Posts tagged with: chimera

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, April 2, 2008

In recent years the UK has emerged as a key player in both genetic experimentation and in corresponding legal battles over the extent to which the government ought to regulate such research. The latest news coming from across the pond involves passage of a bill legalizing the creation of human-animal hybrids with certain restrictions (regarding type and length of survival).

Three members of the governing cabinet were “reportedly considering resignation if forced to back the Bill.” Controversy arose over the call from Roman Catholic bishops in the UK to allow MPs and cabinet members a “free vote” on the bill, allowing them to enjoy freedom of conscience as informed by their faith.

Since the creation of the first hybrid embryo was announced yesterday, religious leaders are calling for the creation of a national bioethics commission.

This has brought some strong reactions from critics of the Catholic and generally “pro-life” position.

My own views were lately characterized as representative of the “Roman Catholic and generally free market think tank, the Acton Institute,” and were then conflated with the reasoning of evangelical scientist Cal DeWitt (with whom I do share denominational affiliation).

According to the Reason piece, the distinction I make between the treatment of plants and animals is “based upon the idea that while God commanded Noah to save animal lineages, the Almighty said nothing about preserving plants on the Ark.” (Update: Joe Carter does a thorough and articulate job of dissecting Bailey’s article here).

In fact, in the piece in which I outline a theological framework for evaluating GM foods, I don’t mention Noah at all. And in proposing a similar framework for evaluating the treatment of animals, my only reference to Noah has to do with the inauguration and the terms of the covenant, not with the fact that the animals were preserved on the Ark.

Christian reasoning about the general treatment of animals and concerns with the role of human stewardship are not based on some obscure biblical text, as Bailey’s dismissive allusion would lead us to believe. There is an overarching biblical theme that has to do with human responsibility over the natural world, plants and animals included.

Rev. Leonard Vander Zee, for instance, uses a reference coming at the very end of the book of Jonah as a point of departure, linking it definitively to the foundational “dominion” mandate in the first chapter of Genesis. He summarizes developments in human stewardship and science this way:

State universities used to be known for their programs of “animal husbandry.” What a wonderful term. To husband the animals is to care for them, to provide for their welfare, as well as to use them for human benefit. In the past few decades, most such programs have become departments of animal science, which makes it possible to look on animals as laboratory specimens we can manipulate.

We needn’t agree with the particular conclusions that Vander Zee draws in order to agree that responsible stewardship is a biblical mandate. Clearly the idea of “animal husbandry” is closer to the biblical picture than “animal science.”

The core problem that Bailey and others have with this theological and moral insight is not that it draws too fine a distinction, but that it proposes to set any limits to research at all. That’s why religious opposition to certain kinds of research (or farming practices, for that matter) have to be construed as wholesale opposition to learning, science, and advancement.

But instead, we might also note with Aquinas that the abuse of something does not destroy it’s legitimate use. Christians do believe that scientific knowledge is a legitimate pursuit and indeed a divine calling. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t limits to legitimate practice. And identifying and defining those limits is precisely what these disagreements are all about.

With great ability comes great responsibility. With apologies to Browning, we might say that man’s scientific reach has exceeded his moral grasp.

In stating his opposition to a proposed ban on the creation of human-animal hybrids, or chimeras (the Human-Animal Hybrid Prohibition Act of 2007), Wired blogger Brandon Keim writes, “People — and, for that matter, animals — can’t be reduced to a few discrete biological parts. An embryo is not a person. Strands of DNA do not contain our souls.”

I’m not sure that human eggs and sperm aren’t comprised of souls in some sense, or at least aren’t made up of soulish bits (I tend to lean toward viewing a traducian account of the origin of the human soul as plausible. A traducian view may also explain more than a purely materialist account with regard to the transmission of non-material realities, such as culture).

But the crux of Keim’s argument is that because embryos aren’t “persons,” they can be treated in a instrumentalist/utilitarian fashion. This is one of the reasons that debates about embryonic stem cells, chimeras, and other bioethical matters so often break down into the traditional pro-life/pro-choice lines concerning abortion. There is a disagreement over the first principle of when life begins, when personhood begins, and so on.

Jacques Ellul identified what he called the plague of a technocratic society—doing something because it can be done, not because it should be done (HT).

In a series attempting to explicate a biblical-theological approach to chimeras, I argue that because animals do not have a purely instrumental value, we cannot simply make utilitarian judgments about how and when to use them for experimentation. And this is to say nothing of the objectively higher value that is placed on human life in the biblical account.

I’m increasingly sure that the answer to “what it means to be human” needs to be put in such a way as to emphasize ultimate capacities “for thought, feeling, consciousness and active volitional power,” and therefore to positively value the teleology of a thing, not simply the current form of its development or existence. See for example, Moreland and Rae, Body & Soul: Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics, p. 25 et passim. Embryos are persons if you define personhood in terms of ultimate capacities.

See also: “Hybrid Test Drive,” on the rather more advanced situation in the UK.

I watched the 2006 film The Prestige (based on the 1995 book of the same name) over the weekend. The film does an excellent job of portraying the complex relationship between the two main characters, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale).

These two men are stage illusionists or magicians (the name of the movie derives from the terms that the author gives the three essential part of any magic trick: the setup (pledge), the performance (turn) and the effect (prestige). Their interaction over the course of the years is characterized by rivalry and obsessive vengeance-seeking. The film does well to show the admirable and dishonorable elements of both men, thereby giving a realistic and relevant portrayal of the fallen human condition.

There’s certainly a great deal of morality to be learned from the film’s tale of revenge, but one of the more interesting subplots involves a different kind of obsession. At one point Angier seeks out the famed inventor Nikola Tesla (ably played by David Bowie) to help him get the upper hand on Borden.

The device that Tesla builds for Angier ends up being a critically important element of the developing plot (it gives a whole new ironic meaning to the term deus ex machina), but what I want to examine briefly here is Tesla’s view of technological development.

As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that Tesla and Thomas Edison have developed an antagonistic rivalry similar to that of Angier and Borden. While the latter pair’s relationship is focused on stage magic, the former two men are vying for preeminence in the field of technological innovation.

Tesla is a rather tragic figure, a brilliant scientist who knows he is captivated by an obsession to push his mastery over nature to ever greater scope. He also knows that such a burning obsession must needs eventually destroy him. When Angier approaches Tesla asking for a radically powerful device, Tesla says confidently, “Nothing is impossible, Mr. Angier. What you want is simply expensive.”

Nikola Tesla: “Man’s grasp exceeds his nerve.”

In this way, Tesla’s faith is in technological progress: “You’re familiar with the phrase ‘man’s reach exceeds his grasp’? It’s a lie: man’s grasp exceeds his nerve.” The first quote can be taken to mean that man’s technological capabilities outstrip his abilities to make sound moral judgments about the use and abuse of innovative technology. But whereas Tesla determines that this maxim is a “lie,” there’s a great deal of contemporary evidence that the statement is indeed true.

This is perhaps nowhere more clearly evident than in the field of biotechnology, especially with respect to the research and science related to fertility and embryology. When writing about the moral challenge of in vitro fertilization, Acton scholar Stephen Grabill states, “Technology, it seems, has outpaced our understanding of the fundamental legal, political, theological, and moral issues in the creation and management of human embryos.”

I have written a great deal on the phenomenon of animal-human hybrids, known as chimeras, and there is a recent piece on NRO from Rev. Thomas Berg is executive director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, and member of the ethics committee of New York’s Empire State Stem Cell Board. Berg concludes that “Biomedical science fails humanity when it deliberately destroys human life in the pursuit of trying to cure it.”

The Prestige is a great film on a number of levels. As a morality play it has many things to teach us. One of these is the stark contemporary relevance of a cultural obsession with technological progress divorced from a firm and reliable theological and moral grounding.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) in the UK has given generic approval allowing “human-animal embryos to be created and used for research.” According to a Christian Science Monitor report, Evan Harris, “a lawmaker on a parliamentary committee that has oversight in this field,” says that “No scientist I have found has provided scientific reasons as opposed to religiously based ethical reasons for not proceeding,” he adds, even though his committee “looked high and low for such scientists.”

Typically the case that secular scientists make for such research is based on the necessity of the measure for their all-important research: “Stem-cell researchers say they desperately need the animal matter because not enough human eggs are available. Britain has adopted an accommodating attitude toward stem-cell science, fostering a favorable environment that scientists argue would be undermined if this latest experimentation is rejected.”

“We pride ourselves here on working in a pro-science environment,” says Stephen Minger, director of stem-cell biology at King’s College London, one of two scientists who have applied for the HFEA license. “It would be viewed as a depressing turn of events” if the application were turned down.

Anything not clearly “pro-science” in such a narrow way, like any ethic with religious foundations, is similarly understood to be archaic, obsolete, irrelevant, and reactionary.

For some such “religiously based” arguments, see my series on chimeras in five parts.

For more on how scientists and religious leaders dialogue in the public square, see Thomas M. Lessl, “The Priestly Voice,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 75, no. 2 (1989): 183-97; and this 2005 interview on science and rhetoric.

Update: Reformation21 provides a link to the “Linacre Centre Submission to the Science and Technology Committee Inquiry into Government Proposals for the Regulation of Hybrid and Chimera Embryos” (PDF). The Linacre Centre for Healthcare Ethics is a bioethics research institute under the trusteeship of the Catholic Trust for England and Wales.

Albert Mohler weighs in on the chimera phenomenon, “The Chimeras Are Coming.” He links to a WaPo article from yesterday, “Making Manimals,” by William Saletan.

Saletan, a writer for, concludes with this advice: “If you want permanent restrictions, your best bet is the senator who tried to impose them two years ago. He’s the same presidential candidate now leading the charge against evolution: Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican. He thinks we’re separate from other animals, ‘unique in the created order.’ Too bad this wasn’t true in the past — and won’t be true in the future.”

Mohler, for his part, also passes on comments from Dr. Nancy L. Jones of The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity and the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, including her words on “how Christians should think about the development of transgenic animals (chimeras).” She points especially to the first chapter of Genesis as a basis for created “species integrity.”

I won’t repeat a lot of what I’ve said about this issues in this and other forums over the past few years, but I will pass along some relevant links for interested parties. Of particular interest is the last item, which is a series devoted to articulating a biblical-theological framework for evaluating chimeras:

I saw a spate of headlines over the weekend that proclaimed something like, “Now scientists create a sheep that’s 15% human.”

15% human? Really? Isn’t that like being “a little pregnant”?

Followers of this blog may already know that I’ve written a fair bit, most of it disapproving (at least with respect to the newest genetic innovations), on the creation of chimeras. One of the concerns raised about this latest effort is the potentially devastating effects of so-called “silent” viruses, which are harmless to animals but could migrate with the harvested parts.

According to reports, Dr Patrick Dixon, an international lecturer on biological trends, warned: “Many silent viruses could create a biological nightmare in humans. Mutant animal viruses are a real threat, as we have seen with HIV.”

I’m inclined to think that this kind of work respects neither the animal nor the human person. And the latter is in part illustrated by the fact that if you just went off of what the headlines said, you’d think it’s possible for something to be partially human. It’s really a confusion about what it means to be human. You either are or you aren’t.

Following the recent Medico-Legal Society of Ireland’s Golden Jubilee Conference in Dublin, the Irish Medical Times provides a timeline of the history of genetics, beginning in 1859 with the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species.

Other more recent highlights include the year 2003, in which “scientists at the University of Shanghai successfully fused human cells with rabbit eggs, reportedly the first human-animal chimeras (a mixture of two or more species in one body) created.”

Earlier this year, “Irving Weissman, director of Stanford University’s Institute of Cancer/Stem Cell Biology and Medicine, helped create the first mouse with an almost completely human immune system. The mouse is used to test drugs to fight AIDS.”

Weissman also directs work with mice and neurobiology,”Prof Weissman has also begun injecting human neural stem cells into mouse foetuses, creating mice whose brains are about 1 per cent human.” He has also “proposed creating mice whose brains are 100 per cent human.”

I have previously examined some of Weissman’s work, in conjunction with a survey of a panel of the President’s Council on Bioethics, here.