A beast with human skin?

By Razib Khan | July 21, 2011 10:18 pm

I don’t give much thought to chimeras, so this editorial in Nature took me unawares (OA): The legacy of Doctor Moreau:

Innumerable mice and other animals have been engineered in past decades to express a human gene and model specific aspects of human disease. They rarely inspire disgust, because they still resemble their own species. But further advances in genetic and stem-cell technologies mean that researchers could, in theory, create animals with quintessentially human characteristics or behaviours. The sight of an animal with shiny, furless ‘human’ skin, for example — exceptionally useful for research into skin disorders — could evoke disgust similar to that created by Moreau’s beast folk, even though the animal itself might be perfectly comfortable. One of the biggest horrors — although technically unlikely — could be a self-aware monkey, a creature with human thought trapped in the body of an animal, unable to express itself.

Perception, the ‘optics,’ matters. I think there are going to be serious issues if chimeras resemble humans. It’s just too good for video not to trigger outrage. More subtle hybridizations which are less phenotypically salient though….

MORE ABOUT: Bioethics

Comments (11)

  1. Chris Moser

    Not to disagree with the ethical horror you cite, but semantically speaking, the potential for human-level self awareness can only be considered equivalent to human-thought by the most cynical of observers. The experience of self-expression (communication) is foundational to so-called “human-thought” (in its implied meaning here). This is dialectically noted from an epistomological standpoint, and is operationalized through the interplay between meta-communication, neural development, and emotion, which is requisite for ascension toward both identity, and the subsequent capacity for abstract reasoning.

  2. Darkseid

    I think we have to try it a least once. If it seems cruel to the animal though then I’d have a problem.

  3. miko

    Argh! Even in ironic quotes, that use of of “optics” is unacceptable. It’s like company’s having “DNA.”

    Who says monkeys aren’t self-aware?

    “…a creature with human thought trapped in the body of an animal, unable to express itself.”

    I know a lot of people like that…it is horrifying.

  4. Sandgroper

    They’re called civil engineers, and they get left out of reader surveys.

  5. One of the biggest horrors could be a self-aware monkey, a creature with human thought trapped in the body of an animal, unable to express itself.

    Take that social coordinate system and invert all signs – Congresscritters. Take that as is – No Child Left Behind. Give it guns – Homeland Severity, ATF.

    The horror is not augmenting an animal. The horror is downgrading a human, as the “Great Society has expensively expansively illustrated. Chimp and mammalian forms of sialic acid, N-glycolyl-neuraminic acid (Neu5Gc), is modified from Neu5Ac by the addition of an oxygen atom. The human form is Neu5Ac, lacking that additional oxygen atom. That changes the shape of the molecule in a region that alters how it creates brains. Turn on one enzyme, create monsters.

  6. dave chamberlin

    If there was a research organization that was trying to isolate the genetic differences between human geniuses and normal folk they would have to be located in a place like China and it would be a wise PR move if they moved into the experimental stage using cloned pigs rather than something as disturbing as our closer relatives Chimpanzees. But this is all ridiculous speculation at this point, right?

  7. And just how self aware are we most of the time? From what I can see most humans stream of consciousness is nothing but a continuous process of rationalization in support of justifying their primal urges. I agree with Lynn Margulis that the first single cell organism to exhibit light seeking/light avoiding behavior was to some degree conscious; more complex organisms are just more so.

    There is no doubt in my mind that the human race will actualize every dystopian fantasy that genetic engineering makes possible and it will be replete with cybernetic killer warriors, floating Navigator brains ala Dune, and comatose humans used as organ factories. With a race such as ours which has recently invented and used nuclear weapons and wholesale herd culling projects such as the Holocaust and the Khmer Rouge “year zero” program, it is inevitable.

    #1 – Very funny satire. Well done!

  8. Dwight E. Howell

    Why do people claim that animals aren’t self aware? What evidence do they have to support the claim? Why would anyone be silly enough to claim that the ability to communicate with them is a requirement of being self aware? All I can come up with the person thinks they are a god of some sort.

  9. “a creature with human thought […] unable to express itself”

    Yeah, that’s called severe autism, and from what I gather from growing up with a severely autistic brother, it’s really frustrating.

  10. Mike Cope

    There is evidence that a number of primates are self-aware in the way that humans are. Also elephants, dolphins and some bird species. Possibly octopus. How would it be received if we cultured some people with monkey skin, in order to widen our knowledge of primate dermatology.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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