Right now, people all over the world are being made smarter through a simple food additive. The plan to unleash this additive on the world, called "the micronutrient initiative," has already boosted IQs in Pakistan by as much as 12-13 points. Is it really a good idea to put brain-changing additives in the food supply like this, even if it's for a good cause?
Most countries in the world have already answered that question with a resounding "yes." The additive in question here is iodine, and you probably eat it all the time in your enhanced, iodized salt. Canada's micronutrient initiative is trying to bring iodized salt to countries like Pakistan and elsewhere, where iodine deficiency creates a range of problems from severe developmental disorders to lowered IQs.
Many would say that iodized salt isn't creating "enhanced" brains, only functional ones. But researcher Anders Sandberg points out at Oxford University's Practical Ethics blog that there is really very little difference between "enhancement" and "normalization" in this case:
It seems likely that in our historical past iodine deficiency has always been with us. People in inland areas would have suffered, and even when overt problems like goitre or retardation did not occur it is likely that deficiency prevented much of the population from reaching their full potential, generation after generation.
So, who is to say what is "normal" here? If generations of people all over the world (including today's estimated 2 billion people with insufficient iodine intake) have never been iodine-enabled, are we not in fact enhancing them?
From an ethical standpoint, Sandberg believes that this is just fine. In fact, he suggests we should be pushing beyond iodine enhancement to figure out other ways to enhance the intelligence of populations:
Using the assumption that 1 IQ point is worth about 1% increased income (a low estimate; when comparing IQs and GDP across countries the relation seems even stronger) this would mean an increase in average income by at least 10% - definitely nothing to sneeze at. Better, there seem to be strong network effects of cognition in a society: if more people are smart, educatable and healthy they will produce wealth more efficiently. Note that this calculation has not taken into account the effects of apathy and illness due to iodine deficiency, just the cognitive impairment - fixing those will probably have at least a comparable effect on their own.
Iodine supplementation can help people rise not just in living standard but health and mental ability, it is cheap and it is safe. It is very hard to argue against it (the only issue might be involuntary medication, but since education campaigns are part of the effort and people presumably can choose traditional, non-supplemented salt this would at most be an informed consent form of soft paternalism). It would seem that if we could find an enhancer that improved normal people beyond their historic level to this degree we would have an equally strong imperative to make it widely available if only due to the overall beneficial effects.
Of course, the next enhancer to come along might be distributed as unequally as iodized salt has. Right now, most developed countries have iodized salt, and many developing ones don't. Once the whole world has been iodine-enhanced, it's very possible that the richest nations will get salt that contains nutrients that boost IQs by 50 points, and therefore increases incomes respectively.
The Perfect Cognition Enhancer [via Practical Ethics]
Top image of iodized salt by Bobby Wong.