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The Science of AddictionReview - The Science of Addiction
From Neurobiology to Treatment
by Carlton K. Erickson
W.W. Norton, 2007
Review by Daniel Moseley
Jul 8th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 28)

The Science of Addiction provides a clear and detailed overview of current neurobiological information and treatment programs for chemical dependence. It is written for a general audience and only presupposes a modest (say, high school level) understanding of biology and chemistry. The primary goal of the book is to help people who are chemically dependent and their caregivers (e.g., counselors, social workers, and psychologists) understand the mechanics of how drugs work and how treatment works in order to ensure " a more knowledgeable and effective approach to overcoming this illness." Erickson argues that addiction is a "brain disease" and the book focuses on its nature and causes. Although the word 'addiction' is in the title of the book, in the first chapter Erickson argues that the word 'addiction' is hopelessly unclear and that his discussion is primarily concerned with chemical dependence. So, I think a better title for the book would be The Science of Chemical Dependence--of course, that title is less catchy.

The book consists of ten chapters and two appendices. The first chapter of the book serves to clarify and to justify the terminology Erickson uses to discuss the topic of addiction. Most of the book focuses on the various causes and mechanisms that underlie chemical dependency. Chapters 2, 3 and 4 provide a clear and helpful crash course in (1) the basics of brain science, (2) the anatomy and neurobiology of chemical dependence and (3) the genetics of chemical dependence. Chapters 5, 6 and 7 and both appendices discuss the pharmacology of alcohol and various other drugs. Chapter 8 lists various treatment programs offered for the most widespread forms of chemical dependence--various forms of counseling and pharmaceutical treatment programs are described. Chapter 9 discusses the ways that Erickson sees the data from the earlier chapters being helpful for the caregivers of chemical dependence and for chemically dependent persons themselves. Chapter 10 formulates some predictions about future trends, technology and research programs in the science of chemical dependency.

Erickson's discussion is at its best when he discusses the scientific data about chemical dependency, which one would expect given his title as "Distinguished Professor of Pharmacology/Toxicology and Director of the Addiction Science Research and Education Center in the College of Pharmacy at the University of Texas at Austin." Erickson is a talented science teacher and research scientist, but the quality of his discussion diminishes in proportion to how far he ventures away from his area of specialization. I'll register two of the main shortcomings I see with the book.  My first criticism is directed at Erickson's rather breezy discussion of the "unscientific" word 'addiction' and his hasty treatment of the subtle and important philosophical issues surrounding the topic of addiction. Erickson indicates that a philosopher may take issue with his conception of addiction as a brain disease on the grounds that chemically dependent persons have free will. He quickly dismisses this objection by asserting that one philosopher who he cites simply "has no evidence" for his theory of free will. In a related vein, Erickson claims, in various passages, that chemically dependent people are not responsible for their condition. Erickson's discussion ignores a large body of complex, interesting and important philosophical questions about free will and moral responsibility that are raised by the topic of addiction--see the references at the end of this review for excellent discussions of these issues. My second main criticism is that it is not clear to me how The Science of Addiction achieves its goal of "ensuring a more knowledgeable and effective approach to overcoming this illness [i.e., chemical dependency]." In chapter 9 Erickson argues that the scientific data that the book provides will surely help to dispel some of the myths surrounding addiction and he gives a list of the top ten myths that are unmasked by his arguments. One of the myths he discusses is that "The more educated people are about drugs, the less likely they are to become addicted." Erickson maintains that since chemical dependence is a brain disease, being educated about the scientific facts will not help to prevent chemical dependence.  There is a tension here between the book's goal of helping addicted persons overcome their addictions and the claim that since chemical dependence is a brain disease, being educated about the scientific data regarding addiction will help to prevent chemical dependence.  I have serious doubts that chemically dependent people who lack any interest in the scientific data about addiction will find their condition improved by reading this book.



Wallace, R. Jay. (2003) "Addiction as a Defect of the Will: Some Philosophical Reflections." Reprinted in Gary Watson (ed.) Free Will (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Watson, Gary. (2004) "Disordered Appetites: Addiction, Compulsion and Dependence." Reprinted in Gary Watson's Agency and Answerability: Selected Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Watson, Gary. (2004) "Excusing Addiction." Reprinted in Gary Watson's Agency and Answerability: Selected Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press).


© 2008 Daniel Moseley


Daniel Moseley received a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Virginia.  He is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy and a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


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