This week will feature a five part series, with one installment per day, putting forth my presentation of a biblical-theological case against the creation of certain kinds of chimeras, or human-animal hybrids. Part I follows below.
Advances in the sciences sometimes appear to occur overnight. Such appearances can often be deceiving, however. Rare is the technological or scientific advance that does not follow years upon years of research, trial and error, failure and experimentation.
The latest news coming from the field of biology and genetics hasn’t happened “overnight,” but things are advancing quickly. Some of the more interesting, and indeed troubling, developments have to do with what are known as “chimeras.”
The Chimera, of course, is a fire-breathing creature from Greek mythology, with the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and the tail of a serpent. In the scientific community, however, chimeras are organisms most often created by the intermixing of species.
We are faced now with the possibility of new technological advances giving humans the ability to do radically new things. A scientific pragmatism is at work, which reduces elements of the material world to their practical uses, and ignores the basic structures of creation.
In the case of genetic manipulation, however, can certainly does not imply ought. The respect of limits on human activity, based on the theological recognition about the identity of humans and animals, is what will serve as a check on the tendency in modern science to “functionalize” the world.
For years chimeras have been relatively non-controversial. Animal-animal chimeras are nothing new, given the intermixing of breeds and species, of dogs and mules, for example. Some kinds of human-animal interaction have a long precedent as well.
For many years insulin for diabetics originated in the organs of cows or pigs (animal insulin is no longer available in the United States, having been replaced by synthetic insulin). The first documented transplant of animal organs or tissue into a human being occurred in 1668, when Dutchman Job van Meeneren used pieces of a dog’s skull to repair a human cranium.
The recipients of such “xenotransplants” technically become chimeras, because of the shared cross-species tissues or organs. While animal to human transplants remain outside the medical mainstream, innovations in genetics over past decades have upped the ante with regard to the legitimacy of chimera research.
What is new about the current state of interspecies research is that the scale of the mixtures has been miniaturized, often to sub-cellular or genetic level. For example, in 2003, Chinese scientists combined human cells with the eggs of rabbits, creating human-rabbit embryos. In 2004, researchers in Minnesota created pigs with human blood running through their veins. Scientists at Stanford University in California have considered creating mice with partially human brains, and the proposal won initial endorsement from the university’s ethics board.
The rationale for all this research is that testing and experiments done on animals is much more useful and reliable the closer the animal’s physiology is to being human. That’s why primates like marmosets are used in later stages of research where possible negative human reactions must be discovered.
In 2005, the National Academies of Science issued guidelines that, in part, address the creation of human-animal chimeras. The academy said that such hybrids are important in understanding human disease and in testing new drugs and human embryonic stem cells. There are seemingly limitless possibilities for the future of such research.
Genetic research and even modification, especially with regard to plantlife, can not be rejected out of hand as always immoral. Certain kinds of animal-animal chimeras may also be morally acceptable. But it is the permanence of fundamental changes to the human person that raise genetic manipulation to a level of concern above that of organ or tissue “xenotransplantion.”
Dr. Benjamin Carson, director of pediatric neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions and member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, put it this way at a hearing on human-animal chimeras: “I think it’s very important as a Council that we make sure that we distinguish between using human or animal parts across species, such as insulin, heart valves, things of that nature, and mixing the genetic material that has proliferative capacity … there’s a huge difference between those two things.”
Indeed, as we will see in the remaining parts of the series, there are excellent biblical-theological reasons why the genetic intermixing of human and animal species is morally impermissible.