H Y P E R T H I
N K / I N K
D I G I T A L M A G A Z I N E
Are Smart Mice
commentary by Patrick
Woods Hole, MA
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 Mans (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 worlds 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 Pandoras box will be opened to never be closed
again. Nor will the science of biological engineering, if it finds that it can raise an
animals 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.