Sometimes fighting to save animals from labs feels like a vocabulary exam.
But when you hear a story like this one from the National Post, which reports that scientists are now proposing to create human-primate hybrids, it’s worth spending some time unpacking some of the terms.
So what is a chimera? In the 14th century, it referred to a fire-breathing monster from Greek Mythology. In modern times, it refers to an organism with at least two populations of genetically distinct cells originating from different zygotes. Essentially, we’re talking about putting human stem cells into non-human animal bodies.
Because the extreme animal experimenters engaged in this ugly work think that these chimeras may be able to grow cells, tissues, or organs suitable for transplanting into humans. Or to study biological development. Or to test drugs.
We animal rights advocates believe that slicing up animals for human benefit is wrong. But we know that some people disagree with us. Those people believe that we have a right to use non-human animals because they’re not as smart, not as rational, or not as sentient as humans.
But human-primate chimerization risks breaking down even these arbitrary barriers. Studies have already shown that mice implanted with human cells have higher levels of cognition. What happens when scientists start putting human cells in primates? I’m legitimately concerned that we might end up with a Planet of the Apes scenario.
But before humanity is wiped off the Earth by those damn dirty apes (wink), how do we distinguish, ethically or legally, a new human-primate being that has all the attributes we’ve argued have moral value: linguistic ability, a degree of self awareness, a sense of past and future self, moral and rational agency, and even human genetics?
Under current law, animal and human research subjects are subjected to hugely different levels of oversight. NEAVS ideally would like to achieve a world where all animals and people are afforded the same protections under law.
But given our current, bifurcated legal system, NEAVS has argued that NIH must adopt a precautionary approach and qualify human-animal chimeras that have measurably enhanced cognition as human research subjects. Only this standard will adequately protect potential or actual human animal chimeras from risks associated with testing while our current, bifurcated legal paradigm exists.
Help us ensure the current ban on federal funding for research involving the transplant of embryonic or other stem cells in nonhuman primate blastocysts (early-stage embryos).
Be on the lookout for an upcoming opportunity to comment on a petition that would require the government to treat cognitively enhanced chimeric beings as human research subjects.