Rebecca Kriesler discusses the inherent benefits and moral quandaries associated with animal-human hybrids created by recent research and experimentation.
In July, Japan’s government approved stem-cell research and experimentation that would involve inserting human cells into animal embryos to create animal-human hybrids. This isn’t an isolated incident. In August it was exposed that a researcher in China was making human-monkey hybrids in secret. Globally, this is a live issue and depending on ethical and legal considerations, may become more widespread.
The value in this research is obvious. Firstly, this would allow for ‘xenotransplantation’, meaning it would be possible to grow completely functional human organs inside animals. Eventually these organs would be used in human organ donation. On average, twenty people die each day waiting for a transplant. The ability to forgo this queue would save countless lives. Furthermore, the educational opportunities are unparalleled. This research would provide a unique opportunity to develop our understanding of evolution and the functioning of the human body.
However, these experiments aren’t merely limited to growing pancreas or organs, there is also experimentation about inserting human biology into animal brains. In 2014,scientists created mice with human astrocyte cells (these are human brain cells that regulate the transmission of electrical impulses within the brain). There is also speculation experimentation with brain composition for monkeys, who are far closer to humans on the evolution spectrum.
While the inherent benefit to humans is obvious, there are a number of moral quandaries also triggered. The first, intuitively is the idea of animal cruelty. Although,given the meat industry, this doesn’t seem to be something wider humanity cares deeply about. However, this moral calculation may change when these creatures become human adjacent. A monkey with elements of a human brain may have the self-awareness to realise its own plight and impending death. Is that a cruelty that goes beyond the slaughterhouse?
Further, these experiments blur the ethical boundaries of what constitutes a human. At what point do these hybrids become more human than animal? At what point are they deserving of rights and protections? For those who have read Ishiguro's gripping novel ‘Never Let Me Go,'this seems as though it could be the trigger for the devaluing of human life. In that novel, clones are not deemed human and therefore their organs are harvested without moral qualms. When we start delineating between what is and isn’t human, it makes room for the degradation of rights.
The conclusions to these questions will differ depending on each person. For some there is no question that the priority should be helping sick humans, while for others, preserving the integrity of what it means to be human is more important. Regardless of whether this experimentation proceeds or is banned, the repercussions for humanity are vast. The only thing that is clear is that these are questions we do not have the luxury of turning a blind eye to.