About this author
Zack Lynch is author of The Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science Is Changing Our World (St. Martin's Press, July 2009).
He is the founder and executive director of the Neurotechnology Industry Organization (NIO) and co-founder of NeuroInsights. He serves on the advisory boards of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies, Science Progress, and SocialText, a social software company. Please send newsworthy items or feedback - to Zack Lynch.
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Brain Waves

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December 19, 2003

Empathy: Our Survival Depends On It

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Arnold Kling's latest article, Biotech Ends and Means, thoughtfully criticizes the President's Council on Bioethics report, Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness, for skirting the real issue:

"Do concerns over biotechnology scenarios warrant a worldwide totalitarian dictatorship?" If so he asks, "Will we curb freedom at the level of research, the level of development and marketing, at the level of consumption, or at all three?"

Kling's opinion is clear. "As concerned as I am about where biotech is taking us, I would rather take my chances on muddling through those issues than endure the heavy-handed centralized control that I believe would be needed to slow the biotech revolution....Such a dictatorship would be more dystopian than any of the scenarios that technology might create." I completely agree, but for me this begs the question....

Would it even be possible to control the actions of 6.5 billion people?

Widely diverging opinions and policies already exist with respect to biotechnology. While Germany and France categorically banned human genetic engineering in 1997, labeling it “an attack on human dignity and a violation of our right to an unaltered gene pool,” this research continues elsewhere. And even though the U.N. has debated banning reproductive cloning, how would their decision be enforced?

A recent C.I.A. report, The Darker Side of Bioweapons, highlights the perils of the biotech revolution, "The evolving bioscience knowledge base, coupled with its dual-use nature and the fact that most is publicly available via electronic means making it very hard to track" (and control). Biotechnology represents the most asymmetric toolset ever devised. As Kling himself has written, it will only take a single, well organized group of terrorists to unleash a bioweapon of catastrophic proportions.

Today's industrial-style geopolitical control structure is still grappling with the changes brought forth by the information technology revolution. This does not bode well for any efforts that might be put forward to reprimand countries or groups that pursue "banned" biotech research.

Our extensive global connectedness has created new problems for modern humans. While many people question the uneven distribution of power that exists in today’s world, others are disillusioned by the happiness that wealth was supposed to bring. In every culture, feelings of uncertainty, depression, anger, and resentment have surfaced on a vast scale.

Having spent thousands of years improving our control over the physical environment, we now need new tools to address the mental stress that arises from living in a highly connected urbanized world. It is for this reason that I am so interested in neurotechnology's potential.

While Kling describes commentators like myself (Reason's Ron Bailey and Aubrey de Grey included) as optimists who look at advancing technologies as opportunities rather than threats, I suggest (at least for myself), that new tools represent our best hope in a world seemingly out of control. Only by understanding the emotional basis of our actions will we have a reasonable chance of not destroying ourselves.

What humanity needs is an emotional revolution. New tools should be developed that allow each of us to actually feel, not just hear, the breadth of emotions that we all experience throughout our daily lives. For example, a relative emotional sharing solution that would allow people to share and experience the pain and happiness of another's existence might give rise to a more empathetic global society. If we could feel, share and understand each other at that level, we might just successfully enter the 22nd century as a human family.

--Thank you for continued interest in Brain Waves. I'll be taking a short blogging holiday as I spend the next two weeks with family and friends celebrating our fortunate lives. Until next year....

Comments (6) | Category: Neurosociety


1. coolmel on December 19, 2003 9:06 PM writes...

Amen. But I would also add "compassion".
Thanks to "Brain Waves" my year had been fruitful.

Happy Holidays. Until next year then...

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2. sina on December 23, 2003 1:08 AM writes...

a brilliant posting for the end of the old year....
and lets hope we have that world sooner....maybe in 2050!

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3. Mikhel on December 28, 2003 8:33 AM writes...

What a wonderful blog-find.

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4. RB on January 4, 2004 5:01 PM writes...

People read novels and watch films to get outside their own experience and to see life from another viewpoint. That is as close as most people get.

Manfred Clynes originated a method of purposefully exercising the range of emotions that he called Sentics. It has therapeutic promise, in the right hands.

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5. Gus on January 5, 2004 2:36 PM writes...

Hmmm. To the extent the people understand the emotions of others, people also seem to be able to completely misunderstand the reasons for those emotions. How is being sure of the emotion going to lead to better understanding the reasons for the emotion?

For example, a hard-core fem friend of mine considers all male anger to be a response to fear - fear of women. If she sees to construction workers fighting over where to dig a hole, she is sure in her heart and mind that the real source of their conflict is not a work-place diagreement about hole placement, but a chance to express the rage the feel because women make them powerless. Seriously. Really. She has sympahty for their anger, but no true empathy for the place of this anger in their lives. It's not clear to me how tools that would help her actually feel their anger would not help her understand it.

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6. White Russian on June 24, 2004 4:07 PM writes...

Eastern philosophy teaches us that before understanding, empathizing, and having compassion for others, we must have empathy and compassion for ourselves.

Currently the ability to understand our emotions requires intelligence as well as considerable time for reflection and/or meditation. With an easier way to understand where our own emotions are coming from, (in effect reaching empathy for ourselves faster,) perhaps we will be able to reach empathy toward others much faster as well.

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