Human Exceptionalism

Self Regulation of Science Doesn’t Work

How often we are told by “the scientists” that those outside the field have no business telling them what to–and more particularly, what not–to do. And yet, again and again and again, we learn that some scientists refuse to restrain themselves.

A new story in Slate about scientists making human/animal hybrids is a case in point. From, “Manimal Rights,” by Daniel Engber:

But the regulations try to draw the line at full hybrids–where animal eggs are fertilized with human sperm or vice-versa. And they also ban the use of chimeric animals with human brains. These aren’t right-wing talking points so much as common ethical intuitions. It’s OK to mess with a creature’s “simple” parts–the plumbing in its gut, let’s say–but we’re risking moral crisis when we start to humanize its neural tissue. Nonpartisan expert commissions have reached the same conclusion. After two years studying the issue, the British Academy of Medical Sciences released a report in 2011 that found people would be uneasy over interspecies mergers that looked or acted human or had a human-like brain.

Yes, restraint is so “right wing.” But here’s the punch line: Some scientists don’t give a fig:

Yet experiments like these are going forward just the same. In just the past few months, scientists at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Rochester have published data on their human-animal neural chimeras. For the Wisconsin study, researchers injected mice with an immunotoxin to destroy a part of their brains–the hippocampus–that’s associated with learning, memory, and spatial reasoning. Then the researchers replaced those damaged cells with cells derived from human embryos. The cells proliferated and the lab chimeras recovered their ability to navigate a water maze.

For the Rochester study, researchers implanted newborn mice with nascent human glial cells, which help support and nourish neurons in the brain. Six months later, the human parts had elbowed out the mouse equivalents, and the animals had enhanced ability to solve a simple maze ;and learn conditioned cues.  These protocols might run afoul of the anti-hybrid laws, and perhaps they should arouse some questions. These chimeric mice may not be human, or even really human, but they’re certainly one step further down the path to Algernon. It may not be so long before we’re faced with some hairy bioethics: What rights should we assign to mice with human brains?

None. But let’s not get into that now. The real question is when are we going to enforce the regulations with sharp teeth? Do we need to criminalize these experiments to get scientists to stop? Because when we say, “ban ” certain kinds of experiments, we are pejoratively labeled as “anti science,” and that we should trust “the scientists” not to stray too far afield.

Talk is cheap. The truth is, I think many scientists oppose any permanent and meaningful restraints–on themselves and each other. If I am right, society will have to forcefully take matters into its own hands.

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