There's no good reason to mix a man with a monkey

Are you ready for the humanzee? If not, you'd better start preparing, because something's simian over there in the lab, and it involves human-animal hybrids. No, I'm not reading The Island of Dr. Moreau. I'm reading a recent piece by Jeremy Rifkin in the Los Angeles Times about researchers who injected human brain cells into mouse fetuses and produced mice with partly human brains, and are now considering making mice whose brains are 100-per-cent human cells. Eeek!

Cloning, regrettably, won't go away. You can say that again. And again. And again ... Indeed, we have already been grazed by this issue. Mr. Rifkin says years ago Scottish researchers combined sheep and goat embryos and got a goat-headed, sheep-bodied "geep." Cute. Except that, technically at least, if you can do it with other species you can do it with ours; thus "Already ... scientists have created pigs with human blood running through their veins and sheep with livers and hearts that are mostly human."

As genetic technology improves, such stories become routine. This Tuesday, The Wall St. Journal's online OpinionJournal casually mentioned researchers genetically engineering mice to be allergic to cats, then injecting them "with a newly developed part-feline, part-human protein."

Did you say half-cat, half-man? What's going on here?

At one level, just better medical research. The closer lab animals are to humans the more useful the experiments. So, Mr. Rifkin says, "Some researchers are speculating about human-chimpanzee chimeras -- creating a humanzee ... the ideal laboratory research animal." But clearly, at another level, we're crossing the line between natural and unnatural. As he asks, "Would such a creature enjoy human rights and protections under the law?... Would society allow inter-species conjugation? Would a humanzee have to pass some kind of 'humanness' test to win its freedom? Would it be forced into doing menial labour or be used to perform dangerous activities?"

His conclusion, instinctively appealing, is that we should "prohibit any further research into creating human-animal chimeras." Prohibiting isn't preventing; some nations may not impose or enforce bans and some people break laws. But we ban murder anyway, both to reduce its incidence and because it is inherently wrong. I would do the same here. But how shall we turn our instinctive reaction into a reasoned one to overcome the obvious objection that most of the people who have opposed the advance of science ever since phlogiston was all the rage look absurd in retrospect?

Man could, it turned out, survive the physiological stresses of being hurled along by a railway train at speeds exceeding 20 miles per hour, and the sociological stresses. As to the moral stresses, years ago B.C. Report quoted a pediatrics professor at the University of Western Ontario that, "When we invented automobiles, we didn't need a new debate about running over pedestrians. Technology makes actions quicker or cleaner; but it doesn't change them morally."

Generally not. But it does when it creates new possibilities that look deceptively like old ones. For instance, researchers long bred mice to be more susceptible to cancer. Then they learned to manipulate their genes, not just their parentage. Then they learned to insert human genes. Surely one of these things is not like the others. But why not?

Before grabbing a vine and swinging off the stage, I say genetic engineering to cure spina bifida is good, but making a humanzee is not, because it is right to use technology to give everyone as full a human life as possible, but wrong to use it to create a new and better person. And I say it because I say it is not for us to play God. (To atheists I say we are not qualified to fill that post even if it is vacant.) For the same reason I would not permit the use of human embryos, deliberately cloned or the product of abortions, even to let lame men walk, and I have raised questions about what constitutes "euthanasia."

Because so much is at stake in these matters literally of life and death it is important to debate them with as much intelligence and civility as we can muster. Technology has long given us power to end life prematurely and, to a lesser extent, prevent it from ending prematurely. Now, suddenly, it is giving us troubling new powers to create and prolong it unnaturally.

Can we talk about it rather than shrieking? It seems to me this is no time to go ape. Indeed, it may be our last chance not to.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson