Often, technology is developed with one purpose in mind, yet becomes more widely used for something completely different. The classic example, of course, is the conversion of World War II chemical weapons research into the 1950's pesticide industry. But other examples abound. One came to mind this week, as I was revisiting an interesting research study in primate behavior from a few years ago:
The study was based on a new gene therapy technique, in which a synthesized DNA antisense agent was used to inhibit the release of dopamine by "turning off" the D2 genes of 7 rhesus monkeys. The monkeys had to press a lever in response to visual cues on a screen, getting a drop of water as a reward. Monkeys whose D2 gene were "turned off" worked harder at the task, apparently because their ability to aniticipate how long it would take to get a reward had been negated, in the absence of the flood of dopamine to their brains that the gene normally incites. Without dopamine, in other words, the monkeys didn't know how to procrastinate.
Nowadays, corporate employers and schools alike are turning to rewards-based incentive programs to encourage desirable behavior on the part of employees or students. The central idea behind dog training - that any behavior can be taught, so long as it is done with positive reinforcement - seems to be taking hold in the workplace and in the educational system.
But what would happen if a gene therapy was available that could increase workers' efficiency and strengthen their work ethic, while eliminating the tendency to procrastinate - and with no need for costly rewards?
The authors of the study were motivated by the desire to understand and alleviate the symptoms of mental illness. But, their results cannot have been lost on corporate employers. One can only imagine that some companies would be intrigued, to say the least, by a technological tool that could upgrade workers' work ethic while increasing their efficiency.
It's hard to know whether gene therapy techniques like this one will ever attain widespread usage in humans.
In the meantime, though, it is interesting to wonder: is there any evolutionary benefit to procrastination? And if there isn't, why did the tendency evolve in the first place? The ability to calculate how long it was possible to delay doing something might have been very useful in omnivorous species whose food sources were highly varied and potentially included many poisonous plants and animals.
Perhaps procrastination, long frowned on by society, should be re-evaluated on the basis of its evolutionary utility to our species, before we banish it forever with gene-altering technology.