It’s happening again. The Republicans are tilting at one of their favorite windmills, the mad scientists’ dream of creating an unholy union between beast and human to produce a slave race of soulless monsters. They have introduced legislation to ban human-animal hybrids. And it’s even bipartisan! They’ve got 19 Rethuglicans, like Sam Brownback, the ignoramus from Kansas:
What was once only science fiction is now becoming a reality, and we need to ensure that experimentation and subsequent ramifications do not outpace ethical discussion and societal decisions. History does not look kindly on those who violate the dignity of the human person.
And they’ve also got 1 Dimocrat, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana:
Here in the United States, we simply cannot open the door to the unethical blending of humans and animals, which the British government seems intent on doing. It creates an unnatural species and is a clear line we cannot cross.
One teensy little problem: these clowns do not understand the science. We actually aren’t planning to creating a slave-race of beast-men; the technology isn’t there, for one thing, and for another, that’s really not at all an interesting goal. No one is planning on operating on any human persons, or even violating them; the focus is all on cells and molecules. This is routine stuff. In one hand, you’ve got a dish full of human cells — it doesn’t talk, it can’t sign a consent form even if it had the capacity to understand one — and you want to know what makes them tick. In the other hand, you’ve got a collection of hard-won tools you’ve gathered from work in mice or worms or flies; interesting vectors, genes that act as indicators or switches, ways to basically reach into a cell and toggle states. Scientists have had these for years, and we’ve regularly used these tools to manipulate cells and puzzle out what happens.
Another example: we want to know what genes on different human chromosomes do, but it is highly unethical to do random mutagenesis on human gametes, bring them together, and then raise up the fetus in a volunteer’s womb to find out what interesting ways it might go kablooiee. One technique that has been used is to make mouse-human hybrid cells: use a little ethylene glycol to weaken the cell membranes, push a mouse cell next to a human cell, and presto, they fuse. They then recover and go through cell divisions, and the hybrid cell begins to lose pieces of the unnatural excess of chromosomes it’s got. You can then screen the resultant cells and correlate the presence or absence of gene products with the presence or absence of specific human chromosomes.
I know. It sounds so nefarious.
One more example: scientists have made transgenic pigs carrying five human genes. The idea is to create animals that can be a source for xenografts — transplanted organs — in humans with a reduced level of rejection. These pigs would become illegal under the Brownback bill, because they mingle a blessedly human H-transferase gene with pig cells. This is not to argue that there are no ethical considerations in these kinds of experiments, since there certainly are: we can argue about the ethics of creating species of pigs with the specialized purpose of providing organs for human use (it’s about as great a moral dilemma as raising pigs for meat), and there’s also the concern that hybrid pigs will also be dangerous incubators for training viruses to respond to human epitopes. But the ethical debates aren’t the domain of crude science-fiction versions of the science that these clueless lawmakers think them to be.
I’d like Brownback to answer a simple question. Does putting the human insulin or growth factor gene into E. coli violate the dignity of the human person? If it does, he’s suggesting shutting down a good chunk of the pharmaceutical industry. And Ms Landrieu: what is an “unnatural species”? If they’re unnatural and we can’t cross that line, then we certainly don’t need legislation to enforce it.
I don’t know why she bothered to complain about the British government, unless she’s using just plain old conservative xenophobia to stir up votes. American scientists have been using hybrid cells and have been introducing cross-species genes into cells for a long, long time now.