Volume > Issue > Breaking the Species Barrier

Breaking the Species Barrier

Chimera's Children: Ethical, Philosophical and Religious Perspectives on Human-Nonhuman Experimentation

By David Albert Jones and Calum MacKellar

Publisher: Continuum Books

Pages: 240 pages

Price: $32.95

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the seventeenth century.

In this groundbreaking and deeply disturbing book, David Albert Jones of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre in Oxford and Calum Mac­Kellar of the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics discuss the recent and ongoing experiments in embryonic and fetal interspecies combinations. Their fundamental question is this: Is it “inherently unethical deliberately to create such entities”? Now­adays, all sorts of human-nonhuman chimeras and hybrids are being created with no substantial public debate about the ethics of these experiments. Bioethicists charged with overseeing and directing such projects are enthusiasts unwilling to give anything but a green light. We are witnessing, as neurologist William Hurlbut said in 2011, a “slow but steady drift towards treating all of living nature (including human nature) as mere matter and information to be reshuffled and reassigned for projects of the human will.”

Once again, major decisions about the future of society are being made by secular elites who speak and act as if God did not exist, but who usurp His divine power and wield it over the rest of us. They are willing to sacrifice countless human embryos in biotech experiments while loudly declaring their compassion and promising cures for those with neurological diseases. They are breaking the species barrier between animals and man in order to support the foundational doctrine of Darwinism that human beings are not special and have no inherent dignity but differ only in degree from other animals. In the end they hope to create a “humanzee” — a hybrid man and chimpanzee — as proof of evolution. And then, with this accomplishment in the books, they will demand that society judge their creation’s “humanity or moral worth.”

Jones and MacKellar begin by defining the key terms of the new science. A hybrid consists of an ovum (human or nonhuman) fertilized with the sperm of another species, and a cybrid consists of an ovum (human or nonhuman) stripped of its chromosomes and given a nucleus from another species. Hybrids and cybrids both combine genes from different species at the cellular or subcellular level. A chimera is an embryonic, fetal, or post-natal combination of human and nonhuman. There are three ways to create chimeras: in the first, cells from different species are combined in an early embryo; in the second, these cells are combined at a later stage; in the third, human stem cells are injected into a normal nonhuman animal embryo, which is then put into the womb of an animal to develop until birth. The earlier the chimera begins, “the deeper the degree of integration.”

In his Essay on Man, Catholic poet Alexander Pope attributes this sort of recklessness to “reasoning pride” and warns that whoever wants “to invert the laws / Of order, sins against th’ eternal cause.” Nowadays, inverting the laws of order is business-as-usual in the laboratories of the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, Japan, China, and South Korea. Between 2001 and 2006 a host of chimeras were produced by injecting human stem cells into animal fetuses halfway through gestation — when their bodies were already formed, so as to ensure that the resulting chimeras would look like normal animals. Among these were sheep-human, monkey-human, pig-human, rat-human, goat-human, and chicken-human combinations. Jones and MacKellar make this astute comment about such experiments: “Just as bestiality is inhuman and a travesty of human sexual union, so deliberately creating a half-human, half-nonhuman creature is a travesty of human procreation.”

A century ago there was already a quest to produce a “humanzee.” In 1908 Dutch biologist M.B. Moens, urged on by the Darwinist E. Haeckel, went to Africa to try to cross an African with a chimpanzee. Next, in 1918, the German sexologist H. Roh­leder traveled to Tenarife to try to cross a non-European with an ape. Then, in the 1920s, Stalin sent Ilya Ivanov to French West Africa on a quest for the “invincible” ape-human, a hybrid that could serve as a weapon against the Christian doctrine of creation. These racist experiments were designed to interbreed the highest primates with what were called the “most primitive of the human race.” Today, far more sophisticated experiments are conducted with a similar goal: to produce human-nonhuman hybrids and chimeras to demonstrate that the boundary between man and animal is permeable.

Chimera’s Children reports on legislation related to the use of human embryos and fetuses for scientific and commercial purposes. From 2005 to 2009 the U.S. Congress tried to pass a law prohibiting the production of human-animal hybrids and chimeras, but failed to do so because these experiments were linked to human embryonic stem-cell research, which was then strongly supported by the Democrats. The British Parliament in 2008, in the wake of an intense media campaign full of exaggerated claims about imminent miracle cures, passed a law that allows for the production of “human-admixed embryos” but prohibits their implantation in the womb of a woman or an animal. This law, however, has a loophole: If a chimera begins its development with a majority of animal cells, it is “unregulated” until halfway through its gestation, even if by then human cells are predominant.

Now the slippery slope is in plain view: A British law was passed in 1990 that prohibits the introduction of a human embryo into an animal uterus, but in 2005 the House of Commons’s Science and Technology Committee declared that introducing a human embryo into an animal uterus could be permissible if it were done “for the best possible ends.” Jones and MacKellar remark that gestating a human being in an animal’s womb is a far graver issue than “balancing alleged scientific benefits against ‘taboo.'” In the 1990 law the human embryo still retained some dignity; it was explicitly allotted a “special moral status” and respect. In 2008 this fig-leaf was removed; the human embryo was reduced to a “pile of cells” to justify the production of hybrids and chimeras.

The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) responded to the 2008 law in these terms: “From the ethical standpoint such procedures represent an offense against the dignity of human beings on account of the admixture of human and animal genetic elements capable of disrupting the specific identity of man.” Here the CDF reiterated what it had already declared in 1987, that human-nonhuman combinations are contrary to human dignity and are ethically unacceptable.

The organ most closely associated with “human identity and the sense of self” is the brain. In 2005 scientists at Stanford University considered producing mouse chimeras whose brains would be “100 percent human.” An informal ethics committee endorsed the project but gave this advice: If the mice start acting human, kill them. Likewise in 2011 the U.K.’s Academy of Medical Sciences advised “extra scrutiny” when a primate’s brain was substantially modified to make it “function potentially more like a human brain.” Jones and Mac­Kellar warn that we stand at a “significant milestone in human history.” What is at stake here is what defines us as human beings. What if human pluripotent stem cells should change the “biochemistry or architecture” of a developing primate’s brain so that the creature exhibits self-awareness and functions in ways particular to human beings? The question would then be raised as to whether it should have the “moral status” and rights of a human being. And what if human pluripotent stem cells end up in an animal’s developing testes or ovaries, where they grow into human sperm and eggs? In Brazil in 2008 adult stem cells were injected into the testes of mice, which were later found to have something like “viable human sperm.” If two such human-mouse chimeras mated, could a human embryo be “trapped inside a mouse”? Scientists are deliberately setting out to create the stuff of nightmares.

The last third of Chimera’s Children offers a wide array of ethical perspectives on the “instrumental use of the human embryo” and on the production of hybrids and chimeras. This science is considered from various religious viewpoints (Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish) and then from secular viewpoints (evolutionary, materialist, humanist, pragmatist, Marxist, feminist, environmentalist). From an evolutionary viewpoint, the production of human-nonhuman combinations is “living proof of the evolutionary principle,” since in this way of thinking “species differences are a matter of drawing an arbitrary line, and are to some degree illusory and unreal.” The Marxist view­point is represented by Lev Frid­richson, who in 1924 expressed the Soviet hope that human-chimpanzee hybrids would render “a decisive blow” against religion.

After examining a panoply of views on the topic, Jones and Mac­Kellar explain why such experiments are both extrinsically and intrinsically wrong. On the extrinsic side, they mention, among other things, the risk of creating new diseases, and the threat to the integrity and telos of animals — e.g., “the pigness of a pig.” They also refer to “the specter of eugenics,” since those who experiment with cybrids are perfecting a cloning technology that could be used for human reproduction. On the intrinsic side, the authors discuss unnaturalness and human dignity. First, breaking the species barrier goes against “the order of nature,” and the merging of human and nonhuman embryos hinders both of these embryos “from fulfilling their fundamental purpose.” In addition, “interfering with this order could have serious — but as yet unknown — consequences on both a biological and a social level.” While most scientists today dismiss the idea of a natural order as “pre-Darwinian,” the aforementioned Alexander Pope sees science’s temerity in tampering with the natural order as a cosmic danger: “one step broken…the whole must fall” and “nature tremble to the throne of God.” The poet exclaims:

All this dread order break — for whom? for thee?
Vile worm! — oh madness! pride! impiety!

Drawing on a range of modern philosophers from Pascal to Adorno, Jones and MacKellar discuss the inherent dignity of human beings as “an unconditional, inviolable, inalienable and indivisible worth and quality that belongs equally to all members of humanity.” This dignity is not acquired but is a “given reality, intrinsic and unique to the human substance that entitles every human being to a higher moral status than the rest of the natural world.” This “full inherent dignity” is the basis of human rights, such as those codified in the United Nations’ “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (1948). In addition, a full and inherent human dignity, which gives us self-understanding and a sense of solidarity, has always been assumed throughout the history of law and is “essential for a civilized society to survive.”

Jones and MacKellar end with a call for a substantial public discussion, one that will not degenerate into an exercise in public relations on the part of the science lobby. It is often claimed that there is strong public support for these experiments, but whenever people are actually consulted, they express, at least initially, an intense “emotional revulsion.” According to Leon Kass, former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, their instinctive disgust arises from deep human wisdom. Science lobbyists, however, counter this reaction by touting these experiments as “necessary for medical advances in relation to named diseases.” Without seriously addressing the ethical issues, they offer utilitarian arguments and vague promises of benefits. Yet, “as the science advances, the case for the ‘necessity’ of human-nonhuman embryo research seems to be getting not stronger but weaker.” In this highly recommended book, we see clearly how urgent and necessary it is for a “greater range of voices from a greater range of perspectives” to engage this most important of issues.


“The massive material success of science has made it seem to many a panacea. It suffices to claim that a thing must be attempted for the sake of science in order to silence all objections.” — Dietrich von Hildebrand

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