Flights of fantasy have long envisioned animals with human traits. George Lucas’ “Star Wars” entertained millions of movie fans with an iconic tavern scene where all manner of beastly aliens packed a drinking dive and behaved in a way that any visitor to a biker bar would recognize. Beasts behaving badly. Science has a way of seizing fantasy and fashioning it into fact, so it shouldn’t shock anyone if someday soon, we can, like Dr. Dolittle, “walk with the animals, talk with the animals.” This would be the dawning of the creepy age of the chimera — a creature part human, part animal.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is preparing to drop its ban on federal funding for medical research that combines animal embryos with human stem cells. The intent is to grow human organs for medical research and testing of drugs without the limitations of experiments on human beings. Our Bradford Richardson reports that NIH thinks there’s great potential for scientific advancement once the funding prohibition is removed.
Breaking taboos, however, has consequences, which is why the ban was imposed last year on federal funding of chimera research. Ethics concerns were raised over combining human and animal genetic material. NIH officials prohibited experimenting on primate embryos and breeding of chimeras to reduce the risk of creating humanlike beings. Now the ban is about to go. “I am confident that these proposed changes will enable the NIH research community to move this promising area of science forward in a responsible manner,” says Carrie D. Wolinetz, the associate director for science at NIH.
A 30-day period for public comment will run before a final decision is made. It’s common government practice to offer such a perfunctory opportunity for public venting, and the government usually brushes the comments aside and proceeds as planned. There’s little reason to doubt that will happen this time, too.
Who would oppose medical research that could end up saving lives? Only those who look farther into the future and envision where it might lead. Bureaucrats, alas, are blind to the slippery slope. As rapid as the pace of scientific advancement may be in the 21st century, the rise of subversive abuse is greater. Consider the assurances that the federal government gives taxpayers, and retailers give consumers, that required personal and financial information is safe from prying eyes. Millions of stolen files later, Americans have learned better than to trust those little padlock icons on web pages that purport to guarantee that all will be well.
Researchers could soon be growing a human kidney in a pig for implantation, and perhaps a generation from now man’s best friend could be endowed with the mental ability to, say, serve in Congress (perhaps there’s not so far to go). To be sure, current ethics militate against the creation of smart beasts, but rules are meant to be broken and we’re told that ethical standards “evolve” over time. If abortion, the killing of unborn humans, is OK now, there’s no reason to think the creation of sentient chimeras would be considered out of bounds tomorrow.
Human progress is limited only by the boundaries of the human imagination, and ours is an age when limits are routinely broken. The production of chimeras — animals that we can walk with and talk to — may be on the way, perhaps to a wedding chapel. The idea of a man marrying a man would have seemed no less improbable to earlier generations. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?