In 2004 Dr Irving Weissman of the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Research injected a few human brain cells into mice. He wanted the mice to develop humanoid brains so he could dissect them and learn more about brain diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injuries.
Weissman’s experiments were nicknamed the Stuart Little project after the famous children’s book featuring a miniature mouse kid. Those who were alarmed saw Dr Weissman and other experimental geneticists as latter day Dr Frankensteins. When Weissman proposed to increase the proportion of human cells so the mouse brain was almost completely composed of human cells, ethicists started to pull in the reins.
In his book The Future Church John Allen reports, “The Stanford ethics committee to which Weissman submitted the proposal gave him a cautious green light…the head of the panel — law and genetics professor Henry Greely — said that although the experiment might sound ‘creepy’ there was no serious risk of Weissman transferring what he called ‘humanness’ to the mice.”
“It’s not going to get up and say, ‘Hi! I’m Mickey!’ Greely said.”
However, Greely went on to say that the ethics committee instructed Weissman to stop his research if the mice began to show “human like behaviors” such as improved memory and problem solving.
The ethics committee’s caution illustrates the concerns as we venture into the alien world of biotechnology.
Science and Science Fiction
Alien Resurrection, Blade Runner and Star Wars all play with the idea of human cloning while Michael Crichton’s novel Next visits the concept of a chimera — a human animal hybrid. Crichton imagines a researcher who mixes the DNA of a chimpanzee and human to create a “humanzee”. Meanwhile, in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes the talking apes are the result of researchers looking for a cure for Alzheimer’s.
Is it science or science fiction?
Plenty of conservative voices are taking the biotech advances very seriously. Allen reports that Dr. Leon Kass, former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, technology writer Jeremy Rifkin and writer Francis Fukuyama have warned that biotech advances are ushering in a “post human future.” British journalist Paul Johnson warned as early as 1999, “In the twentieth century we failed to stifle at birth the totalitarian concepts which created Nazism and Communism, though we knew all along that both were morally evil, because decent men and women did not speak out at the time. Are we going to make the same mistake with this new infant monster [biotechnology] in our midst, still puny as yet, but liable all too soon, to grow gigantic and overwhelm us?”
The fear of biotechnology is nothing new. “Humanzees” or Stuart Little mice with human brains are only the current imaginary outworkings of the same themes in Frankenstein — in which a mad doctor creates a monstrous new form of life.
The Catholic Church has advised on some of the issues — arguing for the sanctity and uniqueness of human life and advocating natural law, while also recognizing and accepting the benefits that may come from biotech advances. However, the challenges facing Catholic moral theologians are enormous.
We’ve never been here before. The Bible and two thousand years of church teaching have nothing to say about In Vitro Fertilization, human surrogacy, artificial insemination, genetic engineering, chimeras and clones.
Clones and Catholicism
In 1997 Dolly the Sheep was presented to the world by Scottish scientist Ian Wilmut. Soon after the prospect of human cloning made the headlines. Various crackpot scientists either claimed to have already cloned a human or said they wanted to. In 2002 the Raelians — a bizarre religious cult — claimed to have cloned a woman the called “Eve”. It turns out the only thing they made was headlines.
Nevertheless, the Catholic Church issued a statement on human cloning — the principles of which provide an ethical foundation for the judgement of all human-oriented biotechnology. The Vatican ethicists pointed out:
Each human being has the right to be born as the result of a natural sexual union between a married man and woman; a human being should be born in and through marriage
Human dignity requires that a person never be treated as a means to an end. Cloning implies the capacity to generate human beings for the satisfaction of other motivations — curiosity, or ego or even for exploitation as a source of “spare parts” or labor.
While these principles seem straightforward, the application of them is far more complicated. These principles are the basis for the Catholic Church’s reluctance to allow In Vitro Fertilization, for example. This resistance, however, cuts across the Catholic Church’s traditional pro-life position. Babies are good and IVF technology helps childless couples have babies. Critics would say there is a clash there.
The Catholic basics also reveal other negatives about human cloning. A clone may experience an identity crisis because they are not generated within a marriage and family. Clones would be a manufactured product. As such, could they be bought and sold? This introduces a financial factor. The rich can afford clones. Already wealthy childless couples hire surrogates from poor countries to carry their child. Isn’t this a form of economic and sexual exploitation? Cloning could produce unpredictable genetic anomalies and disturbing relationships between the clone and the donor.
Advocates of the technology answer that cloning offers a positive choice for infertile couples to have their own genetic children. They say IVF was controversial, but now it is accepted. They dismiss other worries. Double identity? We already have people with the same genetic structure. They’re called twins. Possibility of exploitation and abuse? Unfortunately, exploitation and abuse has always been with us. It’s called slavery, human trafficking, kidnapping, economic injustice and more.
Theology and Biology
Conservatives may wish to put their head in the sand and simply hold out for what is natural, but the problems will not go away. Already ordinary pastors are confronted with childless couples who wish to use IVF or surrogacy. What will their advice be when they are asked about genetic selection so their unborn kids can avoid an inherited disease? How will they answer when cloning is recommended to provide a child who might be an organ donor to save the life of another family member?
Beneath these practical concerns, biotechnology is forcing the Catholic Church to re-think the most fundamental questions about humanity itself. Who are the parents of a surrogate mother or a child conceived by an anonymous sperm donor? Who are the parents of a clone? What is a human being? Would a “humanzee” be human or ape? If the chimera has human genetic material would it also have a soul? Where is the line drawn? Is language and logic what makes us human? Is it a sense of morality that distinguishes us from the apes?
In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes the development of language also cued a clearer understanding of right and wrong. As the apes developed language they also developed a stronger sense of injustice and cruelty. Therefore, maybe what makes us human is morality and a religious sense. Perhaps what distinguishes us from animals is not only that we talk, but that we talk to God.
Genetic engineering raises questions not only about our origins, but also our destiny. If it is shown that our genetic code determines not only who we are, but how we behave, what does that say about the Catholic concept of human free will? Can we really choose, or are our lives predetermined? If our lives are predetermined can we be held responsible for our actions? If we don’t really have choice is it possible for us to be judged?
These questions go to the very roots of religion itself. Can religion survive such fundamental challenges?
Apes or Angels?
If Catholics are being forced to confront the foundations of our humanity, all of us should pause for thought. Unbelievers may dismiss the whole discussion as a massive irrelevance, maintaining that human are no more than advanced apes.
That’s understandable, but believers contend that human history shows that we are more than animals. The religious questions are important because they make us re-think not only who we are and where we are going, but how we should behave with one another.
If we are no more than animals, then despite all our sophistication and technology, the law of the jungle must prevail: the survival of the fittest rules and therefore might makes right. If we are simply the brightest animals, then it is natural and fitting that the smartest and the strongest rise to the top, and biotechnology may assist that ascent.
However, if we are more than apes, then we have a responsibility to ask questions about our origin, our destiny and our responsibility to one another, and that includes the thorny questions of how we use the great capabilities of biotechnology for the greater good.
No matter how you frame them, those are essentially religious and philosophical questions.
If that is the case, instead of biotechnology destroying religion. Religion may be the savior of biotechnology.
Dwight Longenecker is a Catholic priest working in South Carolina. Read his blog listen to his podcasts and browse his books at dwightlongenecker.com