Acton Commentary

Of Mice and Men: What it Means to be Human


Whether it's sheep with human organs or mice with partially human brains, the creation of human and animal hybrids is the cutting edge of biotechnology.

And the New York Times is advancing the argument (“It's Science, Not a Freak Show,” May 11, 2005) that a growing public concern about the ethics of the scientific creation of genetic “chimeras” should be tempered. The Times, unfortunately, fails to recognize a fundamental question about the nature of the human person in its support of this very problematic field of research.

While technically any organism that has tissues or organs transplanted from a different genotype is considered a chimera, the use of animal organs in human beings has been relatively non-controversial.

But the creation of new kinds of chimeras, using manipulation at the cellular and sub-cellular level, raises the stakes considerably. These kinds of genetically-modified creatures correspond better with a much older view of chimeras.

The ancient Greeks understood chimeras very differently than we do today: they were fire-breathing, freakish monsters.

The guiding ethic of the Times' way of thinking on chimeras is that of a scientific pragmatism, which erects technological progress and scientific advancement at the pinnacle of all human endeavors. Fears and apprehension over the possible abuses of science should not get in the way, we are assured in its editorial, of “more mundane experiments with chimeras that will be needed to advance science.”

It's questionable whether anything involving genetic manipulation should ever be called “mundane,” especially when human genes are involved. Certainly we have not yet arrived at a state of affairs which warrants such a normative description.

The Times' argument then moves to the “slippery slope” model of reasoning, in which previous actions are used to rationalize current or future activities. After all, “no one worries much anymore about transplanting pig valves into human hearts or human fetal tissue into mice.” And one day, hopefully soon, we are implicitly chided, no one will worry much anymore about mixing human, animal, or even plant genes. (Vanderbilt University scientists have been working on creating blue roses using a human liver enzyme.)

A key insight into the guiding ethos of the Times way of thinking is provided when it explores a possible explanation for public outcry. “The key reason” that previous steps on the slippery slope have not been troubling “may be that these manipulations don't visibly change the fundamental nature of either the human or the animal. People become much more concerned when they think a transplant may alter the mind or appearance of the recipient.”

This preoccupation with obvious or visible effects of genetic manipulation does little to address the relevant root questions about the human person. Are human beings simply the evolutionary heirs of less developed creatures? Not at all. A true and rich anthropology evokes a comprehensive view of the human person, body and soul, mind and spirit. Humans are much more than merely material beings.

In the Christian tradition, this has often been described in terms of the “image of God,” taken from Genesis 1:26, in which God is said to make humans in his image and likeness. This concept of humans as image-bearers has had a rich history, and has contributed on many fronts to a more accurate view of who we are as human beings.

For example, within the original Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) context of this passage in Genesis, the language of “image-bearing” would have been immediately understandable. When a vassal or representative spoke or acted with the authority of the king, he was said to “bear the king's image,” a physical representation of the king and his authority.

There are, of course, no rights or privileges without responsibility, so on the heels of the creation of human beings and their placement in dominion, we find the corresponding responsibilities and blessings in terms of “stewardship.”

Here again we run up against the political and social structure of the ANE. A steward was one who was in charge of a household or kingdom during the ruler's absence. Humans, in exercising their exalted place of stewardship, are to be productive and creative rulers of the earth. This is a norm of human existence and the standard to which we are called.

The implications of this for scientific pursuits in general, and genetics in particular, are manifold. The pursuit of scientific or technological progress for its own sake should never be considered the highest good. A scientific pragmatism, which views humans and animals primarily in terms of utility, will always be an inadequate guide for ethical considerations. It violates the dignity of human beings as image-bearers of God and abandons the norms of responsible stewardship.

Sadly, it is just such a rationale that is in play in the New York Times editorial, which itself is an exemplar of the attitude among many scientists today. The guidelines on embryonic stem cell research recently released by the National Academies of Science address the chimera phenomenon, stating that the creation of chimeras is “valuable in understanding the etiology and progression of human disease and in testing new drugs, and will be necessary in preclinical testing of human embryonic stem cells and their derivatives.”

Human experimentation has been circumscribed by the Nuremburg Code, for example, following the atrocities committed during World War II, despite the protestations that “such experiments yield results for the good of society that are unprocurable by other methods or means of study.” So too should ethical guidelines addressing the creation of chimeras realize that there are objective norms that must be adhered to, independent of purely pragmatic concerns. Our very humanity may depend on it.