Breaking The Species Barrier

Richard Dawkins wonders: We've mapped the entire human genome; we've mapped the entire chimpanzee genome.  We know they are 98% identical (sorry, evolution opponents).  It shouldn't be hard, therefore, to literally create some sort of interspecies.  Another "missing link".  Lucy the Second, not from the archeological ground, but from the laboratory.

It would, he speculates, change the nature of the discussion on abortion.  Pro-lifers insist that a single human cell -- the zygote (which preceeds the embryo) -- is sacred because it is human.  Therefore, in their view, destroying it is destroying a human which is "murder". 

But what if the zygote isn't all human. What about 95% human, 5% chimp? How would that change the argument? Moving on from pro-life issues, how should we treat the resulting humanzee? On what ethical basis would we decide how to treat it - on it's intelligence? ability to speak language?  

It is a thought experiment (although it could be done in reality) which really forces the issue of "what is human".

Please, no Planet of the Apes references!


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Interesting, but what's the purpose of conducting an experiment like this? To see if it can be done? What knowledge does it reveal for us and would there not be a more "socially acceptable" (or at least less controversial) experiment that could be performed instead? Let's face it. Experimenting on human embryos gives people that mad scientist feel and that just makes for some bad PR.

I've never considered human life to be special, which is why I think there should be more protections for particularly intelligent animals such as apes, cetaceans, and elephants. Realistically, we are all animals. For whatever reason we have seen ourselves as something apart from this world. Part of that blame I lay at religion, but I'm sure most of it is just from the simple fact that we are more intelligent than the other creatures. Does that really make us better? We can't regenerate limbs, which is a really useful ability. We don't have the best senses. We aren't all that fast or tough in comparison with other creatures. All we really have going for us is our abstract thinking and creativity. I think that is a good place to start for a marker of what makes us human, a base-line of being able to think abstractly and solve problems or create tools. Where you start that base-line... Fuck if I know. It seems to me that any line is completely arbitrary.

The issue I expect that we will face is not how we will treat a person who is genetically part animal and part human, but how we will treat any person that is genetically or technologically modified. Alternately, if such modifications become prevalent, how will they treat the rest of us who aren't modified? Either way, it will make us face our own definition of humanity as surely as a person who is a human chimera. I expect that the question: what does it mean to be human? is one that will start to crop up more and more in the upcoming decades. Personally, I'd love to hear what some more learned men than I have to say in the matter.

Well I agree with Dawkins in that our ethics, particularly in the West, are predicated on the idea of us being 'special'; the consideration of genetic modifications and the question of what it means to be human in the light of this throw this question more sharply into consideration.

I think you are absolutely right in that religion (Christian) is largely responsible for the idea of humankind being apart from the other animals, an idea spread by the Roman empire. Eastern religions are have quite a different outlook.

There are many atheists who do see humans as special and I suppose this discussion is more aimed at them. To me, it seems an outlook that doesn't fully embrace what evolution tells us is true - we're all animals.

@Sagacious you really hit the nail on the head for me when you say, "It seems to me that any line is completely arbitrary." If we reject a 'might is right' attitude to other species, then I would say that our greater intelligence is an arbitrary distinction, just like the ability to regenerate a tail, be amphibious and so on.

Withn our own species, most people's ethics do reject arbitrary distinctions like race, colour, sex, sexual inclination. I suppose the question is, why should our ethics include another arbitrary distinction - species. I think that is what Dawkins is driving at and what I find fascinating about the issue.

It's a gray, arbitrary line no matter where you put it. Or should bacteria deserve right-to-life?

Of course that's a ridiculous example. But do you draw a line, and where?

Well I think going back to the OP and considering the human zygote, it is just a bunch of cells. Stopping its development for me is completely ethical. I say this on the basis that 'human' life is not sacred (at any stage) and secondly because the zygote cannot suffer. Stopping its development does it no harm because it does not experience anything.

@Pope Paul, I agree with you that it is right to question whether a line be drawn at all. I think it is a continuum to the point that sentience begins, at which point it seems ethical to at least consider the interests of the other within our ethical system.


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