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Robert Blank, Washington DC, Georgetown UP, 1999, 199 pages, £43.25 (hb), £15.75 (sb).
Robert Blank is a political scientist who writes as an informed layman in neuroscience for “anyone who has an interest in the broader social implications of research and applications in the brain”. (pagevii) His central theme is that “ … the brain represents an important new biomedical area that must be studied much like genetics, reproductive techniques, and organ transplantation. As such, brain policy and politics is a critical area of study for social scientists and ethicists”. (pages1-2)
As Blank rightly observes this is an under-explored policy issue of far-reaching significance. What is surprising though is the stance which he takes, derived from an essentially biological view of man. He states that “… evidence from neuroscience clearly supports the view that the mind is nothing but what the brain does”(page 20) and sees the brain as having a pivotal role. Hence he wants to shift the emphasis from nurture to nature, and in the process redefine the role and methodologies of social scientists. Thus he regrets that the optimism and excitement that psychologists express for their work with neurobiologists has not extended to social (and especially political) scientists. It is not that Blank is unaware that this raises questions about social control and the liberty of the individual, but whenever he discusses them it is as if they are afterthoughts compared with the irresistible thrust to develop and implement what he sees as mainly beneficial new technologies. He is particularly addressing the American context, and seems largely to have bought into the American dream of continuous technological progress, which requires no more than the gently restraining hand of social scientists and ethicists.
His arguments about particular policies all then follow from this position. So he considers that “ … the brain is the key mediator of both genetics and the environment for the individual”; (page 19) that “Ultimately, our very definitions of life and death are dependent on the findings of neuroscience”, (page 43) and that “Despite the importance of genetic, cultural and social factors in explaining addiction, at the base our understanding must focus on the brain”. (page 86-page 7) When dealing with consciousness and neural grafting he is rather more cautious, and he is particularly concerned about the problems posed by psychosurgery and psychopharmacology. Here he even raises the possibility that his basic assumption that deviant behaviour has an organic basis may be open to question.
Yet despite these caveats, which are expressed throughout the book, the overwhelming message is that the technological imperative is inevitable, and therefore social scientists should join neurobiologists and psychologists and adopt their style of quantitative method. Conversely any methodologies which exclude neurobiology are viewed as suspect—“Dependence on survey research and other self reporting methods is especially questionable in light of this knowledge”. (page 179) This then fits with Blank's concluding statement that new discoveries “ … demonstrate that much of what each of us is can be reduced to the actions of neurons and neurotransmitters”. (page 172)
Although he argues earlier for a sophisticated account of biological science, what he actually presents is a sociobiologist's imperialistic view of scientific positivism, which redraws the line between technical and humanistic considerations and reduces the latter to a subsidiary role. What he does not consider is whether the debate needs to move on, by questioning whether the traditional separation of the scientific and technical from the humanities is itself conceptually flawed.
Brain Policy raises important issues and is accessible to the audience for which it was written. Perhaps most troubling though is that Blank's enduring message, that the brain can be envisaged as a complicated mechanism which drives the person as a whole, chimes all too well with the less considered prejudices of many laymen and politicians. It deserves to be widely read, if only as a warning that some social scientists are prepared to support a populist slide towards a dangerous new utopia of everlasting technological expansionism, in which medicine would have a key role.