Beyond MDMA

UTOPIAN PHARMACOLOGY
Mental Health in the Third Millennium
MDMA and Beyond

Can safe, sustainable analogues of MDMA be developed? There is an urgent need for non-neurotoxicempathogens and entactogens suitable for lifelong use. Alas no single “magic bullet” yet exists that replicates the subjective effects of MDMA on a long-term basis. Hence most of us are doomed to display the quasi-psychopathic indifference to each other characteristic of the MDMA-naïve state.

Moore’s Law in computing is named after semiconductor engineer and Intel co-founder Gordon Moore. It states that processing power in computers doubles every eighteen months or so. Moore’s Law has roughly held good since 1965 when it was first propounded. It’s a rule-of-thumb about how many transistors we can cram onto successive generations of chip rather than a fundamental truth about Nature. Yet the trend it captures seems set to continue, at least until chip designers run up against the physical constraints of the nanoscale later next decade, or perhaps until quantum computers allow calculations orders of magnitude more powerful than today’s toys.

        Unfortunately, the dizzying rate of technical progress that Moore’s law quantifies hasn’t been matched by an analogous law of progress for generations of human mental health. On average, we are probably no happier than our malaise-ridden hominid ancestors. We aren’t noticeably fonder of each other. By way of consolation, we can take refuge in the pre-scientific notion that happiness isunquantifiable. Yet if such quasi-objective indices of mental health as suicide rates are anything to go by, then we would probably be psychologically better off as hunter-gatherers. Over 800,000 people in the world took their own lives last year. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that this figure will rise to around 1.5 million by the year 2020. Here in the UK, suicide is the most common cause of death for men under 35 years old. Globally, several hundred million people are clinically or “sub-clinically” depressed; and a spectrum of chronic anxiety disorders afflicts further hundreds of millions more. Even as we progressively conquer physical disease as conventionally defined, the toll of psychological distress is still rising. Admittedly, “mental illness” and “mental health” are value-laden, ideologically contested terms. Even the new scientific discipline of biological psychiatry is inescapably culture-bound. Yet “Progress” that doesn’t leave us emotionally better off would seem something of a misnomer.

More: http://www.hedweb.com/ecstasy/Inevitably, talk of treating humans like organic robots, and then mooting a baseline of mental health orders of magnitude richer than the Darwinian mind can contemplate, sounds fantastical today. In the context of our traditional conceptual framework, the idea of an analogue of Moore’s law for successive generations of human mental health evokes thoughts of cloud-cuckoo-land, not a global health-plan. Set against the daily messiness of our ecstasy-impoverished lives, the prospect of using biotechnology to abolish suffering, and a post-Darwinian transition to paradise-engineering, strikes most of us as fanciful, its liberatory potential just a mirage. At best, such heady words fall lifelessly off the page or screen. Yet a major discontinuity – a momentous evolutionary transition in the development of life on earth – is imminent as the biotechnology revolution unfolds. The advent of genomic medicine is set to challenge the old Darwinian regime of natural selection and the emotionally crippled minds it spawned.

The MDMA Experience

Pure MDMA salt is a white crystalline solid. It looks white and tastes bitter. The compound is chemically stable. MDMA does not readily decompose in heat, air or light. The optimal adult dose of racemic MDMA is probably around 120-130mg [around 2mg/kg of body weight i.e. about 125mg] but optimal dose ranges from perhaps 75mg to as much as 250mg. Pills sold in clubs often contain less. There are gender differences in response; proportionately to body-weight, women are normally more sensitive than men to the sub-acute and longer-term effects of MDMA, so their optimal dosage may be lower. The preferentially metabolised (+)-enantiomer (“mirror image”) of MDMA is more active, more stimulating, more dopaminergic, more subjectively rewarding, and more neurotoxic than the (-)-enantiomer. MDMA is usually taken orally as a tablet, a capsule, or a powder. MDMA is readily absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract into the bloodstream. More rarely, the drug is snorted, smoked or injected.

        Onset of action is normally within twenty to sixty minutes or so after administration. When MDMA is administered by the oral route, “coming up” is naturally faster on an empty stomach. Taking MDMA causes both an increased neuronal reuptake inhibition of the neurotransmitter serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine, 5-HT) and also, critically, its increased synaptic release. The MDMA molecule is small enough to be taken up via the membrane-bound serotonin transporter into the presynaptic serotonin axon terminals. Here MDMA acts to reverse the normal direction of the so-called serotonin reuptake pump. Inside the nerve cell, MDMA alters the configuration of the transporter protein so it binds to cytoplasmic serotonin, after which the transporter dumps serotonin outside the cell, reversing the normal inward-bound direction of the transporter channel i.e. MDMA increases the rate of transporter-mediated serotonin outflow. The consequent additional flood of serotonin in the user’s synapses is soon followed by an increased release of dopamine especially in the reward centres of the striatum and nucleus accumbens. Release of oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone“, surges too via stimulation of the serotonin 5-HT(1A) receptors.

        First-time MDMA users occasionally feel confused or anxious before the dose-dependent dopamine-release kicks in. A transient hint of nausea is common when coming up. Most of the body’s serotonin is found outside the brain, notably in neurons of the enteric nervous system, our “little brain” inside the smooth muscles of the gut. The user’s peak experience or plateau phase after the exhilarating dopaminergic “rush” doesn’t last much more than ninety minutes to two hours. MDMA’s primary effects wear off after some 3-4 hours. MDMA is more fat-soluble than its structural parent, so its speed of onset is slightly faster and its duration of action shorter. With oral MDMA dosing, peak concentration in the plasma follows after around two hours. Therapists then sometimes add(ed) a final 50mg booster-dose. Heavy recreational users are not always so restrained either in dosage [“stacking”] or top-up schedule [“piggybacking”].

Culture, set and setting inevitably shape the MDMA experience. Idiosyncratic responses to MDMA aren’t rare. MDMA has even been described as a drug that “could be all things to all people” (Dr Shulgin). Even so, MDMA’s primary effects on the user are surprisingly consistent, unlike the wilder psychedelics such as LSDpsilocybin, or DMT. MDMA may feel mystical, magical or sublime; but it doesn’t feel weird. The drug’s influence feels highly controllable. MDMA tends to enrich the user’s sense of self-identity, not diminish it. MDMA “provides a centering experience, rather than an ego diffusing experience” (Dr. Philip Wolfson), though it may also cause a “softening of the ego-boundaries”. Sometimes a degree of derealisation on MDMA may occur, but rarely depersonalisation in the ordinary sense of the term. On the contrary, users feel they can introspectively “touch inside” to their ideal authentic self with total emotional self-honesty.

        As well as acting as a “gateway to the soul”, MDMA “opens up the heart”. Taking MDMA induces an amazing feeling of closeness and connectedness to one’s fellow human beings. MDMA triggers intense emotional release beyond the bounds of everyday experience. The drug also enhances the felt intensity of the senses – most exquisitely perhaps the sense of touch. The body-image looks and feels wonderful. Other people look and feel wonderful too. Minutes after dropping a pill, a lifetime of Judaeo-Christian guilt, shame or disgust at the flesh melt away to oblivion.

        When MDMA is taken outdoors, the natural world seems vibrant and awe-inspiring, perhaps even enchanted. The experience of colour is gorgeously intensified. On MDMA, Dr Shulgin reported how mountains he’d observed many times before appeared to be so beautiful that he could barely stand looking at them. MDMA is not normally classed as an entheogen. “Entheogen” is a term proposed in 1979 by the scholars R. Gordon Wasson, Carl A.P. Ruck, Jonathan Ott, Jeremy Bigwood and Danny Staples for agents “generating the god or the divine within”, shorn of any speculative metaphysics. Yet MDMA is used by a variety of spiritual practitioners of widely diverse beliefs as a gateway to the divine. Some MDMA users undergo life-changing spiritual experiences. Nicholas Saunders, author of the book E for Ecstasy (1993), cites a Benedictine monk who finds MDMA “opens up a direct channel to God”. MDMA may not be “Christ in (al)chemical form”, but if it had been present in the Eucharist, then we would all still be devout Christians, possibly for ever. A minority of first-time MDMA users undergo what the inventor of the Shulgin scale christened a Plus Four…

“PLUS FOUR, n. (++++) A rare and precious transcendental state, which has been called a “peak experience,” a “religious experience,” “divine transformation,” a “state of Samadhi” and many other names in other cultures. It is not connected to the +1, +2 and +3 of the measuring of a drug’s intensity. It is a state of bliss, a participation mystique, a connectedness with both the interior and exterior universes, which has come about after the ingestion of a psychedelic drug, but which is not necessarily repeatable with a subsequent ingestion of the same drug. If a drug (or technique or process) were ever to be discovered which would consistently produce a plus four experience in all human beings, it is conceivable that it would signal the ultimate evolution, and perhaps the end of, the human experiment. (PiHKAL, pages 964-965)”

On pure MDMA, subjects feel at peace with themselves and the world. They discover an enhanced sense of self-worth, self-forgiveness and complete self-acceptance. Cynical thoughts and negative feelings disappear. Aspects of life normally too sensitive to talk about can be explored freely. Heightened feeling allows long-forgotten and repressed emotional memories from childhood to be retrieved with unusual ease. In some settings, painful, highly-charged and even hitherto unmentionable problems may be discussed with (rose-tinted) candour. On MDMA, a lifetime of accumulated psychological barriers and defence-mechanisms go down, somehow magicked out of existence with a pill. Anger, irritability and ingrained fear dissolve; the hostile amygdala is subdued, if only for a few hours. Ecstasy users tell each other affectionately what beautiful people they are; and they do so from the depths of their hearts.

        Before the Orwellian-sounding Drug Enforcement Administration [DEA] placed MDMA on Schedule 1 of controlled substances, professional therapists in the USA found MDMA a valuable tool for counselling and marriage-guidance sessions. MDMA’s capacity to induce empathetic bliss, heightened introspection and an increased ability and desire to communicate feelings can create a rapport with the therapist and accelerate a successful outcome. MDMA acts to boost self-esteem and self-confidence, while paradoxically diminishing egotism. The user’s sense of social isolation vanishes. “I love the world and the world loves me”, affirmed one beneficiary of MDMA-assisted therapy.

MDMA: neuroprotection

Currently the risk-benefit analysis of taking – or missing out on – MDMA is unclear. Probably the gravest threat to the long-term emotional and physical health of the user is getting caught up in the criminal justice system. Victims of the law-enforcement agencies frequently suffer long-term neuropathological changes. Lowered serotonin levels, elevated cortisol, confusion, depression, sleep problems, severe anxiety, and paranoia are common. In some cases, the neurological damage may be permanent. Currently around 500,000 “drug-offenders” languish in American jails alone; and millions more young people throughout the world are at risk. Yet repealing ill-conceived drug laws is only part of the answer in protecting mental health.

MDMA’s apologists aren’t convinced that the neurotoxicity evidence is persuasive – except for MDMA taken at unrealistically high doses. As Paracelsus (1493-1541) noted centuries ago, “All substances are poisons: there is none which is not a poison. The right dose differentiates a poison and a remedy.” Most early studies of the possible long-term adverse effects of MDMA use in humans have been methodologically flawed – inadequately controlled, retrospective rather than prospective, and marred by a failure adequately to exclude confounding variables – e.g. the so-called stereotype threat. Some published toxicity studies include a large percentage of self-reported “Ecstasy” users who’ve never even taken MDMA. Other studies rely on a small minority of users whose drug-taking methodology owes more to Hunter S. Thompson than Sasha Shulgin.

        Yet the biggest problem in evaluating the published evidence isn’t so much sloppy science or value-judgements masquerading as statements of fact. It’s rather that just as the strongest predictive factor in the outcome of a published clinical trial of any psychiatric drug is the identity of the funding body, likewise the investigation of MDMA isn’t a disinterested search for scientific truth. Publishedpapers that examine possible confounding variables in MDMA “toxicity studies” omit to mention the greatest biasing factor of all. Independent funding is critical to the integrity of biomedical research; but MDMA is now a Schedule One drug. Studies of MDMA can be lawfully conducted only under government license by ideologically-vetted researchers. Authors and licensed researchers are implicitly paid to show how prohibited drugs are harmful, not that they can be potentially therapeutic. Researchers certainly aren’t paid to report that some illegal drugs are potentially life-enhancing agents. Nor do their paymasters expect them to investigate the design of safer, more sustainable analogues to improve the user experience.

        Intuitively, at least, it might seem axiomatic that in a democratic free society every person should have “the license to explore the nature of his own soul” (Dr Shulgin). Yet this license has lately been revoked in the name of the War Against Drugs. Every law-abiding citizen is now locked into traditional modes of consciousness on pain of criminal prosecution and imprisonment. The chemical keys to the locks themselves have been outlawed. Most natural scientists are scornful of social constructivists who think that power structures underwrite the way we see the world. But in a daring extension of the Papacy’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum, knowledge of entire state-spaces of potential experience has been outlawed following passage of the USA’s Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act of 1986. The UN’s World Health Organization and foreign governments have been leaned on, bribed or dragooned into the War On Drugs too. In the USA itself, the world’s most celebrated psychedelic chemist and leading authority on MDMA has been stymied from conducting human research on Schedule One compounds after publishing his trailblazing autobiography-cum-cookery book. Worried that his life’s work might be quite literally destroyed by the drug-warriors, Dr Shulgin acted to thwart the obscurantists before it was too late. “I can see having maybe two or three people in the higher echelons of the government who may not like what I do, and I did not want particularly to have all of this be seizable and burnable, So I published it. Now you cannot get rid of it.” Dr Shulgin had a DEA analytical license – a “Faustian bargain” according to MAPS’s Rick Doblin. But in 1994, Dr Shulgin fell victim to a DEA raid on his research lab. Under the transparent pretext of “health-and-safety” infractions, Dr Shulgin’s license to work with scheduled drugs was withdrawn.

Some studies suggest that possible MDMA-induced neurotoxicity to the serotonin system can be largely prevented by taking a double dose of fluoxetine (Prozac) or another SSRI shortly after starting to “come down”. Post-E Prozac in particular mitigates the oxidative stress and consequent risk of serotonergic axon damage caused by reactive products of dopamine deamination. The long-acting SSRI Prozac/fluoxetine, and its even longer-acting metabolite norfluoxetine, apparently prevents the uptake of dopamine (and any toxic metabolite(s)?) into the serotonergic nerve terminals by binding to the serotonin reuptake transporter with higher affinity than MDMA or serotonin. Unfortunately, although liquid refreshment is now freely available at most MDMA-propelled raves, most chill-out rooms don’t offer Prozac. Two days and more after taking MDMA, heavy recreational users are typically more irritable, subdued, unsociable and subtly less empathetic than before their weekend binge: the “Terrible Tuesday’s” syndrome of midweek blues. So with cruel irony, two or three days after communing on Ecstasy and declaring their undying love, couples are more likely to have rows and split up. Other heavy regular MDMA users, even those who aren’t self-medicating for a pre-existing malaise, may experience depression, anxiety, emotional burnout, rejection-sensitivity, fatigue, insomnia, aching limbs, subtle cognitive deficits, immune system dysfunction, body temperature dysregulation, and a sense of derealisation or depersonalisation for several weeks or months afterwards. This litany of woe sounds a high price to pay even for the peak experience of a lifetime.

Unfortunately, tips found on the Net are no substitute for systematic, well-planned health-education programs. Organisations like the Berkeley-based Dancesafe, funded by Microsoft millionaire the late Bob Wallace and founded to promote safe raving, are rare; their activities are alsocontroversial. Until psychopharmacology becomes part of the educational core curriculum, any responsibly designed drug cocktail, and any harm-reduction program, must be formulated with the recklessness of a minority of sensation-seekers in mind, not just risk-averse research scientists. Such a revolution in mental healthcare for young people is sorely needed. An examination system akin to ritualised child-abuse wreaks terrible damage on the young minds incarcerated in our educational institutions. Critics of exam-culture claim an “education” based around competitive testing screws kids up far more than empathetic drugs. Unfortunately, what’s tested in these rituals of abuse isn’t our children’s emotional well-being, levels of reflective self-insight, capacity for loving empathy or social intelligence. Nor do schools and colleges offer courses in effective technologies to promote them.

        A healthcare revolution of this magnitude isn’t going to happen tomorrow. So more realistically for now, clubbers seeking neuroprotection against MDMA-induced toxicity may do well to use humble antioxidants such as ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), alpha-tocopheryl-acetate (Vitamin E), zincalpha-lipoic acid, and L-cysteine. The optimal mix and dosage before, during, and after dropping an E to maximise their respective neuroprotective action, and minimise any post-ecstatic hangover, hasn’t yet been established. Even at high dosage, the neuroprotection such antioxidants offer may be inadequate for heavy MDMA users. More encouragingly, antioxidants also reduce tolerance between exposures. Clearly a lot more research is needed, hopefully without the usual animal holocaust that accompanies drug testing today.

However, the biggest long-term obstacles to preventing neurotoxicity and drug-related mental health problems are ideological, not pharmacological. The discovery that MDMA is not always the harmless fun-drug that a number of its recreational users (understandably) first supposed has caused the medical establishment to demonise MDMA or dismiss its psychotherapeutic potential completely. Critics of the drug-warrior mentality claim that MDMA’s possible neurotoxicity served only as a pretext for banning it. The case for making, say, tobacco a schedule-one drug isn’t notably less compelling, nor would any rush to judgement on the safety, medical use or addictive potential of tobacco-products seem so premature. The size of the cumulative death toll in the tobacco epidemic almost defies comprehension: yet we continue energetically to market a lethal drug to hundreds of millions of youngsters in the Third World. The contrast between the treatment of dealers in tobacco products and MDMA distributors couldn’t be much starker. Instead of aiming to prevent possible MDMA-induced neurotoxicity by tweaking or enhancing the agent in question, or designing better functional analogues, or seeking ways to antagonise possible toxic metabolites, or running health campaigns promoting the co-administration of free radical scavengers or other neuroprotectants, the authorities opted simply to outlaw MDMA altogether. Users and independent researchers alike were criminalised. Scientific investigation was crippled. MDMA was driven underground, where it could mix with innumerable contaminants and organised crime.

Even if animal research throws up a true wonderdrug ideal for human use – a safe, sustainable miracle-pill with a well-defined therapeutic window, life-enriching subjective profile, and no significant adverse side-effects – then under today’s regulatory regime, the potential wonderdrug couldn’t get a product-license. In law, only medicines to treat well-defined clinical disorders can be licensed, not investigational agents designed to enhance our quality of life or enrich “normal” human mental (ill-)health. Short of labelling the agent as a “food supplement” – which might be stretching it a bit for MDMA and its analogues – true pharmacological life-enrichers will be condemned to legal limbo. Even if this perverse restriction on legal drug availability were lifted, then any prospective blockbuster most likely still wouldn’t get regulatory approval in practice. Human clinical trials cost tens of millions of dollars to run. MDMA itself has long been off-patent. So profit-driven pharmaceutical companies aren’t interested in funding pilot studies. Empathy-And-Insight Deficiency-Disorder isn’t covered in DSM-IV, the psychiatrists’ bible. A condition that isn’t medically acknowledged can’t be treated by state-licensed pharmacotherapy.

In the meantime, bitter experience of the hedonic treadmill of Darwinian life instils a reluctance to believe anything so magical as the MDMA experience could be sustained and enriched indefinitely. [“You can’t have the sweet without the sour”; “You need pain to appreciate pleasure”, etc.] But such superstition is pre-scientific; it may soon seem quaint. As intracranial self-stimulation studies attest, pure pleasure induced by electrical stimulation of the ancient mesolimbic pleasure centres of the brain shows no tolerance. Response- and remission-rates are 100%. In the present era, depression, self-ignorance and sociopathy are demonstrably sustainable over a lifetime; but so, in theory, are the biochemical substrates of happiness, lucid self-insight and even saintly empathetic bliss. The hedonic treadmill can be dismantled, its inhibitory feedback mechanisms redesigned, and its neurogenetics rewritten. In principle, and perhaps one day in practice, we can be nicerhappier and smarterindefinitely. Unfortunately this utopian outcome won’t result from a chronic regimen of MDMA.

PMMA’s reduced dopamine-releasing action makes it less “abusable” than other family members with overlapping psychostimulant effects. Yet rather than scorning the pleasure principle by seeking to minimise drug-induced reward, it might instead be more rational to design safer, benignly addictive lead compounds that maximise the user’s well-being in lastingly empathetic, entactogenic and socially responsible ways. Well-designed (or serendipitously rediscovered) empathetic euphoriants can trigger socially responsible happiness. This is the distinctively E-like happiness that inspires love, nurturance and understanding rather than egotism and dominance behaviour. It’s hard to imagine that any such futuristic love-drugs won’t be “abusable” too. But if a drug isn’t remotely rewarding or habit-forming, then it probably isn’t any good. In the immortal words of Jeremy Bentham

“Nature has placed mankind under the government of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure…they govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it.”

Alas application of means-ends rationality is rarely the norm in drug-policy debate or in psychiatric medicine. Nor is the pursuit of happiness undertaken much more rationally elsewhere. Thus we continue with Rube-Goldbergish efforts to improve our well-being via environmental scene-shifting – with mixed success.

        Of course the biological route to nirvana has its share of pitfalls too; and MDMA is merely one of its most alluring seductions. Seekers of sustainable ecstasy would be rash to fetishise any particular drug or family of pharmacological tools – however magnificent their acute action on the user. For what matters, presumably, is the otherwise inaccessible modes of experience such agents can unlock in the mind/brain – and ways to sustain them – not the chemical structure of the agent that happens first to disclose their existence. “All science is either physics or stamp-collecting”, Rutherford provocatively once proclaimed; and if some organic compounds didn’t have the potential to unlock the doors to the kingdom of heaven, then Rutherford might have been right. As it is, school chemistry-lessons and standard textbooks rarely set young imaginations ablaze. They might conceivably do so if the PiHKAL-inspired compounds they ought to contain evoked the magical experiences their structures should ignite. Yet even the most astonishing centrally active compounds are only research tools or therapies, not sacraments. At least until we can genetically enrich the human mind/brain, no drug or research chemical, nor indeed any irritation of the body’s surface sensory transducers by the environment, can do more than select from a pre-existing menu of brain-states composing the subject’s mind/virtual world. In this sense, we’re trapped.

        Fortunately there is an escape-route; the false prison can be transcended. Within a few decades, the insertion of entirely new genes and variant alleles into our genome promises to revolutionise our stunted Darwinian minds. Novel neurally-expressed polypeptide sequences should disclose modes of experience hitherto unknown. The creation of genetically enriched neurons should allow the exploration of multidimensional search-spaces of consciousness which we presently lack the molecular wetware to imagine or even name. No psychoactive drug currently gives access to these hypothetical state-spaces. Such modes of consciousness have been barred to us by natural selection. They either diminished their user’s Darwinian fitness or would have entailed crossing gaps in the evolutionary fitness landscape to get there. Whereas merely E-like states are normally inaccessible because their owners would get eaten or outbred, these unDarwinian modes of consciousness are quite possibly orthogonal to anything accessible today within our existing mental architecture. Each new state-space may be as different from the others as is sound from vision, or volition from cognition or emotion. The differences in gene-expression profile between neurons mediating the experience of, say, colour, or disgust, or humour (or being loved-up) may strike us as subtle. Yet the subjective differences in texture (“what it feels like”) that their respective post-synaptic intracellular cascades generate are clearly spectacular. Who knows what else is accessible from Nature’s psychoactive library by means of even “trivial” molecular genetic tweaks to our nerve cells? Disparate new categories of experience, and hopefully revolutionary conceptual schemes to navigate them, are presumably waiting to be unlocked just by inserting new sets of neurological instructions. Unfortunately we lack any God’s-eye taxonomy of consciousness that might let us act like physicists and “carve Nature at the joints”. The lack of an overall map, or even the ghost of a theory of consciousness to guide us, makes it impossible to place MDMA, or the spectrum of altered experience disclosed by psychedelic amphetamines, within any adequate scheme of classification. “Empathogen”, “entactogen”, “entheogen”, and “psychedelic” are provisional and theoretically ill-motivated terms. A mature psychoactive taxonomy will need to be formulated relative to the architecture of particular phenotypes of mind, not the structure and pharmacology of the molecular probe alone. Alas the results of animal “drug discrimination studies” are no substitute for explanatory depth. In practice, today’s psychonauts are reduced to describing the subjective effects of psychoactive drugs by contrasting them with their “normal” states of being. Inevitably this is all a bit lame. In retrospect, today’s entire dreaming and waking consciousness may prove to be only minor variants on a theme whose motif can’t be grasped from within.

Post-Darwinian Medicine

Of course the aspiration for a civilisation founded on relationships of shared love and respect sounds impossibly idealistic. A society based on “winners” and “losers” intuitively strikes us as natural. With today’s genes and the kinds of culture they promote, adversarial social relationships are probably inevitable. Like depression, the evolutionary roots of everyday sociopathy run deep. For speculatively, applying here Richard Dawkins‘ “extended phenotype” theory, not merely has it been genetically adaptive for weaker social primates to have an inbuilt conditionally-activated capacity for depression, it can also be genetically adaptive for Alpha males (and aspiring Alpha males) to subdue potential rivals by making them depressed too. Perennially chastened, socially anxious and chronically depressive potential competitors are less likely to be sexually active and promiscuous. Crushed, anhedonic and submissive, they are less of a challenge to the inclusive fitness of one’s genes. Happy, dominant, extroverted males, by contrast, are potential sexual rivals who directly or indirectly threaten one’s reproductive success. Thus we witness their downfall with equanimity. Even within the bounds of holy wedlock, too much happiness for one’s nearest and dearest doesn’t always suit one’s genetic interests. A cowed and depressive wife, whose only solace in life is looking after the kids, can be less threatening to one’s genetic prospects than an exuberant, sociable and possibly sexually adventurous bundle of joy. If we are looking for an evolutionary perspective on why we often behave so vilely to each other – sometimes seemingly gratuitously so – then this kind of sexual selection pressure offers one possible explanatory framework. If it is adaptive to have others exhibit a spectrum of behaviour characteristic of low mood or high social anxiety, then other things being equal, alleles and allelic combinations may flourish if they conditionally promote the capacity to induce such anxiety and depression whether in strangers or tribe members who aren’t allies or close kin – and if occasion demands, even in those who are both. Depending on a lot of other factors too, the (behavioural effects of the) happiness of others, male or female alike, can indirectly detract from our own Darwinian fitness. Consequently their perceived happiness doesn’t tend to give us as much joy as moralists might wish. Sad to say, reports of good fortune befalling our fellows do not always inspire a warm glow of vicarious satisfaction. On the contrary, news of another person’s lottery-win, for instance, or its traditional counterpart on the African savannah, is liable to trigger involuntary feelings of jealousy and resentment, or at best an envious ambivalence. Of course, it’s worth stressing that natural/sexual selection doesn’t care about the subjective textures of misery or happiness per se. Selection pressure works on the spectrum of behaviour such mood traits engender. What was selected for [as distinct from adventitiously selected] in the ancestral environment of adaptation wasn’t the capacity to make others feel miserable as distinct from behave miserably. To selfish DNA, our suffering itself is incidental. The distinction, however, is of limited comfort to its victims.

Fortunately we’re not systematically spiteful, even though we’re not naturally loved-up. If human malice were really genetically hardwired, then any nostrums for social reform, life-enriching lovedrugs or improving the vertebrate genome would be futile. Thankfully, a malignant streak of human nastiness is matched by a common if ineffectual desire to improve ourselves and help others. This good-will just needs genetic and pharmacological amplification.

        So granting human beings no more than a minimal and diffuse benevolence, what can be done to make us temperamentally nicer to each other as well as happier and smarter? Would we individually and collectively be better off if perpetually loved-up on more advanced and sustainable analogues of E? Or are loved-up ecstatics just too vulnerable to genetic invasion by “defectors” and wolves in sheep’s clothing for such genes or allelic combinations to flourish? Vulnerability to predatory and Machiavellian genetic rivals is presumably the reason why sweetheart suckers living in blissfully E-like states are thin on the ground in the drug-free Darwinian world. What reasons are there, if any, for predicting that the nature of adaptive traits in the era of genetic engineering will change in ways that make beautiful minds more widespread?

         If genetic engineering or rational drug design are to deliver us from the Darwinian rat-race into everyday states of ecstatic grace, or anything at all like it, then there are short-term and wider evolutionary constraints to be overcome. Truly far-sighted genetic re-programming is a formidable challenge. Some genetic manipulations may involve computing the interactions between dozens or ultimately hundreds of alleles. Often their contributions to mental and behavioural traits won’t be additive but dependent on a plethora of environmental contingencies. This Problem of Conditional Activation threatens a combinatorial explosion of possibilities to calculate. It presents a daunting task of prediction and control. Other interventions, however, might seem (comparatively) more straightforward. For instance, the action of testosterone, and its hormonally active dihydrotestosterone metabolite, is in large part responsible for war, social violence and competitive dominance behaviour, territoriality, sexual aggression, reduced male life-expectancy, and going bald. The genetic and/or pharmacological manipulation of testosterone may play a vital role in undercutting the darker horror scenarios for the future so popular in the science-fictional literature.

Today the world generally isn’t on our side. Low testosterone function is associated with social defeat, passivity and subordination. Low testosterone levels are also implicated in depressed mood. The syndrome of depression has both proximate and evolutionary roots. Depression is popularly viewed as a sign of weakness; and folk-wisdom is right. Such a perception leads to its systematic underreporting, especially among males, thereby painting a falsely rosy picture of (male) mental health. Depressive illness is reported to be twice as common among women as men. Conversely, it’s sexy for men to be cool, confident and ‘sussed’ – the sort of personality often faked if you aren’t, though for evolutionary reasons depressives find it harder to bluff. Therapists and sensitive physicians may take determined steps to reassure their clients that depression isn’t a sign of weakness. Alas this assurance typically isn’t true. Depressives characteristically tire quickly, act ineffectually and give up too easily. Potential new antidepressants are correspondingly tested for their capacity to reverse the learned helplessness and behavioural despair induced by chronically “stressing” [torturing] non-humans in “animal models”. Whereas exuberant hypomania is a signal of strength and resolve, albeit a risky signal, depressives can’t pursue their projects with fanaticism, nor can they work indomitably to pursue what they believe to be morally right. For their capacity to anticipate reward is blunted. Life for depressed people too easily seems meaningless, absurd and pointless – the nihilistic polar opposite to a hyperdopaminergic sense of urgency and significance. For the mesocorticolimbic dopamine system mediates not just the salience and intensity of anticipated reward; it also determines strength of will. By contrast, the spirit of depressives is easily broken; and there’s no natural remedy for weakness of will.

        This grim diagnosis isn’t a counsel of despair. On the contrary: well-designed genetic and pharmacological interventions should in principle allow weaker spirits to be invigorated and frailer personalities empowered. With better drugs and better genes, one’s idealised persona can be made flesh. We’ll soon have the option of making ourselves stronger, better-motivated and more steely-minded in character than even the bravest palaeo-Darwinian primitive or Nietzschean ubermensch. It’s an open question whether such strength of character will be egoistic or empathetic, cocaine-like or E-like, or something different altogether. Yet with the right gene-and-drug combos, we can be superheroes, even if the need for heroism may shortly pass. In the meantime, innovative pharmacotherapy and/or genetic medicine will be vital if the weak-mindedness and weak willpower blighting so many lives today is to be overcome.

Weak-mindedness takes many forms. One effect of administering MDMA is the way it eliminates jealousy. Even anti-abolitionists, normally so eager to hymn the character-building virtues of suffering stoically borne, rarely find many positive words to say about the ennobling attributes of the green-eyed monster. Jealousy is a persistently nasty, vicious, and pervasive feature of Darwinian human social relationships. It’s also about as voluntary as sneezing; and far harder to cure. Like MDMA, SSRIstend to diminish jealousy. SSRIs also act more sustainably than short-acting clubdrugs. But SSRIs also tend to diminish the intensity of being in love. On MDMA, by contrast, people of either sex can and frequently do spontaneously embrace and caress each other – complete strangers as well as intimate friends. On MDMA, everyone naturally tends to love each other, almost as if we were clones rather than genetic rivals.

Such behavioural effects present a bizarre and perhaps disturbing spectacle to the E-less Darwinian outsider. Yet the lessons to be drawn from the use of today’s crude hugdrugs and lovedrugs extend far wider than the recipe for a good weekend out clubbing. One way to put the world to rights invokes the tired nostrums of socio-economic and political reform. Such social engineering hasn’t proven effective at curbing the frightfulness of life to date. Pursued in a biological vacuum, so to speak, any kind of environmental approach to building a world without crueltyfear and pain is bound to fail. The other, biologically based strategy for saving the world will involve treating our, say, congenital androgenic, serotonergic, opioidergic, dopaminergic, PEA and endocannabinoid dysfunction via gene-therapy and rationally designed pharmaceuticals. Critically, it entails choosing kindergenotypes for our offspring. This option doesn’t amount to a very soul-stirring prospect. Like our notions of psychoactive drugs, the concept of “eugenics” is horribly tainted. The word itself, originally a coinage of Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911), is indelibly tarred with the pseudoscientific quackery of the Third Reich – though it’s worth recalling that Nazi “race-hygienists” didn’t use happiness as their touchstone of genetic excellence. Yet the lethal dangers posed by the genetic status quo coupled with advanced military technology are far greater than the risks of a genetic reform program predicated on the goal of world-wide personal happiness. Warnings from history aside, unless the Darwinian masculine identities of our evolutionary past are superseded, then jealousy, conflict and warfare will go on for ever (or kill us off); and the prophets of doom will be right.

Alas Ecstasy itself is something of a false prophet. MDMA-induced love is no more everlasting than its older and fitness-enhancing counterpart. Two days after taking the magic lovepill(s), the drug-catalysed outpouring of affection has subsided. “Natural” love sometimes lasts longer; but Darwinian love is still ephemeral, eventually killed off by receptor desensitisation and down-regulation no less effectively than E-induced love is ended by serotonin depletion. For the fickleness of Darwinian affection has hitherto been genetically adaptive. It’s an adaptation that remains a shabby substitute for genetically-underwritten true love. Only by subverting some exceedingly cruel feedback-inhibition mechanisms can the depth and range of our affection for each other be enriched and sustained. As it is, most Darwinian social life is soulless and loveless. But our genes do allow their vehicles to fall in and out of love with a small percentage of prospective mates in ways that tend to serve our reproductive success. In a largely anonymous mass-society, love and affection are in even shorter supply than among tribal hominids in African prehistory. Where love does sporadically flicker or flare up among us, its expression is tightly regulated. E-less love is rarely all-embracing: such Darwinian love tends to bejealous, possessive and exclusive. The law and social sanction impose penalties for loving too much or too little, loving the wrong person at the wrong age or the wrong gender. “He who is rational about love is incapable of it”; but this isn’t true in the eyes of the law or of our peers.

At MDMA-driven raves, by contrast, women can feel safe in public, gay people feel truly at ease, and sexually straight or bisexual clubbers can express love and affection for each other free from overt or internalised homophobia. Taboos on touching and the whole gamut of tactile experience are relaxed. The body no longer feels like a prison for the soul but an extension of it. The classic dopaminergic psychostimulants like cocaine promote a hard-edged, don’t-touch-me egoism. MDMA promotes intimacy, warmth, and an empathetic sense of other humans beings as fellow subjects rather than objects.

Of course, after a weekend of being “loved-up”, mood-congruent post-E “reality” soon sets in. Did one really let slip those gushing effusions to strangers one barely knew? Did one really hug that hateful brute of a rival for the affections of one’s heart’s desire? Viewed from [state-dependent] “reality” again a few days later, being nice to everyone, truly loving oneself, and feeling (and being) wonderful all seem faintly embarrassing, perhaps even a chemically-fuelled madness. “It was the just the E talking”. One may recall from English literature the effect of taking soma, the “ideal pleasure drug” featured in Aldous Huxley‘s uncannily prescient Brave New World (1932). After John the Savagethreatens to disrupt their soma supply, the angry low-caste Deltas riot. They are promptly pacified by the riot police with soma-gas, and the rioters end up hugging each other:

“Two minutes later the Voice and the soma vapour had produced their effect. In tears, the Deltas were kissing and hugging one another – half a dozen twins at a time in a comprehensive embrace. Even Helmholtz and the Savage were almost crying. A fresh supply of pill-boxes was brought in from the Bursary; a new distribution was hastily made and, to the sound of the Voice’s richly affectionate, baritone valedictions, the twins dispersed, blubbering as though their hearts would break. “Good-bye, my dearest, dearest friends, Ford keep you! Good-bye, my dearest, dearest friends, Ford keep you. Good-bye my dearest, dearest…”

Too far-fetched? In 1998, a former South African government scientist told a hearing of the Truth Commission that the minority Apartheid government had planned to use MDMA on rioters. Desperate to retain their faltering grip on power, the embattled regime apparently ordered its chemists to make one tonne of Ecstasy for riot-control. Thus the Calgary Herald (10 June 1998) reports:

“Dr. John Koekemoer, former head of chemical and biological weapons research, at the secret Delta G facility, said he disapproved, “I did not believe Ecstasy was a good incapacitant and I told my superiors that”, he told the commission, which is investigating human rights abuses during the apartheid era. “Ecstasy enhances interpersonal relationships. I told them I did not want to kiss my enemy.”

The scary notion of kissing one’s enemies, perhaps half-recalled cameos from Huxley’s satirical fiction – and the reality of strangers of either sex at raves hugging each other on E and telling each other how wonderful they are – contribute to the perception that E-like states of blissful empathy are inauthentic, shallow or false. How can the MDMA experience have true emotional depth if the cosmic hug-bunny of the dance-floor reverts back at the office next week to his old Darwinian mindset – and the (anti-)social vices it spawns? A corrosive cynicism easily sets in. For that’s the nature of social reality, an emotionally frazzled post-Ecstatic may reflect, not the magical interlude of Peace, Love and Understanding and Respect.

        Sadly, in today’s world, this may be so. The depressive realism of the serotonin-depleted and jaded cynicism of the chronically world-weary are often justified. Yet our descendants may recognize that we are the sociopathic emotional primitives in the grip of an affective psychosis. Jealousy, envy, resentment, ridicule, hate, anger, disgust, spite, contempt, schadenfreude and a whole gamut of nameless but mean-spirited states we undergo each day are a toxic legacy of our Darwinian past. More commonly, perhaps, our genetic make-up ensures we simply feel indifference to the plight of all but a handful of significant others in our lives. Right now, for instance, one knows dimly at some level that there is frightful and preventable suffering in the world. Yet most of us feel no overpowering moral urgency to do anything about it. Idealists might vaguely entertain the second-order desire to care more deeply and give, say, a larger proportion of one’s money to Third World charities dedicated to those who need the resources more urgently than we do. Yet the biological roots to sustain “saintly” self-sacrifice just aren’t there in most of us. In contrast, taking MDMA can give rise to a prodigious sense of compassion in even the otherwise morally inert. Regrettably, such compassion is usually ineffectual; it’s too short-lived to do much good. If and when we understand the neurochemical basis of empathy, however, then sustaining the molecular substrates of empathetic love can turn boundless compassion into an automatic reaction to distress, not a sign of drug-induced psychiatric disorder. Intervention can go further. If we decode and opt to amplify the molecular machinery of volition too, then such heightened compassion can be translated into effective action.

        Fortunately, compassion if not empathy for others may ultimately be redundant. In the long run, if biotechnology can be used to eradicate suffering from the living world, then a shared celebration of life, not sympathy for the misfortunes of others, may come to seem as natural as breathing. Yet right now too many people walk the Earth who have no cause to celebrate anything. Therapeutic agents designed to deepen empathy and sustainably awaken our compassion are a priority. The functional prototype of what’s needed exists today in the form of a fast-acting hugdrug; but MDMA itself is not the recipe for perpetual sainthood.

        The design of richer functional analogues of MDMA entails more than finding medicines to make us sweeter-natured. Improving human nature is perhaps ethically all-important, but MDMA is also an entactogen – a more elusive concept than that of an empathogen. MDMA offers “insight without fear” (Dr Shulgin). The nature of entactogenesis is far harder to fathom, let alone communicate, than the nature of empathy. The word for such states comes close to being a primitive term, its sense semantically inaccessible to the MDMA-naïve. The clarity of MDMA-mediated self-insight is perhaps a form of what Dr Charles Tart calls “state-specific knowledge”. E-less cynics may be sceptical. Just what’s the propositional content of this so-called “insight”? Couldn’t it be delusive? [“It’s not hard to hear voices. It’s knowing whether they tell you the truth.”] But on pure MDMA, the subject can inwardly access the kind of person s/he wants to be; “the ideal me”. Whether this idealised self-identity is created or discovered may be philosophically debatable. But the deeply-felt sense of authenticity and emotional self-honesty of the MDMA experience is an unexpected delight. One just won’t ever get to read about its nature in the peer-reviewed Journal of Introspective Studies.

        In Western culture, a capacity for reflective self-insight is not highly prized. Introspective genius and a talent for meditation aren’t respected in either academia or business. Nothing in our education system is geared toward making young people feel that introspective self-analysis, enhanced self-awareness or personal growth matters in the slightest. How can they be tested, graded and quantified? What’s their market value? Anyone in Western society with a tendency to quiet contemplation is likely to be stigmatised as lazy, feckless and unenterprising – unlike the sound and fury of the lionised Man Of Action, and his larger-than-life ego on whose life-energies lesser mortals may feed. In similar manner, our (limited) vision of future civilisations tends to focus on their technological marvels – and the supposed Darwinian dominance-battles of their science-fictional inhabitants – rather than on odysseys into the inner depths of their souls. Yet the design of long-acting entactogens – and their neurological analogues – should allow introspective depth and a capacity for higher-order self-reflection to be fabulously enriched as well. Tomorrow’s counterparts of today’s bunch of furtive adolescent introspectionists won’t have to shuffle around faint little tickles of thought. Drugs to enrich self-insight and heighten self-reflection may eventually become commonplace. They may be distributed as freely as aspirin if not smarties; and prove safer in excess than either.

        This prospect is some way off. Full-blooded pharmacological and genetic emancipation is still decades away. Even so, we are poised to acquire a literally life-transforming technology – a toolkit for enlightenment powerful enough to implement Heaven-On-Earth and beyond – yet we balk at the sorts of public health policy decision needed to accelerate the transition. An enriched conception of mental health is blocked by entrenched elites who’ve never sampled what they outlaw – whether designer genes or utopian pharmacology. In the jaundiced eyes of (most of) the older generation, Ecstasy and rave-culture are an aberration, not a portent. “Peace, Love, Understanding and Respect” sounds like a hollow slogan. Today, in the wider world, the words can’t be anything else. Ecstasy itself is too short-acting, unsustainable and neurotoxic at high doses to form part of anyone’s global health plan. But a permanent distillation of the MDMA magic, if feasible, offers an extraordinary if unorthodox vision of one post-Darwinian paradise to come.

Beyond MDMA : mental superhealth?

Moore’s Law in computing is named after semiconductor engineer and Intel co-founder Gordon Moore. It states that processing power in computers doubles every eighteen months or so. Moore’s Law has roughly held good since 1965 when it was first propounded. It’s a rule-of-thumb about how many transistors we can cram onto successive generations of chip rather than a fundamental truth about Nature. Yet the trend it captures seems set to continue, at least until chip designers run up against the physical constraints of the nanoscale later next decade, or perhaps until quantum computers allow calculations orders of magnitude more powerful than today’s toys.

        Unfortunately, the dizzying rate of technical progress that Moore’s law quantifies hasn’t been matched by an analogous law of progress for generations of human mental health. On average, we are probably no happier than our malaise-ridden hominid ancestors. We aren’t noticeably fonder of each other. By way of consolation, we can take refuge in the pre-scientific notion that happiness isunquantifiable. Yet if such quasi-objective indices of mental health as suicide rates are anything to go by, then we would probably be psychologically better off as hunter-gatherers. Over 800,000 people in the world took their own lives last year. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that this figure will rise to around 1.5 million by the year 2020. Here in the UK, suicide is the most common cause of death for men under 35 years old. Globally, several hundred million people are clinically or “sub-clinically” depressed; and a spectrum of chronic anxiety disorders afflicts further hundreds of millions more. Even as we progressively conquer physical disease as conventionally defined, the toll of psychological distress is still rising. Admittedly, “mental illness” and “mental health” are value-laden, ideologically contested terms. Even the new scientific discipline of biological psychiatry is inescapably culture-bound. Yet “Progress” that doesn’t leave us emotionally better off would seem something of a misnomer.

        Not merely has there been no discernible growth in average mental health to match the tempo of scientific advance, technophobes claim there never will be such a mental health revolution. As long as we rely on the same legacy wetware to animate our lives, the neo-Luddites and religious fundamentalists may even be right. Our levels of well-being – and ill-being – compute fitness functions that served the inclusive fitness of our DNA in our ancestral environment in Africa. Our genes didn’t design us with the emotional welfare of their throwaway vehicles in mind. So the genetically adaptive hedonic treadmill – for many of us better named the dolorous treadmill – ensures that average levels of well-being/ill-being of Darwinian life remain stagnant. Six months after winning the national lottery or becoming quadriplegic in a catastrophic accident, the winner/victim statistically reverts to his or her average level of ill-being/well-being before the win/trauma. Hence such affirmations as Rajinder Johar’s “The Joy of Quadriplegia“. Illustrating the hedonic treadmill at its most extreme, “locked-in syndrome” leaves its victims paralysed. The subject is fully conscious but unable to move any extremities, talk, or make horizontal eye movements. Yet in the words of James Hall, longest surviving (2002) American victim of a midbrain pontine stroke: “In some ways, my stroke was a blessing….Since my stroke, I’ve published books, articles, poems. I’m busier and happier than I’ve ever been.” Completely paralysed, Mr Hall communicates by focusing on particular letters that his computer picks up from his limited eye-motions.

        Such triumph-of-the-human-spirit stories are comforting, up to a point. The downside of the emotional homeostasis they reflect is that millions of temperamentally depressive and dysthymic people would feel gloomy in the Garden of Eden. Again, this hypothesis isn’t easy to test rigorously. The more dramatic manifestations of emotional homeostasis at work are hard to investigate ethically in well-controlled prospective studies. Anecdotes and impressions aren’t science. Yet the cumulative evidence for a genetically constrained “set-point” in our pleasure-pain axis is compelling. The dismally low dial-setting doesn’t bode well for any utopian project based around mere social reform.

        Fortunately there is no reason, in principle, why an analogue of Moore’s law can’t be implemented in successive generations of the reward circuitry of organic life-forms. The affective, aesthetic, intellectual, interpersonal (and spiritual?) well-being of neurochemical robots like us can be genetically pre-coded. If rationally redesigned, our enlightened successors may view today’s “natural” rewards as poor surrogates for genetically underwritten happiness. When the mechanisms underlying bliss and its gradients are understood, the molecular machinery of the sublime can be modulated – and amplified indefinitely. Within a few decades at most, we will be scientifically enlightened enough to redesign the neurochemical pathways of emotion. Meanwhile our pleasure centres are too small for us to flourish; and their functional architecture is inefficient. They needn’t be either: our normal homeostatic “set-point” of well-being can be genetically ratcheted up to a far higher plane; and archaic Darwinian notions of mental “illness” and “wellness” consigned to oblivion. Gradients of indescribable happiness can potentially animate our lives no less powerfully than gradients of ill-being. Until this fabulous era dawns, then – to borrow the words of Oscar Wilde – “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”.

        Critically, such gradients of celestial bliss can also be lucid, serene, entactogenic and empathetic – i.e. MDMA-like and better, not manic or vulgarly hedonistic. The godlike powers of tomorrow’s biotechnologists will allow the neurological substrates of empathy and self-insight to be permanently up-regulated. Aesthetically, the mundane ugliness of life in the present epoch can be replaced by gradations of hitherto unimaginable beauty. Potentially again, an E-like magic can imbue the texture of normal waking consciousness. If we so wish, our emotional palette can be genetically enriched, mixed and then pharmacologically refined in ways that transcend the crude primary colours of our Darwinian past.

        Counter-intuitively, yet indispensably for the long-term evolutionary stability of a ecstatic society of redesigned post-humans, allelic combinations that promote blissful empathy can also potentially be fitness-enhancing – in the technical Darwinian as well as in the popular sense of “fitness”. The dawning reproductive era of “designer-babies” promises to be empowering because the capacity for parental love and nurture can be genetically and pharmacologically enhanced, not just levels of personal happiness, health and superintelligence. The age-old scourge of child-neglect (and worse) can be relegated to evolutionary history. Very speculatively, our future offspring may not merely be more loved by their caregivers, but much more “loveable” too. For if given the [genetic] freedom to choose, then parents-to-be may understandably want their offspring to be loving as well as smart and happy.

        The prospect of unleashing such parental freedom is disturbing to most of us. Why not leave babymaking, as before, either to the mysterious workings of Providence or the blind shufflings of selfish DNA? Yet now we’re imminently free to choose, there is nothing self-evidently morally admirable about playing genetic Russian-roulette with the lifeforms we create. Many of the nastier behaviours and modes of consciousness that so often proved fitness-enhancing in the ancestral environment will cease to be adaptive if the alleles that promote them tend to be shunned by prospective parents intent on creating the children of their dreams. The “nastier” alleles may well get out-competed.Selection pressure will tend to favour a very different range of heritable adaptive traits once evolution is no longer “blind” i.e. when genotypes are parentally chosen or designed in anticipation of their likely effects on a child’s behavioural phenotype. If we want to, we can systematically redesign ourselves and choose the traits of our offspring. The details, for sure, are sketchy. Reproductive science and genetic engineering are in their infancy. But Homo sapiens is poised to bootstrap its way out of the cruel Darwinian abyss.

        Inevitably, talk of treating humans like organic robots, and then mooting a baseline of mental health orders of magnitude richer than the Darwinian mind can contemplate, sounds fantastical today. In the context of our traditional conceptual framework, the idea of an analogue of Moore’s law for successive generations of human mental health evokes thoughts of cloud-cuckoo-land, not a global health-plan. Set against the daily messiness of our ecstasy-impoverished lives, the prospect of using biotechnology to abolish suffering, and a post-Darwinian transition to paradise-engineering, strikes most of us as fanciful, its liberatory potential just a mirage. At best, such heady words fall lifelessly off the page or screen. Yet a major discontinuity – a momentous evolutionary transition in the development of life on earth – is imminent as the biotechnology revolution unfolds. The advent of genomic medicine is set to challenge the old Darwinian regime of natural selection and the emotionally crippled minds it spawned.

        In the long run, genomic medicine can underwrite mental and physical superhealth for everyone. For in principle, lifelong well-being can be genetically hardwired from conception. In the short run, better-designed research tools and therapeutic agents can probe, and then repair, our damaged minds. As chemical stopgaps go, MDMA is a magical revelation. It’s perhaps the best aid to insight-oriented psychotherapy ever synthesized. Tragically, when MDMA is used to excess the outcome can be harmful, not healing. So as a weekend club drug, MDMA is seriously flawed. Today, of course, empathogens and entactogens are outlawed for any purpose. The altered states of consciousness they induce are criminalised. People who take such agents are stigmatised as “drug abusers”. Yet some MDMA users feel, rightly or wrongly, they’ve been granted a tantalising glimpse of what true mental health may be like in centuries to come; and an insight into what the rest of us are missing.

About basicrulesoflife

Year 1935. Interests: Contemporary society problems, quality of life, happiness, understanding and changing ourselves - everything based on scientific evidence. Artificial Intelligence Foundation Latvia, http://www.artificialintelligence.lv Editor.
This entry was posted in All Posts, Happiness and Quality of Life, Understand and Manage Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Beyond MDMA

  1. Well it was a really fascinating article.Thanks just for sharing this type of info here.I’m hoping you certainly will carry on enlightening people in future as well,with the help of this sort of beneficial info.Keep up the excellent work.

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