Smart ideas?

18th February 2000 at 00:00
ZERAH Colburn, a 19th-century American prodigy, could multiply 12,225 by 1,223 in his head by the age of six. His latter-day equivalent, Justin Chapman, a six-year-old New Yorker, is studying Pharaonic architecture at university.

Neither needed the intelligence-boosting drugs that scientists are trying to develop. The rest of us might, however, be tempted to gulp some down if we thought they could transform us into chess champions who can memorise War and Peace and even programme video-recorders.

Dr Iain Chalmers is therefore right to say we should keep at least one wary eye on the pills that re designed to cure educational ills. But even "smart drugs" may quickly become obsolete. The new consensus is that the techniques that produced Dolly the sheep will soon create "genetically-improved" human beings.

What would that mean for education - and society in general? Exam invigilators could conceivably test candidates for performance-enhancing drugs. But it would be infinitely harder to deal with the ethical problems - and social polarisation - that would ensue if regiments of super-Mensa designer babies began emerging from the labs. Compared to that, smart drugs seem innocuous.

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