Backyard Brains often Lack Intelligence

Backyards conjure up lots of images of recyclable materials and storage space or nicely cultivated lawns and gardens as a place to relax and enjoy the labors of the day. On the other hand Backyard Brains creates a mixed metaphor and one needs to dig a little deeper to find out exactly what’s hidden in the backyard to see if there’s anything of real value. A bit like treasures in the attic I suppose.
With the help of the BBC News I did discover something rather unusual about a company named Backyard Brains and there commercial exploitation of digital learning, along with the imprecise and often unequivocal area of neuroscience, and children’s vulnerability and fascination with how things work, at a time when they have a penchant to be masters of their own environment while being dependent upon it.
According to the BBC News report Backyard Brains has developed a very small electronic device which is glued to the back of a cockroach and a downloadable app from a mobile phone is able to control the movement of the creature. Interestingly on the same page of this news story the BBC ran an advertisement on a program detailing the legacy of the Nazi medical experiments inclusive of a picture of Hitler- ironic or not I thought the coincidence appropriate.
The company Backyard Brains (aptly named perhaps?) argues that through allowing children to dismember other creatures, place electronic devices into them and then control their movements they are giving them a 5 year head start on those in graduate schools studying neuroscience. They further argue that they are aware of the shortcomings of the kinds of experiments their bizarre equipment enables kids to perform on other creatures, but claim that they are justified due to the inaccessibility of neuroscience in our current age.
It is by all accounts a disingenuous and dishonest argument.
I learned a lot at primary school about neuroscience without being asked to dismember another creature. I recall a wonderful teacher who would take us for walks and lets us smell the earth, flowers, sea, and explain why we had such a painful reaction to standing on a broken shell, or nail or piece of glass-it was all quite wonderful, intriguing and followed up with diagrams and drawings of humans and other creatures on how the brain and central nervous system of sentient beings worked. It instilled in me a life long love of science and a mutual respect for all living creatures-even those I didn’t like-the cockroach, spider and ants to name a few. I learned their role in the wonderful complex eco-system called life along with the importance of a human being’s necessary moral relationship with other creatures.
It is the lack of concern shown by the Backyard Brains’ company to our moral relationship with other creatures which should worry parents, educators and children alike. The thinking which underpins the concept of Backyard Brains is based upon the myopic and disdainful thinking of early Western thinkers who claimed that humans lack any kind of contractual and ethical relationship with other creatures because they are not moral agents and they lack feelings, therefore if we do not perform experiments on them we are failing science. Such ideas have been used over the centuries to push some creatures to the edge of extinction through hunting and killing for body parts. The irrational arguments of Rousseau, Robert Boyle and Voltaire on race and the natural world often led to the justification of inequality and to enslave people of differing religions, politics, beliefs, color, and women and even to justify the oppression of children. According to the philosophy which underpins the work of Backyard Brains; Rousseau’s outrageous claim that “woman is especially made for man’s delight” would be acceptable today! We have after all inherited the imperfect irrationality of Rousseau and his ilk on our relationships with other creatures.
There are much more acceptable moral and ethical ways to teach neuroscience to children than having them turn defenseless and helpless creatures into electronic toys that may be controlled by a mobile phone application. Just as causing unnecessary pain and suffering to one another is unacceptable, it is unacceptable to cause pain and suffering to other creatures.
The study of neural circuitry is important in medical science and has been studied at the appropriate age and level for many years with wonderful success. To argue that allowing children to capture dismember, insert electrodes into the head and body of another creature will ‘create the next generation of neural engineers, scientists and physicians’ is disingenuous and dishonest.
The kinds of experiments designed to harm other creatures and marketed by Backyard Brains under the guise of human scientific endeavors runs counter to the idea that we live in a very fragile world, morally, ethically, environmentally and socially. Humans and other creatures have an equal interest in maintaining an eco-system which ensures the survival of all species-other creatures matter a lot. It is this key idea which children need to understand and learn to live with more, to counter the illusions of the digital age and the dishonest marketing ploys of companies like Backyard Brains.