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Saturday, June 30, 2007


I saw an article in the latest issue of the online Catholic Herald about human-animal “chimera” embryos - Chimeras should be treated as human beings, argue bishops - and I'm disturbed on a whole number of levels, partly because the Church stance seems to have sidestepped the weird science on a tangent, and then there's the weird science itself.

But first, what is a chimera? The word reminds one of Greek mythology and the creature created from a number of different animals. But here we're talking about genetically engineered combination beings ... you know, like the tomatoes with fish genes, or spider-goats. This is (or was) the stuff of science fiction and I have a few short stories on the subject that I wrote a few years ago (like Spidergoat), but it's been reality for some time - Animal-Human Hybrids Spark Controversy / National Geographic News 2005. Though I love science fiction, I guess that at my core, I'm one of those retro greens who hate the very idea of real life plant/animal transgenetics ... and animal/human hybridization? Yikes! It's not about religion vs science, it's more a response to an inner queasiness ... hard to explain.

But enough about me, here below is the beginning of the article from the Catholic Herald ...


The English and Welsh bishops have asked for human-animal “chimera” embryos to be accorded the status of human beings and to be respected as such by law.
The bishops said they were “opposed in principle to many of the procedures” covered by the draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill which, they said, “should not be licensed under any circumstances”.

But in a surprising move they made it clear that they believed women should be able to give birth to human-animal “chimeras” created artificially by scientists in the future.
At present it is illegal to create embryos using a mixture of human and animal genetic material.

But the Government is proposing to allow scientists, for the first time ever, to create chimeras under the terms of the Bill, which will be introduced in the autumn.
Ministers insist that the chimeras – named after the mythical creature made up of a lion, a goat and a serpent – will be created solely for research in the fight against cancer and other diseases.

It will be against the law to allow them to live longer than two weeks or to implant such embryos into a woman.

But the bishops, in a submission to a Parliamentary committee set up to scrutinise the Bill, said: “We oppose the exclusion of interspecies embryos from the definition of embryo in the Act. At the very least, embryos with a preponderance of human genes should be assumed to be embryonic human beings, and should be treated accordingly.

“In particular, it should not be a crime to transfer them, or other human embryos, to the body of the woman providing the ovum, in cases where a human ovum has been used to create them. “Such a woman is the genetic mother, or partial mother, of the embryo; should she have a change of heart and wish to carry her child to term, she should not be prevented from doing so.” .......


What do you guys think of all this ... my mind boggles

Related reading - saw this article today at the Times Online - Master of Creation?


Anonymous Mike L said...

I, too, find this deeply disturbing, but not unexpected, and I think it raises several very difficult questions. For me, the first one is what is human. And by this I mean a definition such that I can look and something, test it, analyze its history, and finally decide human or not human. I don't really have a clue where to begin such a definition. From what I read of the bishops statement they seem to think that anything that might be derived from a human egg is human, but that seems both too limited and too broad to me. How about the case of cloning a primate and inserting human genes?

I do not believe one can simply say anything that has human genes is human. I believe that something like 90 percent of the genetic material in humans is the same as in chimps. And human genes have been inserted into microbes to produce human insulin and I believe other products as well. And we know that from time to time some gene from something else has been inserted by natural causes into our genetic material.

I think that chimeras will be produced, it is just a matter of time. Making a viable one that can survive may be a different matter. What really bothers me is that most of what we are getting is a you can't, we must arguments from both sides instead of a reasoned why/why not. Even a decent working definition would be helpful. In this respect I think that maybe the English Bishops made a bit of a start on such a definition by at least implying anything made from a human egg. Still, a long way to go.

Mike L

4:05 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

What is human is an important question and one reason I love science fiction is that it asks those kinds of questions in a way that makes you think.

For instance, is it your body that makes you a person...the Bishops seem to be going this way, but in some instances in fiction, androids and even holograms have been considered to be people. And as you mentioned, chimps are very close to us physically, yet not considered human.

We let ourselves do things to non-humans that we would consider unethical if they were done to humans, and that's why it's utilitarian to make the distinction, but I think it's an artificial distinction ... maybe with what's happening in science, the question of what's human will more scrutinized.

4:57 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Er... wha? This is like the Island of Dr. Moreau. :-)

I don't even know how to respond to a thing like this except to say that I'm glad I won't be around when most of this stuff comes around.... I think.

This is one reason why I tend to give creedence to "slippery slope" arguments. Scientists. What the heck are they thinking sometimes? It seems to be a truism, that if they can do something, they will do it. Chimeras, my goodness, what could possibly be the point?

As for the bishops, I suppose they have to give an opinion if asked, but I guess I don't understand what they are basing this one on.

6:25 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Jeff,

I think, according to the article, the scientists thought that animal-human hybrid embryos would not cause ethical problems in a religious vein, like completely human ones have. But instead they just made the ethical problems more complex, I think.

Island of Dr. Moreau :-) I remember seeing the old version with Michael York on late night tv.

7:12 PM  
Anonymous Mike L said...


As much as I hate causing pain in animals, I do enjoy a good steak :-).

Jeff, I think that we tend to think of Chimeras as making a combination of a lion and an eagle, but I can think of things far less conspicuous. Maybe we could use genes from dogs to improve human hearing. I think technically that would be a chimera. Or suppose we could find a genetic combination that made people immune to malaria.

I suspect that Ug thought it was not a good idea to use fire to cook meat. And Thomas Edison toured the US electrocuting animals to prove that the alternating current we use today was too dangerous. And despite our fears of nuclear problems, if all the power producing reactors in the world were shut down the world would most likely go dark as the other sources of electricity burned out trying to replace them.

I could go on and on but I think you get my drift. Most of what science has brought us was greeted with horror, only later to become essential to our lives. I think that this will happen with genetics also, but new questions of ethics will have to be answered and the uses carefully selected.

My own opinion is that we are on the verge of a medical revolution that will change our lives more than the Industrial Revolution did. And I really am sorry that I probably won't be around to see it. Or maybe if I stick around just long enough I might find ways of staying around a lot longer :-).

Be what may,


Mike L

8:10 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Mike, I think Edison electrocuting animals (Topsy the elephant?) was actually being somewhat dishonest, or so I read when doing a post on Tesla.

I think someday theu'll find a way to reverse aging - looking forward to that if I survive long enough to see it (and it doesn't cost too much :-)

1:08 AM  
Blogger Jeff said...


Ouch. I don't think being reticent about this sort of thing makes me a sort of Luddite or a Grand Inquisitor who wants to silence the Galileos of the world and keep everyone in darkness. You said yourself that you found this disturbing. What is human and what is not? Is it up to researchers alone to decide?

Not all that is trumpeted under the label of science becomes progress. For example, in the second half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century there was a powerful Eugenics movement that claimed to be operating under the aegis of unassailable, scientifically proven Darwinism. Junk science of racial stereotyping (complete with meticulously detailed cranial measurements), the advocation of euthanasia of the "weak" and "feeble-minded" and actually implemented campaigns of forced sterilization were not discredited until their logical culmination in National Socialism and the Holocaust.

I've read a bit more on this. A "cybrid" is human DNA added to an empty animal egg to form an embryo that is 99.9 % human. A "chimera" is the addition of animal cells to human embryos, and "transgenic human embryos" involve the injecting of animal DNA into a human embryo. What is currently illegal in Britain is the creation of hybrid embryos, animal sperm fertilizing a human egg, or vice-versa.

I think there is a sort of tendency for some researchers to try to cover everthing they are doing under the "stem cell disease cure" blanket. A lot of them are just frauds who want to make a name for themselves, like those characters in the cloning case in Korea. Many scientists think that this interpecies research is questionable and of dubious value. The best results occur when tissues match.

At a senate hearing on cloning, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin famously delivered his pithy one liner that those who would stop research on human cloning should “take your ranks alongside Pope Paul V, who in 1616 tried to stop Galileo”.

I wish someone had replied that they were proud to take ranks with John Paul II, and that he should be careful he doesn't wind up taking ranks with Joseph Mengele.

7:31 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

I think you're right, Jeff. As that article I linked to at the bottom of my post mentioned, in part ...

Unease over human embryonic research is not restricted to notions of soul creation. The lessons of history, shared by both religious believers and scientists, are also important guides to ethical behaviour. Germany and Japan, for example, are wary of biotech research that evokes national memories of past abuses of human life. Research aimed at the future good of patients, moreover, while being a crucial aspect of weighing ethical consequences, often obscures other motives - not least the commercial prospects, worth billions of pounds, in intellectual-property rights.

10:51 AM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Thanks Crystal. I think those are good observations you pointed out.

Not looking for a fight with anyone. Really. I've been in too many fights the last couple of weeks.

2:50 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


3:21 PM  
Anonymous Mike L said...


Good points, science and its products can always be abused. And there are always those that cover the evil they do with an image of doing good. And yes, even the US Army paid for American Indian skulls to show that the Indian was inferior because his skull was smaller. And yet today eugenics has its place in warning some people that they might be at risk for certain diseases, or their offspring might be. I do not think that eugenics is evil, but it certainly can be used to justify evil actions.

And I agree there are a lot of frauds out there, in medicine, in religion, in politics, in business, in every field.

You ask a good question as to who should decide what is human and what is not. But I am not sure that philosophy or theology are capable of doing it either. Perhaps in time it will take all three together to make a decision, but until we agree on what it is, it seems pretty hard to condemn any particular research, or even to guide research.

No, I don't think think of you as suppressing the Galileo's of the world, and yes, I think far to many are jumping on a bandwagon for fame and fortune. Yet I think that until we can say "this is wrong" that we have to have an understanding of what "this" is.

Peace, Jeff, no fight but hopefully a discussion that will shed light, not create smoke.



4:06 PM  
Blogger Liam said...

I was going to post a very thoughtful comment on this subject, but I don't have a lot of time. I do think that genetic engineering does raise a lot of ethical issues that have yet to be addressed with the depth they demand.

On the other hand, I'm very excited about getting the prehensile tail I've always wanted.

8:41 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Now there's a mental image - Liam hanging upside down from his fire-escape :-)

11:20 AM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Hi Mike,

I am not sure that philosophy or theology are capable of doing it either. Perhaps in time it will take all three together to make a decision, but until we agree on what it is, it seems pretty hard to condemn any particular research, or even to guide research.

I agree to a large extent. I do think there needs to be input on these matters and dialogues between scientists, theologians, philosophers, lawmakers, and ethicists from secular and non-secular points of view.

2:24 PM  

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