Prescient Pill-Popping and The Ethics of Biohacking

‘Biohacking is the ‘biological experimentation (as by gene editing or the use of drugs or implants) done to improve the qualities or capabilities of living organisms especially by individuals and groups working outside a traditional medical or scientific research environment’


(Merriam-Webster, 2019)

Introduction & Illustration

At the time of writing, I am in my first year of university, and the end of year exams are looming. Although, for me, my exam results (in First Year) do not count towards my final degree, the stress is certainly start to creep in to my quotidian routine, like the dark vignettes that encroach as one falls into a deep dark sleep. Such stress has made me think about exams, my revision schedule, and how to ensure that, regardless of the exam’s significance or lack thereof towards my overall degree, I do well come the tests themselves. Now, if you are like me, a millennium-baby, and go to school in the UK or the USA, you will almost certainly be aware of a growing ‘smart-drug’ culture.

Often branded as ‘Nootropics’, these are supposed wonder-drugs that are ‘cognitive enhancers’; in essence, they claim either to make your smarter, or more probably, they claim to enhance your cognitive performance, meaning that you can accomplish higher qualities of work, or a higher quantity of work. One should note immediately that the quantity and quality of work that is produced on these drugs is not definitively inextricable – that is to say that although one’s quantity of work-output might increase, there is no guarantee of improved quality of the produce.

During exam season, talk of these ‘cognitive enhancers’ always seems to spike in frequency. Whispers are heard online, in common rooms, and along the aisles of lecture halls with talk of what these drugs are, what they do, how safe they are, and, most importantly, how does one get some. Now, before I go any further, I want to stress that I do not have personal experience with smart-drugs, and I, and whatever affiliated organisations, people, or institutions, do not condone illegal activity, drug-taking, or any other risk-promoting behaviours. With such a disclaimer out of the way, let us jump down the rabbit hole and peer into the glass vials of study-drugs and biohacking to see whether we really should obey its label of ‘drink me’.

The Lay of the Land

For a while now, performance enhancing drugs, and activities, have been banned from sports. Every once in a while some adored sporting idol, or similar sporting personality will have their name dragged through the papers and media outlets for some kind of doping or similar cheating scandal. Names that spring to mind include, but of course are not limited to, Lance Armstrong, Maria Sharapova, and Shane Warne. The principle behind the rules against doping and other such practices is quite simple: one needs to make sure that there is a level playing field (no pun intended) when it comes to sport. It would be unfair for athletes to engage in practices which enhanced their performance (other than training) as these practices would not necessarily be available to everyone (the scarceness of drugs, for example), and it would also sully the integrity of sport – sport is a celebration of what the body can do naturally, with regards to physical output and skill. Therefore, ingesting chemicals or engaging in practices that try to circumvent the human body’s natural limits is to cheat the system.

However, one must note how many caveats I have had to insert into the above description. Technically, training is performance enhancement, and so is having a diet that is scientifically engineered by nutritionists to suit the athlete in question. Performance enhancement would also cover alternative training methods, such as wearing altitude masks to simulate higher altitudes in order to raise the red blood cell count in the body. Is drinking a cup of coffee, that naturally contains caffeine a performance enhancement. Therefore, I pull into question, where does the line fall on performance enhancing substances (PES)?

As with seemingly everything in the modern age, the lines are blurred. Some PES are banned outright – these include examples such as anabolic drugs, blood doping, and gene doping. Of course, all illegal drugs are banned in sports, so drugs such as methamphetamine would come under PES and would not be permitted. However, the lines are blurred with regards to some drugs, such as the aforementioned example of caffeine (I will come back to the debate of what a PES is later on in the article).

Interestingly, however, it was not always this way. Everyone knows the story about Coca-Cola using cocaine in their drinks and marketing it as an energy booster, but fewer people know about the use of methamphetamine in WWII. Both Allied and Axis powers gave the substance to their soldiers which allowed them to stay sharp in combat, permit them to march on end, and stay awake during the night watches.

But as time progressed, this practice stopped in both the commercial industry and the military. So, what changed? Why were PES allowed back then, and why are they a taboo subject today?

Well, the easier answer is that with modern science and experimentation, we have discovered that a lot of the substances that were used as PES in the past had drastically negative consequences and side-effects for the users. Take for example, the methamphetamine given to soldiers – when they stopped taking the drug, they suffered huge withdrawals resulting in distress, criminal behaviour, and suicide. Long term consumption of methamphetamine has also been proven to be linked with increased blood pressure and higher risks of heart attacks.

So, PES are generally considered bad because they either 1) have negative side-effects or consequences, or 2) they undermine the integrity of the activity the user is doing whilst using the substance. However, let me now return to my earlier contention: what classifies as a PES, and just because they might fulfil one of the above criteria, does that make them all bad and impermissible?

Cutting Powder

Now, let me make it clear from the outset, I am no expert on drugs, chemicals, and all things pharmacological – you are, of course, reading a Philosophy blog, and not the British Medical Journal (who I might recommend for accessible articles on medicine and the occasional ditty on Philosophy of Science).

What classifies as a PES? Well, frankly, it could be any chemical, combination of chemicals, or matter, that is taken in, from the outside, to the inside of the body – that is to say, ingested, injected, consumed, and so on. Anything that ultimately has a boost on mental or bodily function can classify as a PES under whatever definition one desires to construe. That means natural substances, such as ginseng, a common natural root, and artificial substances, such as
2-(4-bromo-2,5-dimethoxyphenyl)ethanamine, (more commonly known as ‘2C-B’), an illegal artificially synthesised psychoactive substance (Shulgin & Shulgin, 1991), fall under the same umbrella of PES. So, there must be some better way to clarify these substances and separate the weak from the strong, and performance-aiding versus performance altering.

In my humble opinion, I posit that substances that drastically alter one’s performance, should be classified as impermissible PES. However, those which aid one in their activity, or training, and so on, should be permitted (however, not necessarily unregulated). Therefore, one can distinguish the difference in PES and see that there is a definable distinction between having a cup of coffee before a run, and whipping out the meth pipe before a jog.

Medicine Cabinet or Prison Cell?

Where is this all leading, you might ask. Well, this has been the context and set up for the question that has been pestering my mind for so long: are study drugs, nootropics, and the like, performance aids or cause performance alteration? And, depending on the answer, does this alter their accessibility, or even legality?

Now, one must be specific when talking about ‘study drugs’. I am sure one could find a student who would claim that smoking cannabis before writing a paper made them work better, and the drugs was ‘only an aid’. So, for specificity and clarity’s sake, I shall select the most prolific and revered ‘study drug’ to centre the rest of the discussion around. The drug in question is known as ‘Modafinil’,
C15H15NO2S.

The drug, originally manufactured to medicate against narcolepsy, has been used by students and professionals up and down the UK, and has been especially prevalent in the USA too. Modafinil is said to improve concentration, motivation, and overall combat fatigue and tendencies towards procrastination. Now, be warned, this is not some slacker’s one-stop-shop for a First class degree; the drug is reported to only have these kinds of improvement with those who are already exhibiting the good traits listed above – that is to say, if you are concentrating, it can help you to concentrate for longer periods of time than usual, or stay focused under greater levels of distraction than usual. Note, how I say ‘than usual’, the user has to already be in the habit of the practices they wish to gain by taking the drug.

This anecdotal and psuedo-scientific report of Modafinil has led me to believe that the drug is not some wonder chemical, the likes of which are only on the silver screen in films such as Bradley Cooper’s ‘Limitless’. However, the drug does aid those who are already undergoing work or activities. Now, if my assessment (which I admit is founded on speculation about the medicine, as little research has been done about recreational use) is correct, then this throws up a lot of question marks. If the benefits are significant in their activity aid, let us say equivalent to the immediate wakefulness given by consuming strong coffee (bearing in mind that caffeine powder can be bought in shops), then should Modafinil be sold in shops off prescription?

The thing is, people are already taking Modafinil regularly as a kind of cognitive enhancer. As of writing, in the UK, Modafinil is only available on prescription. However, there are various loopholes: one can get ‘online prescriptions’ where one effectively pays a doctor to sign off such a prescription online, or one can import it from India, where it can be produced legally and shipped over without much hassle. Now, I feel ethically bound to not cite my sources here, as they come from Modafinil buying sites, and since I do not endorse taking drugs of any kind without medical supervision, I will omit the references. Suffice it to say, a quick Google search will provide you with ample opportunities to corroborate what I have written.

So, people are already using the drug as a performance aid. I have also seen that this drug is not just taken during periods of revision or training, but consumed during the performance of a final exam, or other such definitive tests. Surely this would give them an edge over the competition and boost their results in comparison to the non-augmented participants? Now we begin to see a difficulty with equating things like caffeine and Modafinil – no one would bat an eyelid at a nervous student swigging down his third espresso or chugging his fourth energy drink before sitting their exam. However, I am sure that if someone was seen popping a pill of Modafinil on the morning of their exam, it certainly might raise some eyebrows and catch the invigilator’s attention.

Is there a difference between Modafinil, and caffeine, or any other such relatively innocuous chemicals? Am I wrong to have such an aversion to Modafinil, but an acceptance of caffeine or aspartame? If I am to review my research and what I have written so far, I certainly am beginning to have my doubts as to whether there is such a difference between Modafinil and our quotidian supplements.

The Bigger Biohacking Perspective

Now, we come onto the reason as to why such discussion is important. Although one might discard such discussion as inconclusive and irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, one must see the link between study drugs, and the trend of biohacking.

Ultimately, if one sees study drugs as performance aids, then they are being consumed to overcome the body’s natural limitations, such as fatigue, natural deviance of concentration, and so on. Now begins a slippery slope argument – if one starts with augmenting the body’s fatigue levels, then one should be able to augment the body’s physical output. How about now augmenting the features of the human body – built in computer displays that measure insulin levels, heart rates, and so forth. Humans can augment each other, in a form similar to Theseus’ Ship, until perhaps no modicum of original humanity remains.

Biohacking, such as inserting sub-dermal magnets, installing exo-skeletons, and so on, are already plentiful amongst the ‘grinder’, the ‘biohacker’ community. My question is, can humanity go so far to augment themselves that they in turn lose the very humanity they were trying to improve. Surely there is something to be celebrated in the imperfection of the human condition? That is not to say that we should not fight disease and develop new technologies, but such biohacking seems to be a large leap forward in humanity’s fetish to play God.

Humanity started off with basic herbal remedies to improve their human condition on the Earth. This then evolved to medical remedies. Now, we broach things like physical enhancers, and more recently cognitive enhancers. And, we appear to be rapping on the door of biohacking and ‘grinding’. My question is, are all of these the same kind of improvement, or do the later advancements go further than their intended remit?

Conclusion & Cautions

The ethics regarding these subjects are very unclear, and although one could attempt to transpose traditional ethical theory onto these new developments, I fear that the answers will lack either nuance, or practical application. This article, although tangentially academic, will not dive into the minutiae of this ethical study, but I do encourage a further discussion on this – this technology and pharmacology has only been developed in the last few decades, so there has been little scientific or philosophical debate on the subject.

I must, out of my own conscience, say that I do not encourage taking drugs without medical instruction, nor do I encourage personal experimentation with biohacking. Although some of the practices I might have described in this article could be deemed ‘safe’, the jury is still out, and without full conclusive evidence into the safety of such practices, I cannot in good conscience condone them.

Instead, I ask that readers reflect on the biological advancement of humanity over the last 100 years and their exponentially successful attempts to mitigate the flaws in the human condition. Whilst such advancement is useful, awe-inspiring, and life saving, one should at least wonder where such growth takes us, and whether the future is as Utopian as we think.

References

biohacking (2019) In Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved May 22, 2019, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/biohacking

Biohack.me. (2019). Biohack.me. [online] Available at: https://forum.biohack.me/ [Accessed 22 Mar. 2019].

Limitless. (2011). [film] Directed by N. Burger. United States: Virgin Produced, Rogue, Many Rivers Productions, Boy of the Year, and Intermedia Film.

Medicines.org.uk. (2018). Modafinil Provigil 100 mg Tablets – Summary of Product Characteristics (SmPC) – (eMC). [online] Available at: https://www.medicines.org.uk/emc/product/5412/smpc#CLINICAL_PARTS [Accessed 22 Mar. 2019].

My ‘smart drugs’ nightmare. (2016). United Kingdom: BBC News.

Shulgin, A. T., & Shulgin, A. (1991). Pihkal: A chemical love story. Berkeley, CA: Transform Press.

One comment

  1. Opening the door before evaluation is a medical no no but in terms of lay hedonistic self indulgence theres little restraint witness std risk taking and aids spread in the historical context of “the clap”.
    There is no such thing as sole and exclusive self damage. We rightly abhor self harm. Why?
    CB.

    Like

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