Ban These Sick Ape-Man Frankensteins

By Neuroskeptic | July 25, 2011 7:45 am

According to a new report, urgent action is required to stop scientists creating a monstrous race of apes with fully functional human brains (just as Christine O’Donnell warned us about those mice), thus causing Planet Of The Apes to come true.

OK, that’s not quite what the Academy of Medical Sciences said. But judging from most of the media coverage, you might think it was.

The report is actually about “Animals containing human material” and it notes that under British law, experiments of this kind are covered by generic animal research rules, but there are no special animal-human regulations.

Should there be?

I think there should be. We as a society allow experiments on animals or animal embryos that we don’t allow on humans, even on human embyros. Clearly, we need to decide what we’re going to do about organisms that have both human and animal DNA, or whatever. This doesn’t mean restricting it – to clear up the rules could also facilitate such research, by making it explicit what is allowed.

However, we should tread carefully here. This is an area where our intuitions can lead us astray.

Although we have absolutely no idea how to make an animal-human “hybrid”, or even whether it’s possible at all, the very idea of it has many people worried. It’s probably a case of the uncanny valley and lots of cultural baggage (Planet of the Apes et al).

So, for whatever reason, we have a hang-up about making monstrous ape-men. Fair enough. So long as we remember that this is entirely hypothetical, and that it might, for all we know, be literally impossible.

Yet other things in this debate are very real. Over-zealous regulation of research could easily end up delaying, say, a cure for Alzheimer’s for, say, 10 years. That would be dooming tens of millions of people to suffering and death.

The problem is, that’s hard to picture. It’s hard to imagine how bad Alzheimer’s is unless you have personal experience. Even if you do, it’s hard to multiply that badness by ten million anonymous, hypothetical people. “One ape-man is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”.

Delaying science is easy to do (for politicians), and hard to picture why it’s bad. Whereas “a monstrous ape-man” is the exact opposite. Easy to imagine – just look at the media interest in this story – yet nowhere close to being reality.

This is a problem. The human mind and the way we think about these issues is a problem. Even when that mind is safely inside a nice normal human skull.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: animals, ethics, law, media, philosophy
  • veri

    monstrous ape man what's the difference, men are pigs.

  • Jones

    I don't get the problem. Talking apes would be soooo cool! ;-)

    Jea, media coverage is silly as always. I still wonder why you even read that stuff Neurosceptic!

  • veri

    inferiority complex maybe, apes woo the ladies more aptly.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17412168482569793996 Eric Charles

    I think at least part of the problem is that it is obviously possible… maybe even mundanely possible. The question is when do we stop calling it an X with human DNA in it, and start calling at an X-human hybrid. When we mix DNA from glowing bacteria into some vegetable, we don't call it a vegetable-bacteria hybrid, we call it a cool glowing vegetable. Mixing a little human DNA into something isn't that exciting… until we start to think that doing so make that something a little bit human.

    I think you are absolutely right about the need to tread carefully though. Once again a place where we should be pro-active… but probably won't.

  • Anonymous

    “it might, for all we know, be literally impossible”

    I disagree with that. I mean, obviously I don't literally disagree with it, because of course there is a tiny probability something totally unique in humans has escaped biology so far, but the theoretical possibility of that is not enough to justify four sentences, in a quite short article, about how hypothetical and difficult and probably impossible it all is.

    It's not an argument, of course, that the bad thing you're about to attempt might go wrong: a little like waving a gun about, if you forgive the crass analogy, while complaining that it might not be loaded, and we must keep that in mind when discussing whether or not to take it away from you.

    We know how to put genes in mice if we have their DNA sequence, we have the DNA sequence for human genes. There's no really good reason for assuming the results will differ fundamentally from results that don't involve humans, which we already have: if it fails to work at first, there will be interesting reasons, which we'll identify and work around and try again.

    No, we need not keep in mind how difficult and hypothetical this is: we need to discuss it as a real capability we have today, just like we assume the worst about other dangers: loaded guns, carcinogens, nuclear power plants.

    There's no evidence humans are special on the genetic level, and until there's a valid argument supporting that statement, crying “it might not be possible” is like interrupting a discussion of the solar system to demand everyone keep in mind Russell's teapot might be real.

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Neuroskeptic

No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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