason alone, Man and Mouse may be headed for interspecific collision, and ultimately all-out victory of one or the other over its rival, which as a practical matter is apt to mean conquering and extirpation.

It must be obvious by now that the (presumably catastrophic) escape of smart mice from laboratory into the wild will be inevitable and just a matter of a few years, if not days. The role of global industry, not just academic science, in the production, multiplication, and use of Einstein mice, and the unbridled history of commerce, assures this. So does, and far more simply, the inevitable and almost instantaneous adoption, exchange, and breeding of smart (and ever more clever) mice as pets; beginning with lab workers and their families, and mice sent informally through the world’s express mails by friends and acquaintances, the process will in the next blink of an eye be seized on by the pet industry, which will be all too conscious of the fantastic mass marketing and advertising potential and possible profit ratios.

Naturally, if biological engineering of higher intelligence turns out to be feasible in mice, the science and engineering will be applied to all sorts of other animals as well. Such problems as we have contemplated in connection with smart mice will then be as nothing, and overnight a literal Pandora’s box will be opened to never be closed again. Nor will the science of biological engineering, if it finds that it can raise an animal’s ‘IQ’, be satisfied with that; directly it will seek to improve, transform, and, if you will, humanize, by the use of similar methods, all other facets of animal PSYCHOLOGY and BEHAVIOR as well; and of course, all of the forms and elements of INTELLIGENCE, which embraces so many things (memory, curiosity, learning, imagination, perception, manipulation, attention, self-awareness, abstract reasoning, etc).

How hard can a mouse be made to work by altering the genetic bases of its character? How much courage can be given to its character? How rich or varied a personality? Can life-long monogamy, domesticity, or parental behavior be installed in its genes or taken to some (even undefined) extreme? Can a mouse be made creative? Can it be given claustrophobia? An insatiable appetite for spinach? A tendency to climb trees or to build nests there? Can it be given genes that will make it, like a dog, playful with human beings? Or a rapt lover of music?

Which brings me back to almost the same place where I began.

If we can genetically engineer mice (or other animals) with such natural phenotypes, might it in at least some of these diverse cases be dangerous to then release such transformed animals into the wild, where they would multiply or breed others of their kind forever? Could animals given certain mental traits pose a hazard to the rest of life on Earth, to untransformed (native) conspecifics, to economic (and aesthetic) fauna and flora, or even, in extreme instances, to the health, life, or survival of Man himself?

We must think before we act, or are out-thought by our acts.

— Patrick Gunkel


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