In an article titled Raising Beast People, subtitled “Science is blurring the line between humans and animals, Lee Silver has pointed to some of the aspects of science that raise our greatest fears. All of the science fiction stories of humans turning into monsters, all the stories of alien interventions, and all of our nightmares are brought to the surface by the kind of research described by this article.
The main subject of the story is some mice. Biologist Fred Gage is experimenting on these mice to learn about how human neurons degrade or die as in Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s syndromes. As silver says,
Inside their brains are living human neurons that help them to see, hear and think.
And there the fear awakens. As we’ve watched various horror movies that involve humans being slowly changed into some horrifying monsters, or animals becoming intelligent, but remaining basically hostile, we’ve had that certain knowledge that what we were watching was imaginary, that science would never progress to the point where it could do what we imagined. But science keeps on progressing, and there’s no end in sight to the possibilities of genetic research.
Quoting Silver again:
Many people, however, are deeply disturbed by this research. U.S. President George W. Bush believes that scientists like Gage have stepped across a moral line that must be defended, even at the cost of biomedical progress. In his 2006 State of the Union address, he implored Congress to “pass legislation to prohibit the most egregious abuses of medical research [including] creating human-animal hybrids,” because “human life is a gift from our Creator” that should never be “devalued.”
“Deeply disturbed” may be an understatement. But I think that President Bush is going overboard by suggesting that this kind of research devalues human life, or lessens the gift of life from the creator. Each new scientific discovery, especially in biology, makes some people nervous. There have been repeated fears that just around the corner there would be some scientific discovery that would take us that one step too far, and have us stepping over some unknown boundary set by the creator.
I’m not particularly overjoyed by the sound of this type of research, but I think that my visceral reaction is one that is emotional, and not based on reflection. It’s the “ooh ish” reaction of someone seeing an autopsy for the first time. It’s not that the autopsy is actually dangerous, or that it is more threatening than many other things. It’s just that it gets to some of our most basic emotional reactions. Human organs growing in test tubes just don’t seem, well, nice.
I would suggest two things. First, this is not the most threatening scientific discovery that we’ve made recently. If I thought anything would step over some invisible boundary set by God, I would suggest it would be the invention of the atomic bomb and its successors. Human beings have been managing the capacity to destroy all life many times over for several decades. Even now, when the cold war is over, and we could afford to destroy much of our arsenal, there is little effort made to do so. Why? We’ve grown used to it. It was done in secret and out of necessity, and we’ve simply gotten used to it. But in silos in the United States and Russia it’s still there.
We’ve had to work on some standards, some ethics for living with nuclear weapons. Personally, I think we need to improve those standards considerably. The science was there. Once the science is there, someone is going to use it. The best thing to do is to learn how to make use of it and to live with it. We are not going to be able to prevent such knowledge from coming into existence.
In the case of nuclear weapons it was the necessities of war. Now it’s the necessities of deteriorating human bodies. This science is going to happen, and in the end we’ll find a way to live with it. God’s glory will be undiminished, because after all he’s the source of all of it in any case. We’re going to be much better off working on reasonable safety standards and appropriate controls on this type of research so that it can be done as safely as possible.
I’m not certain of all the ethics. I’m not an ethicist. Bioethicists need to look at and discuss this. But we won’t prevent it. One more scary category of “thing” has come into the world, and we’re going to learn to live with it. Set aside the fear, think constructively, and move forward. Otherwise the world will do so without you.