The 21st-Century Brain, by Steven Rose

Make science work for a social revolution
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The Independent Culture

Steven Rose is a rare scientist, equally interested in society and how it ticks. Long cold-shouldered by the scientific establishment for his socialist views and implacable stance, Rose has stuck to his metaphorical guns. This book is the latest in a prolific writing career that began in the 1960s with a classic Penguin, The Chemistry of Life. A star undergraduate at Cambridge, he moved to London, and then to the Open University, to study brain chemistry just as molecular techniques were bringing genes to the fore.

Steven Rose is a rare scientist, equally interested in society and how it ticks. Long cold-shouldered by the scientific establishment for his socialist views and implacable stance, Rose has stuck to his metaphorical guns. This book is the latest in a prolific writing career that began in the 1960s with a classic Penguin, The Chemistry of Life. A star undergraduate at Cambridge, he moved to London, and then to the Open University, to study brain chemistry just as molecular techniques were bringing genes to the fore.

Now, at last, brains are sexy too. Rose's new book is a magisterial synthesis of genetics, developmental biology and neuro- science. The 21st-Century Brain is an elegantly written and cogent guide to contemporary ideas about how and why the brain works. But don't expect a bland account; Rose enjoys taking pot shots at researchers with whom he disagrees. He revels in deflating overblown claims on the genetics and neurobiology of "criminality", "homosexuality" or "IQ".

Rose is sceptical about such findings, and about pharmacological "cures" for depression or dementia. He explains how intricate and subtle our brains are in the first half of the book. In the final, most engaging, chapters he discusses current attempts to target potential criminals, subdue troublesome children or modify emotions, and ends with a look into the future.

"Neuromarketing" is the latest craze; Ford and DaimlerChrysler are using brain imaging to improve the appeal of their cars, while US researchers are investigating "the neural processes involved in choosing between Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola". Most worryingly, perhaps, is the US government's "biodefence" budget.

Brain scans are said to have the potential to pinpoint psychopaths before they kill, reveal racial prejudice or a belief in God, and distinguish "true" memories from "false". We are moving towards a "psychocivilised society" - in which individualism co-exists with sophisticated methods of control and seemingly non-violent coercion.

Rose is keen not to overstate the threats. The real issue, he says, "is not so much how to curb the technologies but how to control the state". All the same, burgeoning neurotechnologies do need watching, not least because they "help to shape who we are". As technology shifts, "so do our concepts of personhood".

Cloning and GM crops may have already bolted out of the stable, but "comparable technological successes in the neurosciences are still in the future", he argues. If we move quickly, there may be time to find ways of publicly debating these possible advances before they happen. The result would be a social revolution: for the first time, technologies would not be foisted upon us simply because they are possible, and profitable.

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