Magazine | August 15, 2011, Issue

How Weird How Soon?

From London’s Daily Mail: “Scientists have created more than 150 human-animal hybrid embryos in British laboratories.”    

You don’t say. Now why would they do that? Don’t worry, it’s all perfectly legit, the fruits of the 2008 Human Fertilisation Embryology Act. So some scientists have successfully fertilized animal eggs with human sperm, and others have created “cybrids,” using a human nucleus implanted into an animal cell, or “chimeras,” in which human cells are mixed with animal embryos.

Writing my new book about the post-American world, I had to resist the temptation to go too far down this path. If you start off analyzing unsustainable debt-to-GDP ratios and possible downgrades of U.S. Treasury debt and suddenly lurch into disquisitions on a part-Welsh–part-meerkat chimera, the fiscal types tend to think you’ve flown the coop. Yet as I contemplate the prospects of the developed world I confess I do find myself wondering: How weird how soon?

Transformative innovation requires a socio-economic context: A few years back, a European cabinet minister explained to me at great length that governments had enthusiastically supported both the contraceptive pill and abortion because there was an urgent need for massive numbers of women to enter the workforce. A few years hence, developed nations will have a need for anyone to enter the workforce. Japan is the oldest society on earth. China, as I always say, is getting old before it gets rich. Europe is richer but lazier: Fewer than two-fifths of eurozone citizens work, and over 60 percent receive state benefits. If you track, as prudent investors should, GDP vs. median age in the world’s major economies, this story is going nowhere good.

When President Sarkozy’s government mooted raising the retirement age from 60 to (stand well back) 62, the French rioted. “Retirement” is a very recent invention, but it’s caught on in nothing flat to the point that most Western citizens now believe they’re entitled to enjoy the last third of their adult lives as a 20-year holiday weekend at government expense. And that two-decade weekend is only getting longer: Developed societies now face the prospect of millions of citizens’ living into their nineties and beyond and spending the last 20 years in increasing stages of dementia — at state expense. That sounds pricey, whether you rely on immigrants to tend them (as in Europe) or “humanoid” “welfare robots” (as the Japanese are developing).

So the disease the West would most like to cure is Alzheimer’s. How would you do that? The obvious way to experiment would be one of these human/animal hybrids the British are hot for: You’d inject human material (brain cells) into animals that are closest to man (primates). As it happens, that’s the plot of this summer’s new movie, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which title suggests the experiment went somewhat awry. “If you start putting very large numbers of human brain cells into the brains of primates,” worries Prof. Thomas Baldwin, co-author of a new report for Britain’s Academy of Medical Sciences, “suddenly you might transform the primate into something that has some of the capacities that we regard as distinctively human — speech, or other ways of being able to manipulate or relate to us.” “The closer an animal brain is to a human brain, the harder it is to predict what might happen,” warns Martin Bobrow, professor of genetics at Cambridge University.

#page#So the Brits retain a bit of squeamishness in this area: They’re aware of the pitfalls of injecting Ozzy Osbourne’s brain into an orangutan. Who might be less concerned about this fine ethical line? It was recently disclosed that China has a herd of 39 goats with human-style blood and internal organs created by injecting stem cells into their embryos, the work of Prof. Huang Shuzheng of Jiao Tong University.

I wonder what else the Chinese are sticking human stem cells into. I’m sure they’ll tell us when they’re ready.

The Coming of Age changes everything. The developed world will have insufficient numbers of young people to sell new stuff to: That’s an economic issue. But a distorted societal age profile doesn’t stop there: Switzerland, once famous for expensive sanatoria where one went to prolong life, is now doing gangbusters business with its “dignified death” resorts. With the increase in demand for “assisted” suicide at their general hospitals, the Dutch are talking about purpose-built facilities: You have an Ear, Nose, and Throat Hospital, so why not a Death Hospital? After all, it’s more “humane” than the alternatives — for example, the mini-epidemic of missing centenarians in Japan: Tokyo’s oldest man was supposedly Sogen Kato, 111 years old. Last year, police broke into his daughter’s home and discovered his mummified corpse, still in his bedclothes. His relatives were arrested for bilking the government of millions of yen in fraudulent welfare payments. Tokyo’s oldest woman was supposedly Fusa Furuya, 113 years old. When welfare officials called at her home, her daughter said she was now living at another address just outside the city. This second building turned out to have been razed to put a highway through. “Human bonds are weakening,” a glum prime minister, Naoto Kan, told parliament. “Society as a whole tends to sever human relationships.”

Like I said: How weird how soon? Dutch drive-through death clinics on Main Street. Japanese welfare robots doing the jobs humans won’t do. British scientists breeding a Brit-animal hybrid class purely for the purposes of experimenting on them. And at a research facility somewhere deep in the Chinese hinterlands, an ape injected with human brain cells waits for the midnight shift change to bust through the security fence . . . 

– Mr. Steyn blogs at SteynOnline (

Mark Steyn — Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human-rights activist.

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