Posts tagged with: human-animal hybrid

Blog author: jballor
posted by on 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.

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 Slate.com, 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:

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, October 6, 2006

With the latest news announced yesterday that British scientists are planning to create rabbit-human chimeras in the attempt to “find a ready source of ‘human’ embryonic stem cells without the ethical problems of tampering with human life,” it seems fitting to plug last week’s series of posts containing a biblical-theological case against chimeras.

The following from Herman Bavinck underscores my basic approach:

…man constitutes among all creatures a peculiar kind and occupies a unique place. He is indeed related to all these creatures, and this relationship is, according to the Scriptures, much more intimate than many usually present it. Man is formed according to his body from the dust of the earth; Genesis 2:7; 3:19; Eccl. 3:20; 12:7; from loam or clay; Job 33:6; he is dust and ashes; Genesis 18:27; of the earth, earthy; I Cor. 15:47. And chemistry teaches us nowadays that the human and animal body contain the same elements which occur outside of us in the visible creation. That relationship becomes still more evident in this that the first man, receiving from above the breath of life, became “a living soul.” With this word “soul” one must not think of the meaning which we at present associate with it and which we really have borrowed more from philosophy than from the Holy Scriptures. “Living soul” simply means here that man, by the inbreathing of God, became a living being; the word is therefore applied elsewhere to all living beings. Genesis 1:20, 21, 24, 30. Further, the difference between man and animals does not lie in this that the “breath of life” was breathed into the former, because in Genesis 7:22 mention is made much more strongly of a breath of the spirit of life in all animals. Thus the relationship of man and animal is so close that Scripture includes them under the common name of living souls; man belongs, in a certain sense, to the kingdom of animals.

But nevertheless, there is a difference as wide as the heavens between both. In the creation it becomes evident that man was created according to a particular decree of the counsel of God; that he, in distinction from the animal, received from above the breath of life by a particular act of God; that he form that moment bore His image; that he thought, spoke, gave names, knew, was obedient to God’s law, and could live in his fellowship. All these gifts of knowledge, language, morality, religion, did not come later to man in a fearful struggle for existence, in the centuries-long way of evolution. But they are originally his own; they belong to his nature; they lie ineradicably rooted in his essence; by them he is man. Rob him of these, and he ceases to be man. Scripture enables us to reject the false ideas in the theory of evolution and descent; but, at the same time, to recognize fully the truth in it.

Herman Bavinck, Bijbelsche en religieuze psychologie (Kampen: Kok, 1920); ET: Biblical and Religious Psychology, trans. H. Hanko (Grand Rapids: Protestant Reformed Theological School, 1974), 13-14.

Our week-long series concludes with a reflection on the implications of the great biblical theme of the consummation of creation into the new heavens and the new earth.

Consummation – Revelation 22:1–5

To the extent that we are able in this life, Christians are called to the path of holiness. This path begins with the recognition of the boundaries God has set up, in the created and preserved world and in his law, both in its divine and natural promulgations. We can be sure that there will be an eschatological reality in which “no longer will there by any curse” (Revelation 22:3 NIV).

And this assurance gives us the hope to spur us on to more wholeheartedly work for the good during our time on this earth. One way in which we can begin to live out this calling is to work against the effects of sin and evil in the world.

Attitudes which reduce animals (or humans) to having merely instrumental value reflect sin and corruption, not righteousness and restoration. Creating mice with human brains so that they can be killed in utero violates the value conferred upon animals as sharing with humans “the breath of life.”

But even more seriously, these actions violate the created dignity of human beings who bear the image of God. Both the perpetrators and victims are effected negatively.

Quite simply, human beings, as God’s image-bearers, are placed in a position of unique authority over creation, but also bear in themselves inherent dignity which places the worth of human beings as far greater than that of plants, or even animals. This doesn’t devalue the rest of creation; but it rightly orders creation with humanity at its head. This inherent and overarching value of the human person is what Jesus points to when he states, “You are worth more than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:31 NIV).

The possible “benefits” from the research in human-animal cellular and genetic mixing do not provide justification for crossing the boundaries that God has set up. Such pragmatic arguments are inadequate.

Simply because Adam and Eve could take the fruit and eat did not mean that they should. Simply because people could build a “tower that reaches to the heavens” did not mean that they should. And simply because we humans are able to create chimeras does not mean that we should. Indeed, the Bible gives us good reasons that we should not.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, September 28, 2006

The penultimate installment of the series on the biblical/theological case against chimeras focuses on the impact and significance of redemption.

Redemption – Romans 8:18–27

Flowing out of our discussion on creation and fall, it is the recognition that there still are limits on human activity with regard to animals that is most important for us in this discussion.

The apostle Paul notes that “the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:20–21 NIV).

Here we have a hint at the reversal of the curse on the human-animal-plant relationships. Paul continues in this section to address the “firstfruits of the Spirit” which believers have received after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our task as believers is to bear witness to the saving work of Jesus Christ. This work has begun to reverse the effects of sin and the curse, first and especially in the lives of believers, but also through the grateful work of believers, who are seeking to live up to their calling as faithful stewards.

The original purpose of plants was simply to provide sustenance for life, as is illustrated in Gen. 1:29-30. With the redemptive work of Christ in view, Christians are called to, in some way at least, attempt to realize and bring out the goodness of the created world. With this in mind, conclusions about the genetic manipulation of plants are not necessarily the same as that with respect to animals and humans.

The created purpose of animals was one that was different from plants. Animals, in sharing the status of beings with the “breath of life,” possess a level of importance that is not reducible to merely instrumental or pragmatic value.

The reduction of animals to pragmatic use as a source of food is a result of sin, illustrated in Genesis 9. But even here, at the depths of sin’s corruption of relationship, there remain limits and boundaries.

We should view the possibility of interspecies mixing and the creation of human-animal chimeras as just this sort of limit, because it undermines and violates the created order, which distinguishes between plants, animals with the breath of life, and humans created in the image of God.

That humans have the ability to make certain things has never been a valid argument for actually making them. God confirms in the case of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) that humans are capable of a great many, seemingly limitless, accomplishments.

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. (more…)

My piece on the debate over chimera research and the relevance of your worldview to the debate appears today at BreakPoint, “A Monster Created in Man’s Image.”

Drawing on the work of C.S. Lewis, and among the questions and conclusions included, I write, “Chimera research may indeed have some potential benefits, but we cannot ignore the question of potential costs. What toll does such research take on the dignity of human beings? Must we destroy the human person in order to save it? As a society, we need to question whether our technological reach has exceeded our moral grasp.”

This issue was thrust into the national spotlight when President Bush spoke about the creation of human-animal chimeras in his State of the Union address this past January: “A hopeful society has institutions of science and medicine that do not cut ethical corners and that recognize the matchless value of every life. Tonight I ask you to pass legislation to prohibit the most egregious abuses of medical research, human cloning in all its forms, creating or implanting embryos for experiments, creating human-animal hybrids, and buying, selling or patenting human embryos. Human life is a gift from our creator, and that gift should never be discarded, devalued or put up for sale.”

This feature from yesterday’s Marketplace looks at the “endless variations of designer hybrid dogs.” These new breeds crossing more traditional lines of dogs can command a large pricetag.

The “cute name” attraction, the possibilities of allergen free dogs, and the idea of getting the best of both breeds have put these designer dogs in high demand. My wife and I are currently considering getting a Cockapoo, a Cocker Spaniel and Poodle mix.

A labradoodle.

I’m bringing up these new breeds, though, as an illustration of what morally permissible creation of “genetic” chimeras might look like. I’ve blogged about chimeras on the PowerBlog previously, but very often there is great difficulty in determining what is legitimate and what is not.

I’m proposing that chimeras that can be created without direct genetic manipulation should generally be considered acceptable. So the case of mixed dog breeds that can mate and procreate naturally meets and exemplifies this criteria.

Update: We’ve decided to get the dog.