For those concerned about threats to human dignity, news from the bioethical frontier is almost always depressing and reminiscent of bizarre speculative fiction. For example, events in the UK last week have reminded me of an obscure novel by the French writer Vercors. You Shall Know Them begins just after Douglas Templemore injects his infant son with strychnine chlorhydrate. Although anguished by the killing, the father had planned the act even before the child had been sired. It was his attempt to save the mother, a female of the species Paranthropus erectus that had been discovered off the coast of New Zealand.
Because of their almost-human qualities, industrialists planned to use the creatures as “beast of burden” in Australian factories. Outraged by this forced slavery, Templemore, a British journalist, devised a plan to test the legal status of the species. Using artificial insemination, he impregnated one of the captured females with his own seed. While the mother remained jailed in a London zoo, Templemore took his offspring home and put him to death. Afterwards, he called the police to arrest him:
The inspector drew nearer. His pale eyelashes were fluttering like moths.
“Mr. Templemore, what exactly do you expect us to do?”
“Your job, Inspector.”
“But what job, sir? This little creature is a monkey, that’s plain. Why the dickens do you want to . . .”
“That’s my business, Inspector.”
“Well, ours is certainly not to meddle . . .”
“I have killed my child, Inspector.”
“I’ve grasped that. But this . . . this creature isn’t a . . . it doesn’t present . . .”
“He’s been christened, Inspector, and his birth duly entered at the registry office under the name of Garry Ralph Templemore.”
Fine beads of perspiration broke out on the inspector’s face. He suddenly shot a question at Douglas.
“Under what name was the mother entered?”
“Under her own, Inspector: ‘Native woman from New Guinea, known as Derry.'”
“False declaration!” cried the inspector triumphantly. “The whole registration is invalid.”
“The mother isn’t a woman.”
“That remains to be proved.”
“Why, you yourself –”
“Opinions are divided.”
“Divided? Divided about what? Whose opinions?”
“Those of the leading anthropologists, about the species the Paranthropus belongs to. It’s an intermediate species: man or ape? It resembles both. It may well be that Derry is a woman after all. It’s up to you to prove the contrary, if you can. In the meantime her child is my son, before God and the law.”
The remainder of the novel focuses on the series of trials set to determine whether Templemore is guilty of murder–or merely animal cruelty. But what was merely a hypothetical question of science fiction in 1953 has become a genuine bioethical conundrum in 2007. For the past several years scientists have been blurring the line between human and animal by producing chimeras–a hybrid creature that’s part human, part animal.
The Chinese began in 2003 by fusing human cells with rabbit eggs to produce the first human-animal chimeras. Earlier this year, a professor at the University of Nevada went even further by creating the world’s first human-sheep chimera – which has the body of a sheep and half-human organs. And just last week in the UK, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) cleared the way for further research.
Initially, the public opposed this bioethics travesty:
Initial investigations of public opinion showed resistance to the idea of combining human and animal DNA. Ethical concerns with this type of research were the main reason for the publics’ initial apprehension. But once they realized the research could lead to therapies for conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, opinion changed.
It’s hard to determine who more at fault — the scientists who lie about the potential for “therapies” or the ignorant public that is willing to set aside ethical qualms in order to accept such nonsense. (And lest I’m too vague let me clarify what I’m saying: Any scientist that claims that chimeric research will eventually lead to cures for Alzheimer’s is either an idiot or a liar.*)
The underlying ethical assumption is that humans–at least at the embryonic stage of development–are nothing more than genetic material that can be mixed with other species in whatever way that scientists deem appropriate for their “research.”
Even worse, the few remaining biomedical scientists with even a sliver of ethical credibility (the bar is set low in this field) are hopelessly naïve. For example, David Magnus, director of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University, does believe that we should worry about chimeras being put to uses that are problematic, risky, or dangerous.
An example of an experiment that would raise concerns, he says, is genetically engineering mice to produce human sperm and eggs, then doing in vitro fertilization to produce a child whose parents are a pair of mice.
“Most people would find that problematic,” Magnus said, “but those uses are bizarre and not, to the best of my knowledge, anything that anybody is remotely contemplating. Most uses of chimeras are actually much more relevant to practical concerns.”
Practical concerns. In Vercors; novel the “practical concerns” are industrial; in America, our practical concerns center on our nation’s shared religion: technology. And when the religion’s most powerful denomination–biotechnology–shows an interest, minor quibbles about dignity and human value are easily set aside. Ironically, we consider ourselves too civilized to create chimerical slaves for the factory, yet show no concern for chattel produced for the laboratory.
“What is man that thou art mindful of him,” the Psalmist asks. “Opinions are divided,” reply the technologists, “opinions are divided.”
*UPDATE — In the comment thread, a reader wrote:
…I think if you’re going to make assertions as to the falsehood of scientific claims, you need to provide some fairly rigorous evidence. Otherwise your readers remain uninformed, and ill-equipped for arguing their case. Would love to hear more on the subject!
Fair enough. I may have assumed too much by expecting people to infer the reasons chimeric research is being pursued. Here are a few points that need to be made to clarify my assertion that chimeric research will never lead to cures for Alzheimer’s.
Because there are not enough embryos from IVF, human cloning is needed to create the stem cell lines needed for research. But there are not enough human egg donations to make this feasible, which is one of the primary reasons why scientist turn to the animal kingdom (i.e., rabbit eggs).
We’ll set aside the question of whether chimeras are useful for anything and assume concede the best case scenario, which is that chimeric research would advance the study of ESCR. Even if this were to occur, it would likely have little effect on cures for Alzheimer’s. ESCR is unlikely to have any significant impact on Alzheimer’s, much less lead to cures for that disease. This myth was squashed several years ago but because it keeps popping up, let’s go over it once more:
From the WaPo article Stem Cells An Unlikely Therapy for Alzheimer’s (June 10, 2004):
[T]he infrequently voiced reality, stem cell experts confess, is that, of all the diseases that may someday be cured by embryonic stem cell treatments, Alzheimer’s is among the least likely to benefit.
“I think the chance of doing repairs to Alzheimer’s brains by putting in stem cells is small,” said stem cell researcher Michael Shelanski, co-director of the Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer’s Disease and the Aging Brain at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York, echoing many other experts. “I personally think we’re going to get other therapies for Alzheimer’s a lot sooner.”…
But given the lack of any serious suggestion that stem cells themselves have practical potential to treat Alzheimer’s, the Reagan-inspired tidal wave of enthusiasm stands as an example of how easily a modest line of scientific inquiry can grow in the public mind to mythological proportions.
It is a distortion that some admit is not being aggressively corrected by scientists.
“To start with, people need a fairy tale,” said Ronald D.G. McKay, a stem cell researcher at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “Maybe that’s unfair, but they need a story line that’s relatively simple to understand.” [emphasis added]
And from Wired magazine, Alzheimer’s: Beyond Stem Cells (June 11, 2004)
“I just think everybody feels there are higher priorities for seeking effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and for identifying preventive strategies,” said Marilyn Albert, a Johns Hopkins University researcher who chairs the Medical and Scientific Advisory Council of the Alzheimer’s Association.
Stem cells from human embryos can form all types of cells, and the hope is that they one day could be used to replace cells damaged from such conditions as diabetes, spinal cord injury or Parkinson’s disease. But experts say Alzheimer’s, by the very nature of how it attacks the brain, would pose a far more daunting challenge to that approach.
Nothing has changed in the past three years, expect for the willingness of some researchers to lie in order to get the funding they want. Oddly enough, the same people who get upset when corporations distort the truth in order to win government contracts don’t blink when scientists make false claims in order to get government grants.
Either these researchers do not understand the science (and are thus to ill-informed to know what is going on) or they know the truth and believe that lying to the public is necessary to get what they want.
For all the bluster, I have yet to hear a single researcher explain how chimeras will lead to a cure for Alzheimer’s. Anytime you hear this claim, ask them how this will happen. You’ll likely be met with silence. The most they will do is fall back on their “faith-based” rationales, that the research might someday, somehow, despite everything we know, bring about a miraculous advance. So let me revise my point: Any scientist that claims that chimeric research will eventually lead to cures for Alzheimer’s is an idiot, a liar, or a priest in the church of Scientism.