Science & Technology

Right-Wing Biological Dread

The Subhumans are coming! The Subhumans are coming!


Mary Shelley, move over. Conservative intellectuals William Kristol, Francis Fukuyama, and J. Bottum are spinning far darker visions than the author of Frankenstein in their frantic campaign to stop medical progress by derailing biotechnological research. In a recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, Kristol and co-author Eric Cohen were horrified that "in trying to make human beings live indefinitely, our scientists have begun mixing our genes with those of cows, pigs, and jellyfish."

J. Bottum, the literary editor for the Weekly Standard, finds it repugnant that the Japanese government is permitting "human cells to be implanted into fertilized animal eggs for research purposes." Such sinister experiments, says Bottum, could lead to the creation of "a new race of subhuman creatures," possibly even "pig-boys and monkey-girls."

Even Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History and the Last Man, warned at a recent conference at the New School in New York City that humanity's Nietzschean will to power would tempt us to create subhuman slaves. Fukuyama suggested that biotechnology might be used to create slave chimpanzees with the intelligence of a 12-year-old boy.

These are fearful visions, but are they credible? First, Kristol, Cohen, and Bottum are misrepresenting experiments that aim at producing therapeutic benefits for living people, not the creation of animalized humans or humanized animals. Some researchers are adding the nuclei of human cells to the enucleated eggs of cows and pigs for the purpose of creating tiny balls of cells called blastocysts from which they hope embryonic stem cells might be derived. Such stem cells could be transformed into tissues like nerve cells, liver cells, and heart cells that would make perfect transplants to repair and regenerate the damaged organs of sick people.

Why use cow and pig eggs? Because they are far more available than are human eggs. This research is at a very early stage, so no one knows if this technique will work. But if transplantable tissues could be created this way, millions of people might be helped.

In another line of research, biotechnologists are adding a few human genes to the genomes of animals like pigs and cows in order to create new proteins–for example, to have cows produce human insulin in their milk. Currently we produce human insulin by adding human insulin genes to bacteria. Before that technique was developed, a combination of cow and pig insulin was used to treat diabetes. That insulin was rendered from pigs and cows at slaughterhouses.

So which is better, producing human insulin in the milk of a herd of contented Holstein's grazing the Vermont countryside, or from their pancreases at slaughterhouses? And by the way, why aren't these conservative intellectuals outraged that researchers have "humanized" lowly bacteria by adding human genes to them?

Researchers are also trying to add a few genes that control human immunological responses to pigs with the idea of making pig organs, e.g., hearts and livers, more acceptable to human immune systems. Bottum contemptuously dismisses this medical research as producing "living meat lockers for transplantable organs and tissues."

Evidently, in Bottum's twisted sense of morality, if animals are living meat lockers for steaks and pork chops that's all right, but if animals can be biotechnologically tweaked by the addition of a few human genes so as to provide lifesaving transplantable hearts and livers, well, humanity has crossed the line to eternal damnation.

OK. So current biotech research is not aimed at creating half-human/half-animal slaves, but couldn't it be abused this way in the future? Just how biologically credible are the scary scenarios being sketched out by Kristol and his cohorts?

Old-fashioned low-tech crossbreeding (like the kind that makes mules from the mating of horses and donkeys) of humans with animals simply won't work to meet any imagined demand for subhuman slaves. The delicate orchestration of embryonic development it takes to produce a live creature would be disrupted very early on in the process, because the proteins and genetic instructions between a pig and human would be incompatible. So no "pig boys" then.

But hold on, aren't primates like chimpanzees fairly close in evolutionary terms to human beings? So what about producing "monkey girls" through crossbreeding? Clearly any attempt to crossbreed chimps and humans would be odious and should be outlawed if it's not already. But again this has nothing to do with biotechnology.

What about a more high-tech combining of embryonic cells from humans and animals to produce what bio-researchers call "chimeras" (after the mythological beast)? This has been done between sheep and goats–though the results are always sterile. How about a chimerical pig-human, or "piman"? Most researchers think that this is biologically impossible because the developmental programs of human cells and pig cells are so different that any attempted combination would simply fail.

Then what about cloning humans using an enucleated cow egg to jump-start the process? Some researchers hope to produce human-compatible stem cells using this technique. However, no one knows if the process could result in a live baby or not, nor what effect it would have on the health of any such baby. Since it is not safe, it would be unethical to try to use this technique to produce a baby.

The conservative bioluddites are overlooking a few practical concerns, like the fact that mothers willing to bear "subhuman slaves" in their wombs are likely to be scarce. And who would want a "subhuman slave" anyway? Fully human slaves don't appear to work out so well in the modern world. If you want real travel efficiency you don't call for a slave-carried palanquin. You get into your Dodge Neon. If you need to write a letter you don't summon your scribe. You fire up your Apple Notebook.

Who doubts that ever more efficient and obedient machines will be cheaper and more practical solutions to the "servant problem" than any chimp slave would be? Anyone who has tried to supervise the activities of a 12-year-old for any length of time would likely pass on the opportunity to own one of Fukuyama's subhuman slaves.

The real question is, does biotechnology pose any novel moral concerns? And the answer is no. It is wrong to diminish the health or mental abilities of a child today–we call that child abuse and we outlaw it. We don't allow slavery, even for 12-year-olds. Biomedical research will not change these bedrock moral principles.

These conservative intellectuals have confused being human with merely having human DNA. They are treating human DNA as though it were sacred. But DNA is merely the chemical on which the digital code for how to make proteins is inscribed. Inserting a human gene in a pig or a petunia is not an act of sacrilege. Human DNA in a pig or petunia will make a protein, not a human being. Human beings really are more than the recipe it takes to make them.

In any case, Kristol and his cohorts conjure up these dystopic visions of Doctor Moreauesque half-human, half-animal creatures in an effort to frighten scientifically uninformed policy makers and voters into outlawing biotech research that they oppose on other grounds. What grounds? What they are really afraid of is that parents will some day use biotechnology to benefit their children, not harm them. So who is immoral in this debate?