Thursday, January 27, 2005

Lions and Tigers and Bear-Boys, Oh My!

I love the headline to this story, “Animal-Human Hybrid Sparks Controversy.” I guess we can be thankful for small things.

For a few years now, scientists have been combining the human genome with various animal bits and pieces to create different kinds of chimeras. One of the more bizarre creations mentioned in the article is a mouse with a human brain. Speaking of a Stanford scientist, the article states:

Weissman has already created mice with brains that are about one percent human.

Later this year he may conduct another experiment where the mice have 100 percent human brains. This would be done, he said, by injecting human neurons into the brains of embryonic mice.

Why would these creatures be created? The article continues with Weissman’s activities:

Before being born, the mice would be killed and dissected to see if the architecture of a human brain had formed. If it did, he'd look for traces of human cognitive behavior.

A little bit of alarm-sounding and ethical reflection is in order. What used to be the purview of science fiction and dystopias is now a reality. The article cites the director of Stanford’s Center for Biomedical Ethics as stating that we are on the cusp of being able to do really odd things like implant a human egg into a mouse, thereby giving a human child mice parents. But, he continued, no one is remotely considering such odd experimentation, so no one need be alarmed. Does someone hear the voice of Custer in the background saying, “We should be home by lunch, boys!” or is that just me? The problem with proclamations like his is there are stronger voices in the foreground shouting for all to hear that all possible scientific research is morally permissible for the potential lives it may save. To pick one poignant example, the article returned to the Stanford scientist (do these two communicate with each other?) Weissman. His view on ethical considerations and scientific progress is crystal clear:

Irv Weissman, director of Stanford University's Institute of Cancer/Stem Cell Biology and Medicine in California, is against a ban in the United States.

"Anybody who puts their own moral guidance in the way of this biomedical science, where they want to impose their will—not just be part of an argument—if that leads to a ban or moratorium. … they are stopping research that would save human lives," he said.

There is so much here to dissect-but there isn’t the time or the space. Weissman has things turned around, ethically. According to his sound-byte above, he would have made a good Nazi. It is exactly ethical concerns and reflection that keep us humane and kind and keep us from enacting the atrocities the world has condemned over and over and which make us ashamed of certain parts of our collective past.

A couple of thoughts are in order, though. The article called these chimeras “new species.” Has anyone bothered to classify and catalogue them, or are they in existence just to be killed and dissected?

At what point do these new species become more human than not? This one is a fascinating issue-what is it that comprises an instance of the human species? In this context, at what point would this process of chimera production, experimentation and destruction be subject to laws against enslavement, torture, and murder?

Reading dystopias like Brave New World should be required reading across the board. That book is labeled a “dystopia” for a reason-the world imagined in its pages is the exact opposite of a uptopia. “People” are genetically created to perform the lower levels of needed work, and therefore suffer the prejudice of the purer race of humans. How far away are we from a specie that has the physical form of an ape but the brain and reasoning capacity of, say, a 10 year old human? Wouldn’t they be great for certain unsavory jobs? At the very least, they would be far more expendable than “real” humans.

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