by Mary Harrington
Friday, 10
June 2022
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07:00

‘Love drugs’ are more dangerous than you think

We should be concerned about the rise of short-term bio-medical fixes
by Mary Harrington
One order of oxytocin coming right up. Credit: Getty

The next frontier in bio-engineering is nearly here, according to The Times: ‘love drugs’. Addressing the Cheltenham Science Festival, Dr Anna Machin suggested that drugs which enhance feelings of closeness, empathy and love are “on the horizon”, heralding a time when people may ‘squirt oxytocin up their noses’ or take an empathy pill ahead of a couples counselling session.

Imagine a world where instead of working on a relationship the old-fashioned way, we just pop a pill and revive the heady feeling of falling in love — at least until the drug wears off and we need another fix. But if this seems creepily reminiscent of dystopian sci-fi, it also barely scratches the disturbing potential of synthetically-induced human love.

Machin is talking about optional medications. But even as this opens a vista of new designer drugs, we should also consider its implications at scale, in our post-pandemic politics of public health. For Covid-19 severely undermined the previously unassailable liberal principle that medical interventions should, as far as possible, not happen without individual consent. And in the aftermath of coercive public-health measures at that scale, why should we not consider other biomedical interventions aimed at furthering the common good, even against people’s will?

This is the explicit argument made by bioethicist Parker Crutchfield, who argued last year that moral bio-enhancement should be both covert and compulsory. That is, that if we could secretly give all of humanity a drug that made us more moral, we should. So if it turns out to be possible to synthesise ‘love’ — in other words, the propensity to be empathetic, docile and cooperative – then why would we not do so?

It appears that researchers are already sidling in that direction. Another recent headline reported the accidental creation of hyper-aggressive hamsters via gene editing, in an attempt to engineer the creatures for greater bonding and cooperation. This might seem funny, but what’s unsettling about the reports is that hamsters were chosen because ‘they have a social organisation that’s similar to humans’.

In other words: scientists are experimentally CRISPR-editing living creatures with human-like social organisations in an attempt to make them kinder and more sociable. When we already know that scientists are claiming we’ll have access to love-enhancing medications within a few years, and prominent bioethicists are openly making the case for human bio-enhancement on moral grounds, the implicit direction of travel should trouble all of us.

We’ve already accepted that coercive public-health measures may be imposed for the common good. The papers are now telling us that love could soon be available (optionally) in tablet form. And from here, we have few arguments left against those who might propose to hardwire ‘love’ (or even just smiling, empathetic compliance) in our children via more permanent interventions — whether we want them to or not.

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Martin Smith
Martin Smith
2 months ago

“We’ve already accepted that coercive public-health measures may be imposed for the common good.” No “we” have not. That inaccurate assumption is more dangerous than the work of the utilitarian technocrats.

Paul K
Paul K
2 months ago
Reply to  Martin Smith

I think ‘we’ have, if by ‘we’ Mary means society as a whole. Many of us (myself included) resist the new medical coercion, but the reality is we’re a minority.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 months ago

There is a direct parallel with the ‘social credit’ system in China – the CCP have very successfully been nudging the Chinese population into being ‘better’ people (or at least one definition of ‘better’). And a couple of points arise from this.

The first is that I have come across multiple accounts of Chinese people across ages and sexes, who say, unprompted, that the system has made them, individually, a better person. It absolutely gives me the heebie-jeebies – this is Clockwork Orange territory, but what am I, what are we, to make of that?

The second point is, since the CCP are already social engineering a version of this, it is clear to me that they will directly head for the biotechnological interventions once they become available. I suspect there will be plenty in the West who will resist this though.

Last edited 2 months ago by Prashant Kotak
Lindsay S
Lindsay S
2 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

To be fair, we have just had two years of the mantra “we follow the science” which isn’t too far a stretch from “in science we trust”. Science is the new priest class, they understand God better than the common folk, we should do as they say. What could go wrong?

Last edited 2 months ago by Lindsay Snoman
Martin Smith
Martin Smith
2 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Yes there will be resistance, but only outside of the ruling elites who are already on-board. Such resistance also exists in China.

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 months ago
Reply to  Martin Smith

 Such resistance also exists in China.
I’d love to read an article about that. China efficiently censors information reaching the West and I haven’t found any articles about how Chinese people resist the CCP, or even if they want to.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
2 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Those who are unhappy are allowed additional educational opportunities. We don’t hear much from those who fail reeducation.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 months ago
Reply to  Martin Smith

The ruling elites won’t, of course, be taking it.

Making the rest of the pack, sheep, is a great way to become top wolf.

Last edited 2 months ago by Martin Bollis
Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
2 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Perhaps the prevailing culture plays a part in how willing people may accept collectivism. Western cultures in general are much more directed toward self-actualization independent of the group. Polling anything generally results in thirds in Western cultures. Whether any drugs might be useful in changing us is fine, except the third that will never allow that.

Jake Dee
Jake Dee
2 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Every society has had some form of moral education, to reward the good and punish the bad. How could it be otherwise ?
I see little reason to single out China in this, unless because it’s large and foreign. Radical social experimentation is no longer coming from the Red East, it’s coming from the Blue West

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 months ago
Reply to  Jake Dee

I’m not singling out China in the sense of good and bad – I’m singling out China because of scale. China simultaneously fascinates me and terrifies me as it’s power and reach grows – especially the way technology is being used by the central government to maintain hooks into all aspects of both corporate and personal life.

China shows all the signs of following a curve similar to first Japan, then S. Korea, and the other Confucian countries – different of course but sharing many characteristics, economically, culturally, and demographically (including the precipitous drop in birth rates as prosperity rises). But China is multiple times the size. That in itself is going to create effects never previously seen. But from the effects already known, there is every reason to be extremely wary, for someone like me who, for all it’s flaws, buys into the Western package, and wants to see it win out over the Chinese political model. Before deflation set in in Japan, stock market capitalisation there briefly reached levels rivalling the US around the early 1990s – and that is a nation a fraction the size of the US.

You are correct that radical social experimentation is happening at scale in the West – but at least until the pandemic, I never had the impression that this was state-driven, rather, the state, being composed of the same type of people who occupy the corporate world, followed the ad-hoc lead set by commerce and technology. In China though, I look at the ‘one child’ policy, which undoubtedly created the largest societal generations in history without a sibling, and that to me is the epitome of systemic, large scale, state-driven social experimentation. I now look at the ‘social credit’ system, and that looks to me to be social policy exactly in the same vein.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 months ago

These love drugs are dangerous, as I told my doctor when he examined my torn shoulder tendons….a Viagra filled ruck sack is far to heavy for someone of my age…

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 months ago

What on earth was someone your age, carrying a rucksack full of Viagra for?

Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
2 months ago

And there will be unforeseen consequences which, with a little bit of effort, are perfectly foreseeable. If only mankind could see the wider horizons rather than get carried away at poking at parts of the puzzle of life.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 months ago
Reply to  Jon Hawksley

Well, being circular here, but it is clearly going to become possible, sooner or later, to *impose* on humanity, the behaviour that it stops poking at parts of the puzzle of life – by of course, poking at parts of the puzzle of life.

It then becomes a race: if people of like mind to you get there first, then they will be able to ensure locking humanity into *this* moment – humanity can statically remain what it is now (or some tweaked version of your preference) forever thereafter.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
2 months ago

1990: “you must wear a motorcycle helmet so we won’t have to pay to put your brains back into your skull”

2030: “you must take your soma so we won’t have to pay to clean up your antisocial behavior”

As we’ve found with a great many things recently, the philosophical line between these cases is shorter than we think.

Last edited 2 months ago by Brian Villanueva
Richard Hopkins
Richard Hopkins
2 months ago

In our brave new world, we now have the soma from Huxley’s Brave New World.

Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
2 months ago

Oh Lawks! The first thought that occurred to me was ‘Soma’, as I see it did to others here. But another cultural reference that comes to mind is the film Serenity.

In it, a drug was introduced into the atmosphere of a new-settled planet, intending to create a populace that was calm and peaceful. They became so to the extent that all will, effort and striving was absent, even the desire to have children was gone. Eventually, they all just lay down and died where they were. Peacefully.

Apart from a tiny fraction who had the opposite reactions, becoming insanely vicious, violent psychopaths. C/f hamsters.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 months ago
Reply to  Sharon Overy

The subtext being, all of our “…will, effort and striving…” is a product of our biological inheritance, and very specifically, our genetic programming as manifest at this moment in time.

Absent that programming, “…will, effort and striving…” will be absent too, as will attendant nebulous human concepts like happiness, desire, kindness, cruelty, empathy and so on.

This has of course implications for both us and for the machine intelligence we create.

It will (eventually, but in truth soon enough) become possible to tweak, edit, or even completely remove (or at least suppress) that genetic programming. At which point, what remains is no longer human in any real sense, but no less valid as a sentient entity than us.

Also, machine intelligence created sans a genetic history will be very alien indeed because it will not share any of our presumptions, and it’s behaviour will not be predictable – because assuming we create adaptive entities, something would fill the vacuum. We will also no doubt create entities which shares all or part of our genetic inheritance (“wet-ware” type AI), and I don’t believe there will be any possible way to distinguish us from our creations at that point.

Kat L
Kat L
2 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

A report from a whistleblower came out of Google saying they appear to have created a sentient robot. It was on Fox News last night.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 months ago
Reply to  Kat L

Not buying that – we are probably around a decade away from creating a semblance of sentience simulation that can fool adult humans. And yes, I do think it will be as quick as that. But my point is, there is only one direction that can go, until we get to the point where no human can tell machine intelligence running on a computer apart from human responses. At which point you are relying solely on machine intelligence telling you what are and aren’t human responses – which is not going to be at all comfortable.

Jason Highley
Jason Highley
2 months ago

Every day we stray further from God’s light.

Kat L
Kat L
2 months ago

These people are diabolical.

Al M
Al M
2 months ago

Wasn’t MDMA used for this purpose some decades ago? Wonder how that went.

Lindsay S
Lindsay S
2 months ago
Reply to  Al M

MDMA was developed as an anti depressant, I thought Acid was supposed to be the mind altering drug of choice of government brain washing?!?

Dominic A
Dominic A
2 months ago
Reply to  Al M

Quite well, as it is being used in a limited and responsible way. Also, its informal use in nightclubs etc has often been credited with the ending of football hooliganism in the UK.

Jay Bird
Jay Bird
2 months ago

Sounds like the plot to Jacob’s Ladder.

Dominic A
Dominic A
2 months ago

Hundreds of thousands of years of evolution have rendered us insecure and agressive – I’m more concerned by that very real problem.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
2 months ago

MDMA causes impotence.

William Shaw
William Shaw
1 month ago

Let everyone do/take whatever they want provided it doesn’t affect anyone else.
Only if it’s detrimental to others should it be restricted or controlled.

Last edited 1 month ago by William Shaw