In August, 2019 news broke that scientists had created the first known human-monkey chimeras.
Scientists have numerous reasons why they do this kind of science, but regardless of their reasons, this science is fraught with ethical concerns. These concerns raise questions of their own which the Christian must consider.
What is a chimera? The term ‘chimera’ originates in Greek mythology. The chimera of myth breathes fire, has a lion’s head, goat’s body, and dragon’s tail. In modern usage a ‘chimera’ is an organism with genetic material from two or more genetically distinct sources. A part-human chimera is an animal with some human organs or other characteristics.
There are numerous reasons why part-human chimeras are made. A major reason is, if we master growing human organs, it helps to solve the organ shortage by providing new sources of human organs for transplants. Researchers hope human-animal chimeras could provide better models in which to test drugs or treat diseases.
Ultimately, the goal is to better understand how cells of different species communicate with each other in the embryo during its early growth phase, and investigate how the two types of cell develop alongside each other.
In April, a team injected monkey embryos with human stem cells and watched as they developed in a dish. Scientists weren’t able to control which cells developed into which tissues.
Japan lifts ban
Japanese lifted a ban on and began funding experiments with animal embryos containing human cells in March, 2019. Japanese scientist Hiromitsu Nakauchi was the first to receive government support to create human-animal chimeras and to transplant them into surrogate animals.
Nakauchi and colleagues announced at a meeting in Texas they’d put human induced pluripotent stem cells into sheep embryos engineered to not produce a pancreas. But the embryos contained few human cells, and nothing resembling organs. Nakauchi says the approval in Japan allows him to attack this problem.
There are concerns about this science. Some bioethicists believe that human cells might stray beyond the targeted organ, travelling to the developing animal’s brain and affecting its cognition.
Nakauchi says these concerns have been taken into consideration. “We are trying to do targeted organ generation, so the cells go only to the pancreas”, he says.
For the purposes mentioned previously, part-human chimeras will first have to be born. This research takes us one step closer to that eventuality.
Because of the nature of these experiments these creatures could possess ambiguous moral status somewhere between that of humans and animals. How we end up treating chimeras will depend upon the moral status we assign them, a task that these experiments only make more pressing.
As monkeys are genetically closer to us, there’s a greater chance the cells will interact effectively with each other.
The goal of human-monkey experiments is to understand and perfect development of chimeras in primates before transferring the technology to pigs. There are fewer ethical concerns with harvesting organs from pigs because we farm and eat them.
This research is likely to cause major public opprobrium, if animals are developed with humanised features. This could set back public acceptance of the science significantly. Behind the chimera ‘yuck’ factor lies a thorny ethical problem –the moral status of monkeys or pigs that have human-like brains.
Moral status is the concept of treating life forms according to their interests and capacities. For example, humans are higher than monkeys, monkeys higher than pigs, and pigs higher than worms. It’s linked to mental capacities such as self-consciousness, moral capacities, and rationality.
Human-chimeras could develop mental capacities between ordinary animals and humans. This presents a challenge for those determining the moral status of chimeras, and rights and obligations that follow.
Chimeras will probably be regarded as lesser than humans. Seeing as we already struggle with issues of equality between humans, it seems we’re poorly prepared for challenges presented by advances in chimeric research.
How to Respond
How are Christians to respond? God created every living creature so it reproduces according to its own kind. A ‘kind’ is made of individuals which can breed and have offspring. Example: In species A, B, and C if A and B can hybridise with C, then it suggests all three are of the same kind.
It’s not our province to “play God” by creating creatures that cross the barriers in place, transferring behavioural characteristics from one species to another. Do we want creatures with, say, the strength of gorillas and the intelligence of humans? I’d say no, we don’t.
Differences between us
There are three differences between animals and humans: animals were created by way of God’s word; God breathed the breath of life into man’s nostrils; the flesh of living creatures is different: one for humans, one for birds, etc.; humanity alone was created in God’s image. This fact widens the boundary between human and animal even further.
It’s true most animal chimeras to date resulted in individuals easily classified as animals. But such arguments distract from the crucial point: innocent humans and animals are used and destroyed in the process of producing the chimeras.
An embryo is always an embryo of something, and only matures according to what it already is – a member of its own kind. With these embryos, no-one truly knows what we’re getting, and that’s something which concerns us all.
Katelin Staples is from Gladstone, Queensland. By day Katelin is employed as a proofreader. Katelin has a passion for discovering the deep things of God and how they affect the world around us.