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See Inside October 2009

Playing the Averages: The Risks of Pharmaceutical Advances

Acting Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina introduces the October 2009 issue of Scientific American



Splashlight

“The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else.”

In the opening of the classic 1961 short story “Harrison Bergeron,” novelist Kurt Vonnegut depicted a future in which people who had been born superior in some way over “average” people could not use those gifts to take “unfair” advantage. The strong lugged handicapping weights, the beautiful wore hideous masks and the clever were not permitted to think for stretches longer than 20 seconds or so. “A little mental handicap radio” transmitted earsplitting sounds such as a buzzer, a 21-gun salute or a ball-peen hammer striking a milk bottle. In response, “thoughts fled in panic, like bandits from a burglar alarm.”

Gun-toting government agents enforced the legislated baseline of mediocrity. When dull but well-meaning Hazel suggests that her husband, George, remove a few lead balls from his “handicap bag,” he reminds her of the fines and why he mustn’t disobey anyway: “‘If I tried to get away with it,’ said George, ‘then other people’d get away with it and pretty soon we’d be right back in the dark ages again, with everybody competing against everybody else. You wouldn’t like that, would you?’” No, she wouldn’t.

The must-have standards in the real 2081 will likely differ from Vonnegut’s unhappy tale, but the desire to achieve them may be uncomfortably similar. Our society, too, seems to be transfixed by the goal of reaching an average—one that is “above average.” With cosmetic surgery, we sculpt our bodies to create an ideal of attractiveness. Athletes dip into the medicine cabinet to pump up muscles and speed. Is it any wonder that recent headlines bark about the possibility of taking pills to boost brainpower?

As senior writer Gary Stix writes in the cover story, “Turbocharging the Brain,” older workers feel the need to vie with agile younger minds, students are pressed to make good grades while pulling all-nighters, and multitaskers want to maintain focus. Pills offer a tantalizingly easy solution. But would such drugs actually be an effective means of sharpening thought, and would they be as relatively harmless over the long term as having the occasional cup of coffee? Click here for an exploration of the science of enhancing cognition—and the issues that it raises.

While many people reach eagerly for bottled brain improvements, others are wary of medical enhancements—in the form of more potent vaccines—that would benefit overall public health. Nathalie Garçon and Michel Goldman describe new adjuvants, ingredients that help to stimulate the human immune system, in “Boosting Vaccine Power.” But hesitation by the public and policy leaders has slowed acceptance in the U.S., as we explain in Perspectives. Our unequal enthusiasms about what is important to improve say much about the choices we make.

Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "Playing the Averages."

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