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Shadows of the Endarkenment from Montreal

Russell Blackford
By Russell Blackford
Metamagician and the Hellfire Club

Posted: Nov 7, 2007

Margaret Somerville, the high priestess of the ethical endarkenment, is at it again. This new article in the Ottawa Citizen provides her latest irrational protestations about the imagined evils of biomedical research and innovation.

In this case, Somerville’s problem is with the creation of human-animal hybrids, chimeras, or similar entities, even if only for research, and even if they never come to term. As always with Somerville’s work, it is difficult to establish - through the miasma of rhetoric - exactly what the problem is supposed to be. This, of course, is typical of the neo-Luddite superstitions that form a blight on contemporary thinking about bioethics and much else.

Somerville defines a number of concepts: chimeras; transgenic organisms; hybrids; and “cybrids”.

Chimeras are defined, for her purpose, as organisms that contain genetically distinct populations of cells derived, for example, from more than one embryo - whether an animal and a human embryo or two embryos of the same species. (Notwithstanding this definition from Somerville, the idea is usually that of a creature with cells from creatures of two different species.)

Transgenic organisms are defined as organisms whose genomes have received foreign DNA, e.g. if non-human DNA were inserted into a human embyro. Topical examples are the insertion of human DNA into pig embryos for xenotransplantation purposes (using animal organs in humans) and the insertion of human DNA into mice to study human disease.

Hybrids are created by fertilizing a human ovum with an animal sperm, or vice versa. E.g. a hamster ovum might be fertilised with human sperm to check on the sperm’s viability and potency.

Cybrids are a sub-category of hybrids: embryos have the cytoplasm of one species and the nuclear DNA of another. They result from cloning when human nuclear DNA is inserted into an animal ovum. The hybrid embryo contains human nuclear DNA but non-human mitochondrial DNA.

Predictably, Somerville finds this all very yucky and wants us to get in touch with our inner feelings of aversion: “When we consider the amazing array of potential methods for combining human and animal DNA, we should heed our ‘yuck’ reaction.” Later, she adds: “Most people have an ethical ‘yuck’ reaction to human-animal combinations, for instance, human-animal hybrids. Our moral intuitions tell us that using the human capacity to reproduce with an animal is wrong. We must make sure that intuition is not repressed.”

So, what’s wrong with this analysis? The first thing to notice is that Somerville illegitimately slips in the word “ethical” in her phrase “ethical yuck reaction”. There is nothing that is necessarily ethical at all about yuck reactions. For example, many things give me a feeling of “yuckiness” or disgust, but say nothing whatsoever about ethical issues. Indeed, a rational approach to moral philosophy arguably consists, to quite a considerable extent, in achieving an intellectual distance from such reactions - and in distrusting them as a source of any moral wisdom.

Thus, I have a response of disgust to the idea of eating horse meat; however, I have no such response to the idea of eating cow meat. It is, of course, arguable by vegetarians that it’s wrong for privileged Westerners like me to eat meat at all - perhaps because a vegetarian diet is more environmentally sustainable than an omnivore diet, or perhaps because animals that are killed for meat almost always suffer cruelty ... or perhaps for some other plausible reason. However, I find it very difficult to believe that there’s anything morally wrong with eating horse meat but not cow meat. If if it’s morally okay to eat Clover the cow, then I think the same must apply to feasting on her equine buddy Boxer, and I have no rational basis to condemn the folks in Italy and France who are keen to offer me some cheval sauce on spaghetti. It’s really just a matter of how I have been socialised.

Something similar applies to homosexuality. Perhaps I’d be better off with a more bisexual orientation - which doubles the number of people to cuddle - but the fact is, as I’ve said in the past, that I feel a certain degree of disgust at the idea of (say) tongue-kissing another bloke. This doubtless reflects something about my socialisation and/or my genetic makeup, and in no way implies that my friends of both sexes who are more open to homoerotic experience - and who act on that openness - do something morally wrong. The idea is ridiculous. How could my feelings of disgust at being involved with sexual contact with another human male tell me anything at all about the moral permissibility of such activity when engaged in consensually those who enjoy it? Surely, it is more relevant to ask obvious questions, such as whether they are actually harming anybody.

The yuck factor is a notoriously doubtful guide to anything in morality. It is incredible that there are philsophers, bioethicists, and legal theorists who consider it intellectual tenable to rely on such a guide.

Somerville asks whether the ancient crime of bestiality is based on our fear that a mixed human-animal living being could result, and on our moral intuition against this. If so, she suggests, we should heed that intuition. But surely this is nonsense.

It is easy to imagine that sexual attraction to non-human animals was of no value for our ancestors in terms of reproductive fitness, and may even have had evolutionary disadvantages. Accordingly, it’s no wonder if most of us find the idea disconcerting or even disgusting. This might be just as well if actually having sex with non-human animals tends to be painful or dangerous to the animals concerned and to create other dangers, such as those of inter-species disease transfer. It’s not that we somehow “know” (how?) that creating mixed species is morally wrong and therefore abstain from inter-species sex. We can be sure that our ancestors, hundreds of housands of years ago, were (mostly) abstaining from sex with other species well before they could articulate such concepts. It’s not that we have some deep, unarticulated wisdom that human-animal hybrids are morally problematic ... and we therefore abstain from inter-species sex: we are inclined to abstain from inter-species sex, and to find it rather disgusting, for reasons that long predate morality and are perhaps not fully transparent to us.

With no rational basis whatsoever, except an airy reference to what “most people think”, Somerville concludes that it is inherently wrong to create a human-animal hybrid or cybrid. She then asks whether it could ever be morally okay to use gene-transfer techniques for transgenesis. She implies that it is always wrong to transfer non-human genes into human beings, though it is not clear why that should be so (if inserting some stretch of DNA from a non-human animal could make me more resistant to certain diseases, while having no detrimental effect, what could possibly be wrong with it?).

As for the transfer of human genes into non-human animals, she thinks at least three issues are relevant: the nature and function of the genetic material transferred; the amount of that material in comparison with the animal’s genome; and the reason for the transfer. I agree that these could be relevant, but mainly because they will give us some information about the likely consequences in a particular case.

Somerville rightly thinks that, all other things being equal, it could be morally okay to insert human DNA into an animal for the purpose of recovering useful drugs from the animal’s milk, or to make its organs more compatible with our bodies for the purposes of transplants. However, she rejects the idea of implanting large numbers of human embryonic stem cells into a mouse embryo - fearful of the nightmare of creating a creature of humanlike intelligence but restricted to a mouse’s body.

In fact, I also have reservations about creating non-human animals of humanlike intelligence, unless we could be very sure that they could be provided with happy lives. But that consideration tells us nothing about experimenting on mouse embryos. Even if a hybrid human-mouse were born, so what? The scenario that Somerville is imagining is totally unrealistic. There is no prospect that anything faintly like a human-level intelligence would develop in any brain that could be sustained by a body the size of a mouse’s. This is jumping at shadows. Or rather, it is implausible rationalisation of an irrational response.

We should stop relying on our feelings of disgust, when it comes to morality; we should stop jumping at shadows, and stop making baseless claims about certain things being “inherently wrong”. What is required is a rigorous, dispassionate analysis of the benefits and harms that are reasonably likely if we go down certain experimental paths. If an animal’s pain or suffering is involved, we have reason to ask whether the possible gains genuinely make certain experiments worthwhile. Otherwise, the advancement of science and medicine should not be impeded by vague “yuck factor” responses, or half-baked rationalisations of them, such as Somerville’s.

Russell Blackford Ph.D. is a fellow of the IEET, an attorney, science fiction author and critic, philosopher, and public intellectual. Dr. Blackford serves as editor-in-chief of the IEET's Journal of Evolution and Technology. He lives in Newcastle, Australia, where he is a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle.
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