In Aldous Huxley’s “Brave new World,” the author posits a chilling future – a world of tomorrow in which capitalist civilization has been reconstituted through the most efficient scientific and psychological engineering, where the people are genetically designed to be passive and consistently useful to the ruling class.
I always tried to imagine what events and decisions led up to Huxley’s nightmare reality. Did the scientists know that the research they were doing would be used for the nefarious purpose of changing the essence of humanity? Did the people realize that the potential for this kind of mischief was present? What would the ethicists and guardians of faith and religion have had to say?
I bring this up because scientists are now initiating research projects using human stem cells injected into animal embryos with the dual goals of perhaps creating organs suitable for human transplant and the extraordinarily profitable enterprise of creating “cutting edge” lab animals for use in testing a wide variety of new drugs.
Both of these goals have exciting potential to yield benefits that would change the face of modern medicine and pharmacology. But at what price? And are there hidden dangers, unseen trap doors that scientists and ethicists either aren’t aware of or just not bothering to look for?
This project in Nevada, where sheep embryos were injected with human cells to create partially human organs, is not really a big deal. Scientists have been doing similar experiments with mice for more than a decade. What makes this experiment different is that the researcher, Jason Chamberlain, also injected human brain cells into the brain of the animal fetus:
As strange as his work may sound, it falls firmly within the new ethics guidelines the influential National Academies issued this past week for stem cell research.
In fact, the Academies’ report endorses research that co-mingles human and animal tissue as vital to ensuring that experimental drugs and new tissue replacement therapies are safe for people.
Particularly worrisome to some scientists are the nightmare scenarios that could arise from the mixing of brain cells: What if a human mind somehow got trapped inside a sheep’s head?
Such a possibility is extremely unlikely. But not so much out of the question that one ethics panel didn’t think carefully about a “what if” scenario:
In January, an informal ethics committee at Stanford University endorsed a proposal to create mice with brains nearly completely made of human brain cells. Stem cell scientist Irving Weissman said his experiment could provide unparalleled insight into how the human brain develops and how degenerative brain diseases like Parkinson’s progress.
Stanford law professor Hank Greely, who chaired the ethics committee, said the board was satisfied that the size and shape of the mouse brain would prevent the human cells from creating any traits of humanity. Just in case, Greely said, the committee recommended closely monitoring the mice’s behavior and immediately killing any that display human-like behavior.
At times, it seems scientists have never quite grown out of being the little boy or girl in the basement with a chemistry set who set out to mix two compounds together just to see what would happen and end up with either a toxic mess or a small explosion. This is not necessarily a bad thing as any good scientist will have that same insatiable curiosity as those children. The problem is, this attitude when carried into scientific undertakings with the most profound ramifications for humanity imaginable, should have the most stringent oversight imaginable. And at this point it’s not clear to me that this is the case:
Allegations about the proper treatment of lab animals may take on strange new meanings as scientists work their way up the evolutionary chart. First, human stem cells were injected into bacteria, then mice and now sheep. Such research blurs biological divisions between species that couldn’t until now be breached.
Drawing ethical boundaries that no research appears to have crossed yet, the Academies recommend a prohibition on mixing human stem cells with embryos from monkeys and other primates. But even that policy recommendation isn’t tough enough for some researchers.
“The boundary is going to push further into larger animals,” New York Medical College professor Stuart Newman said. “That’s just asking for trouble.”
Newman, along with bio technology gadfly Jeremy Rifkin, actually went so far as to patent a new life form – a combination human and chimpanzee they called a “humanzee” – that challenges the governments policy on both interspecies breeding and a corporation’s ability to patent life forms. The “humanzee” is theoretically possible so the patent office issued a ruling just this year denying their request on grounds that you cannot patent a human in that such a commercial venture would boil down to an issue of slavery.
I have nothing but admiration and respect for scientists like Chamberlain who are pushing the boundaries of human knowledge. My beef is that this is largely taking place below the radar of public discourse. As we seek to unlock the mysteries at the very heart of what it means to be human, are we in danger of redefining human life in ways that should be examined and agreed to by society in general?
Just recently, we got a taste of one kind of redefinition of human life in the Terri Schiavo matter. With little in the way of debate, scientists, ethicists, and proponents of euthanasia have quietly undermined the very concept of what it means to be human. The parameters regarding human life have been changed to include mythical criteria such as “quality of consciousness” and the medical costs associated with keeping someone like Terri alive. Despite almost total ignorance about what actually constitutes “consciousness,” we were told that Terri was less than human because her higher brain functions were disabled. Being less than human, she then became a piece of rotting meat, a sad sack of bones and water easily discarded by both the courts and her husband.
And now we’re faced with another ethical dilemma, this time regarding the very real possibility of human-animal hybrids being created so that we can harvest their body parts. While I’m not opposed in principle to the use of animals to save human lives, are we proceeding with all deliberate caution in this research effort? I’m heartened by the National Academies’ call for stringent oversight by sponsoring institutions of such projects. But the issue begs the age-old scientific question; just because we can do it, should it be done?
It used to be that an individual scientists’ ethics alone determined whether or not a scientific undertaking was moral. Reading about scientists like Robert Oppenheimer and Leo Szilard who wrestled mightily with their own consciences when it came to their work on the Manhattan Project and the building of the first atomic weapon, one is left with the impression that, in the end, the exciting science being done outweighed any moral ambiguity the project may have caused.
Today, ethics panels across the nation are empowered to examine scientific inquiry and determine whether or not moral guidelines are being violated. These panels are made up of people who’ve studied ethics for a living and can cite chapter and verse in subjects like metaphysics and moral philosophy. But is it enough? Or perhaps a better question, are the issues involved too complex, too morally ambiguous to be resolved in this manner?
I don’t know the answer, being a layman. I do know that I’m unsure if all the physical and ethical ramifications of this kind of research are under scrutiny as they should be.
We can only hope that there are people like Dr. Newman and yes, even the moonbat Jeremy Rifkin, who will be there to put the brakes on if we go too far too fast. Otherwise, when this Brave New World comes to pass, we’ll be cowering in the shadows afraid of whatever society we’ve created as a result of these truly wondrous advances in human understanding.