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Hybridise This

Suppose that, tomorrow, we find living examples of the ‘Hobbit’, Homo floresiensis, living in a secluded and cave on Flores Island. We’d have several options on what to do. We could ship them off to the nearest zoo, perhaps exhibiting them next to the chimpanzees and bonobos. Undoubtably this is what creationists would be forced to do, their arguments logically requiring them to deny that we have any relation to the ‘Flores man’. The more enlightened amongst us would see an interesting dilemma, however. Paleoanthropologists have discovered that H. floresiensis could use quite complex tools, so despite their small brain size it’s clear that they had a lot in common with us (or at least, us 16,000 years ago) cognitively and, maybe, socially. Would we give them human rights, land and legal protection? How far do we have to go? Is this a slippery slope to arguments like those of the Great Ape Project, who want rights for our closest living relatives?

These are related, though far more improbable, dilemmas to the one discussed in an event hosted by the University of Edinburgh’s worst most interesting new society, our nemeses friends the Life Soc*. They have an interest in the debates over abortion, euthanasia, stem cells and other related matters, like human-animal hybrids. To discuss this latter issue, they brought in Dr. Callum McKellar**, who is part of the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics, a body which advises the Scottish parliament, no less. His talk was refreshingly nonpartisan (I had expected Life Soc, bless ’em, to wheel out some religious bigot who used the phrase ‘playing God’ every ten seconds), and was a simple outline of the main techniques of hybridisation and the issues associated with them. Here I shall attempt to synthesise a hybrid of his thoughts and mine. Or something.

The UK government’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill (2008) has, as Dr. McKellar pointed out, a few quirks which make it unique amongst European legislation. For instance, it doesn’t prohibit animals being inseminated by human sperm (artificially!). McKellar wasn’t exactly sure why the MPs left this part of the legislation in, as it doesn’t seem to serve any scientific purpose at present. I suppose, though, you could look at it like this: if, in the future, procedures like this look like they might shed some light on, say, fertility treatments or genetic modification methods, we’ll be kicking ourselves that it we outlawed them. In the meantime, nobody’s going to have any interest in doing anything along these lines (except maybe people from Aberdeen. Oh, I’m sorry, I just couldn’t resist).

There are various other methods by which scientists have attempted to make human-animal hybrids, for myriad purposes. We heard of a few: apart from the aforementioned artificial inseminations (which has given us ligers and wholphins and zonkeys, oh my!), there are transgenic embryos – placing human genes into an animal embryo so, once grown, the animal’s organs are a bit more human-like and more transplantable – and ‘cybrids’, or cytoplasmic hybrids, a new stem cell technique which involves putting human chromosomes into an animal egg. Human eggs available for research purposes are few and far between, and so scientists are investigating the cybrid technique for use in potential Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s treatments.

The kind of hybrid we should be looking out for, according to Dr. McKellar, is the ‘chimera’. This is an embryo made up, right from the beginning, of cells from two different species. After development, this organism will have distinctive parts from both species, rather than mixed features – somewhat like the centaurs and fawns (and numerous others) of mythology. This procedure has been successfully performed in the past, and might be important in future for understanding aspects of cell biology, such as cell localisation and development.

So what do we do if, sometime in the future, a chimeric ‘humanzee’ is created and develops successfully? McKellar gave us a great summary of the moral conundrums involved. Aside from worries about new viruses being inadvertently created by the mixing process (he didn’t say he was worried about the zombie apocalypse occurring à la 28 Days Later, but we can assume this is what he meant) or the resulting organism having health problems (rather like pedigree dogs) due to its unusual genetics, there are a whole host of intrinsic ethical problems. Is it ‘unnatural’ to create such a creature? Do our responses depend on the exact type of organism, and its ratio of human to animal cells? Do we consider it under animal or human laws?

Uh-oh. At this point, McKellar started referring to ‘human dignity’. What sort of dignity, he asked, would the humanzee have? He was asked in the Q&A session exactly what he meant by this, and he replied with an anecdote: when he was drafting advice documents for the Council of Europe, he would go out of his way to not define ‘dignity’. Everyone just innately knows what it means, he said, but nobody really wants to define it. McKellar, towards the end of the Q&A, admitted he had a ‘fundamentalist’ position on human dignity, and said he was also committed to the idea that humans are ‘more’ than just cells and computations. While the latter statement is self-evidently silly (show me the soul, please. Anyone? Bueller? Anyone?) the former is interesting, and we should discuss it further.

This brilliant essay by Steven Pinker examines a report written by George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics, and discusses many of the issues that are wrapped up with ‘dignity’. Aside from being written by, amongst others, Leon Kass – a man who thinks that publicly licking an ice cream is a grievous affront to this dignity – the Council’s report contains a number of contradictory positions on exactly what dignity is. Pinker points out a few:

We read that slavery and degradation are morally wrong because they take someone’s dignity away. But we also read that nothing you can do to a person, including enslaving or degrading him, can take his dignity away. We read that dignity reflects excellence, striving, and conscience, so that only some people achieve it by dint of effort and character. We also read that everyone, no matter how lazy, evil, or mentally impaired, has dignity in full measure.

Pinker reckons we should simply do away with the entire concept of ‘dignity’ – it’s too wooly to be useful, and it’s immovably linked to people’s ‘yuck’ reactions (the ice cream story is a case in point – one person’s ‘yuck’ is another’s tasty chocolatey pleasure). Rather like ‘Intelligent Design’, ‘dignity’ is utterly devoid of substance and can mean whatever the person using it wants it to mean. As always, Pinker turns our usual preconceptions on their heads by pointing out that sometimes dignity can be a bad thing. Totalitarian dictatorships, he points out, ‘are often the imposition of a leader’s conception of dignity on a population, such as the identical uniforms in Maoist China or the burqas of the Taliban’. So perhaps an obsession with dignity isn’t just useless, it’s also dangerous. Let’s reject it and stick with something like Pinker’s alternative: autonomy.

Respecting human autonomy – nobody should have any more rights than anyone else. It’s just the Golden Rule, and we all knew about that anyway. Who needs nebulous concepts of ‘dignity’, when we can just treat people – and animals – the way they’d like to be treated? If we do end up faced with a humanzee, we can sidestep the issue of whether it has dignity or not, and simply treat it with common compassion, the way we should, within reason, treat all creatures. On the other hand, blastocysts, and other collections of cells, cannot wish to be treated in any particular way. No matter which way you treat them, they won’t respond any differently. Only someone utterly deranged, or religious, or both, would worry about the ‘rights’ of a bit of mush in a petri dish.

Whether it’s humanzees or hobbits, we may well have to get our ethics in gear fairly soon. Here is the main point, and the Life Soc should take note. No matter how the science turns out, no matter which way the technology advances, and no matter which kind of hybrid we find ourselves faced with, irrational religious prejudice isn’t going to help us one bit. In fact, bringing elements of irrationality into the equation can only be a bad thing. Not only do religious people have no evidence whatsoever to back up their claims, they keep insisting they should have a privileged position at the table of ethical discussion.

Well, it’s time for that to end. Let’s have more bodies like the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics, which aim to discuss issues in a secular fashion, without recourse to dogma or prejudice. We must, however, do away with concepts linked to irrationality and stick to talking about concrete costs and benefits. For most of the argument about hybrids, costs don’t even come into it. The benefits of advanced genetic technology, cures for Alzheimer’s and abundant organ transplants outweigh any wishy-washy concepts of soul or dignity the way the Sun outweighs the Earth.


*This society, indefatigable in their wish to prolong the suffering of those with life-destroying diseases, have started a petition to get The University of Edinburgh to stop doing stem cell research. The University of Edinburgh! Where Dolly the Sheep was cloned! Sometimes, I’m actually lost for words.

**An amusing note: I’m not 100% sure that the religious organisers of Life Soc would be hugely enamoured by some of Dr. McKellar’s previously-stated opinions. Check out this article from a few years back, about his favourable opinions on male-only conception. This sounds great to me (even if the science is unlikely at our present technological stage), but good heavens, those Catholics aren’t exactly going to be chuffed.

  1. October 10, 2009 at 10:21 pm

    A nice post, though I’d like to add that it’s not quite self-evidently silly to say that a human being is more than just cells and computations, although Dr McKellar might have meant it in a silly way. If he meant, in a non-abstract sense, that a human being is composed of parts other than physical ones, then he’s probably wrong. But if he meant that a human being is more than the sum of their parts, then it’s not an unreasonable statement. The cells and computations of which I’m composed are arranged in a particular way that my fiancé loves; presumably the same parts could be arranged in a way that would be less appealing to her. And we have to always bear in mind, in the way we behave towards each other, that the parts that make us up are arranged in such a way that we’re capable of enormous suffering. This, of course, you imply in your post. A pedantic point, granted. And I like Pinker’s argument too.

  2. Stuart Ritchie
    October 10, 2009 at 10:27 pm

    You’re right, of course, and to be fair to the guy, it’s not clear which of those two options he meant. Roger pointed out in the Q&A that it’s all about the arrangement of the parts, but that shouldn’t add any magical ‘dignity’ into the bargain.

    Also, and more importantly, I didn’t realise you were engaged! Congratulations!

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