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Reviewed by:
  • Intervention in the Brain: Politics, Policy, and Ethics by Robert H. Blank
  • Bryce Huebner
Review: Robert H. Blank, Intervention in the Brain: Politics, Policy, and Ethics, MIT Press, 2013

Robert H. Blank has set his sights high in Intervention in the Brain. He presents a carefully researched and readable account of the ethical and political issues that arise as a result of our increased ability to intervene on the brain; and with this, he hopes to provide a foundation for future debates about a wide variety of important issues. I applaud his project, and agree wholeheartedly that we should be thinking more carefully about the political implications of research in neuroscience and neuropsychology. But I am skeptical of Blank’s approach, and believe he has bitten off more than he can effectively chew in this book.

The first three chapters are designed to get non-experts up to speed on current issues in neuroscience and neuroethics. Chapter 1 briefly summarizes debates about the structure and function of the human brain. The discussion is relatively well balanced and fairly up to date. But there are two points where Blank tips his cards, revealing the proclivity toward Evolutionary Psychology that structures later arguments in the book: he notes that there are important differences between the brains of females and males; and he calls attention to work in neurogenetics, which plays a critical role in his positive story. Chapter 2 provides an overview of the technologies we possess for intervening on the brain, addressing everything from electroconvulsive therapy, psychosurgery, and neural stimulation, [End Page E6] to psychotropic drugs and virtual reality. Toward the end of this chapter, Blank offers an optimistic, though mildly skeptical account of neuroimaging techniques. Finally, in Chapter 3 he lays out some of the core issues in neuroethics, including questions about autonomy and informed consent, the distinction between therapy and experimentation, and widespread worries about things like mind-control, stigmatization, and distributive justice. With this background in hand, he sets off to address a number of ethically and politically rich issues.

Over the course of six additional chapters, and 189 pages, Blank covers an incredibly diverse range of issues, including addiction, aggression, psychopathy, trust, morality, prejudice, racism, ethnic conflict, empathy, fear conditioning, social and cultural neuroscience, sex differences in the brain, the use of neuroscientific evidence in criminal trials, neuromarketing, neuropolitics, the presentation of neuroscientific data in the media, attempts to use neural interventions for the purposes of lie-detection, military and national security uses of neuro-technology, neuro-enhancement, and for good measure a few philosophical issues like free will, moral responsibility, and the definition of death. Given this vast array of issues, it is perhaps unsurprising—though nonetheless disappointing—that Blank doesn’t address the complex and interesting positions that have been advanced by neuroethicists, psychologists, and philosophers on each of these issues. Indeed, many of his arguments seem to proceed exclusively by way of citation. But upon closer inspection they reveal a unified story about the human brain, grounded in speculations about adaptations to a Pleistocene environment, a weak form of genetic determinism, and at points, a partial recognition that environmental factors sometimes affect human development. There are places where Blank gets things right, though even here his arguments move too quickly; and there are places where he gets things wrong. But I cannot hope to do justice to the entire book, so I will focus on one issue that reveals the promises and limitations of Blank’s approach.

In discussing sex differences, Blank aims to shift discussion away from sociocultural nurturing, and toward genetically and evolutionarily based claims about human nature. He appeals to neuroimaging data that “provide dramatic evidence that male and female brains process information differently” (102); he canvasses differences in spatial reasoning and empathy, and notes that these emerge within the first few hours of life (109); and he argues that “the effects of sex hormones on brain organization occur so early in life that, from birth, the environment acts on [End Page E7] differently wired brains in males and females” (103). Blank notes, almost in passing, that “sex differences in cognitive patterns arose because they proved advantageous” and that...


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