We have all been reminded innumerable times about the paramount importance of “learning the lessons” of COVID-19, with the frequency and shrillness steadily increasing as the bootheel slowly lifts. Some of it is harmless stuff—wash your hands often with soap and water—though we can, of course, object to the implicit suggestion (victim-blaming?) that anything we might have done could have prevented the catastrophe rained down by a few hubristic (U.S.-funded) bioscience researchers in Wuhan.
And yet, in spite of the now un-debunked theory that scientific arrogance lies at the root of the last year’s disaster, the next admonition of the media and the left is inevitably to “trust the scientists” (or “the experts”) with blind, unflinching faith while they dictate the precise ways that your life should be upturned in the name of scientific prudence. Now, I’ll wash my hands, sure. But trust scientists? Why? On my personal scale of trusted classes, scientists rank somewhere between used car salesmen and that guy running three-card monte on the corner of the street.
The United States Senate delivered a clear reminder of why we should not trust scientists and their cheerleaders last week, by voting down Sen. Mike Braun’s (R-Ind.) proposed amendment to the tech-booster Endless Frontier Act, which would have banned U.S. taxpayer funding of human chimera experiments—the creation of organisms with both human and non-human animal cells—anywhere in the world. Of the Senate’s 50 Republicans, 48 voted to pass the amendment. Two—Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) and Thom Tillis (N.C.)—did not vote. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) likewise abstained, while all 49 other Senate Democrats united to kill the proposal. This is the third failed Republican attempt to legislate a federal ban, after the Human Chimera Prohibition Act introduced by Sen. Samuel Brownback (Kan.) in 2005, and the Human-Animal Chimera Prohibition Act of 2016 introduced by Rep. Christopher Smith (N.J.).
In introducing this most recent effort, Braun had argued that “human life is distinct and sacred, and research that creates an animal-human hybrid or transfers a human embryo into an animal womb or vice versa should be completely prohibited, and engaging in such unethical experiments should be a crime.” In saner times, this would be entirely uncontroversial.
We do not live in sane times. Lab-created chimeras have been an enduring element of cutting-edge bioscience for roughly half a century, and it was only a matter of time before the mingling of rats with mice and sheep with goats gave way to more arrogant, more sinister experimentation. One such endeavor made headlines recently, when a group of scientists led by Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte of the Salk Institute published a paper in the journal Cell this April claiming to have successfully produced chimeric human-monkey embryos.
The last surviving of the embryos was terminated after 19 days, which the scientists apparently think obviates any potential moral concerns that might have arisen if development had been allowed to continue further. It is, of course, worth noting that the moral assumption that underlies this line of thought—that there is some substantial difference between an embryo at 19 days and that same embryo at 20 days (or at 9 months) that ought to alter the balance of our moral calculations—is both in error and responsible for the worst mass atrocity in the history of mankind.
Maybe we should just be grateful that the moral hazards are being acknowledged at all. The question being asked is a familiar one, and heightened attention to it is certainly welcome: What constitutes human personhood? How do we treat something we have created that we cannot see without doubt to be human as we understand it, but that is undeniably human in its genes? The question that really matters, that is, is how human are they?
As a Discover magazine write-up put it in mid-May:
There’s currently little consensus on how we should view animals that have been made more human. Are they deserving of additional rights? Is there a definite line between human and non-human in a chimeric animal? Questions like these remain to be answered, by both scientists and society at large.
To restate an earlier point: Scientists—certainly the scientists undertaking the experiments in question—are just about the absolute last people to whom I’d present these questions to be answered. We can grant the most noble possible motivations, such as a desire to decrease human suffering through improved medical research, and still see that entering this territory disqualifies them from any pretension to authority in determining social order.
The best-case scenario proposed by the science-cheering crowd, in which human organs can be grown inside lab-created chimeras to prolong life contra naturam, is downright dystopian. But even barring the long-term prospect of industrial pig-man organ farms, the fundamental problem of personhood remains an immediate concern. Neither scientists nor science can be trusted to provide answers to a moral conundrum, especially when it has been raised by an unbound faith in science itself. But even traditional moral frameworks may be strained in attempting to address the concerns of our brave new world. The moral status, for instance, of a mouse with human brain cells that shows signs of increased cognitive function is not (as far as I know) a question for which we have an answer. This is uncharted territory that ought to have stayed that way. The mere fact that it has been broached is a damning indictment of the ethos at play here.
There are clearly defined limits in nature that circumscribe the bounds of human conduct, and outside of them any action inevitably devolves into barbarity and chaos. As those who claim a right to rule buck up against these limits, the relevant question may well be “how human are they?” after all.
A voting majority of the upper chamber of the United States Congress has deemed it fair game to erase the line between human and inhuman. This is no mere question of policy, no procedural quibble to be ironed out in good-faith debate between disagreeing parties. The nature of humanity—in particular what sets us apart from the rest of creation, what makes social life both necessary and worthwhile—is the fundamental question of politics, and without agreement on that no meaningful common ground can be found elsewhere. The left’s stance on where the line of personhood exists in nature was bad enough already, but they have now moved on to dissolving it altogether in the name of scientific progress. When that line gets broken down, little else can be left standing.
We might remember that the last time the world had a chimera problem, the solution was Bellerophon with a spear.