Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus is now 200 years old, but this dark masterpiece of fiction still shakes us because it seems so familiar. With three-parent babies, gene editing the human germline and reproductive cloning, violations of once sacred boundaries by scientists now seem almost routine. How will these modern tales of fiction-turned-fact play out?
An Unsettling Proposal
Dr. David Barash has proposed constructing human-chimpanzee hybrids (“humanzees”) is scientifically feasible and a useful, superb idea (1). He envisions a laboratory creation that would be neither human nor chimpanzee, but something identifiably intermediate. The utility of the work? These living missing links would provide objective proof human beings are not wholly separate from all the so-called lesser animals, but merely a part of an evolutionary continuum. Once confronted with our true nature, human beings would presumably decide to treat our animal kin better.
It is important to state that creating humanzees is not technically feasible at this moment. However, the extraordinary pace of biotechnology evolution suggests we might not have to wait too long before such hybrids could be created.
And Then What?
Taking action to prevent animal abuse is certainly noble, so why is the proposal to create humanzees to achieve that specific goal so unsettling? What happens after the demonstration has been completed and these living creations have served our purposes? A fundamental message of Frankenstein is one of taking responsibility for our deeds. How would scientists meet their obligations to the “few unfortunates” that were created as exhibits for a learning exercise?
The notion that this project is dedicated to halting animal abuse seems to preclude summary executions for the hybrid creatures. How will the creators ensure the unique needs of these unfortunates are met for what could turn out to be long periods of time? They cannot be repatriated to the wild for these artificial constructs would have no home in nature. Will it be safe and appropriate to keep them incarcerated as lab mascots? Who will render a ruling as to whether or not a human hybrid possesses an immortal soul?
It seems one lesson of Frankenstein was taken to heart; the proposal is to synthesize several unfortunates so, in principle, these beings would not necessarily end up totally alone.
It Can’t Happen Here, Can It?
Make no mistake, the basic humanzee creation proposal is a re-enactment of the Frankenstein story updated with twenty-first century biotechnology. Notwithstanding rogue actors or the rise of biotechnology-empowered biohackers, several factors work to hold scientists with suspect designs in check. First, no one really works alone as funding and resources are contingent on some sort of institutional/professional community endorsement. Professional scientists are subject to peer review at every stage of their careers and their institutions exert significant influence over the activities they are allowed to undertake. For example, work with human subjects is overseen by an Institutional Review Board (IRB) to ensure all experiments have a solid scientific rationale and will be performed ethically and safely. Investigators are required to detail foreseeable adverse events and develop proactive plans to prevent or mitigate them. The IRB can point out omissions and require all issues are corrected to their satisfaction before any work may start.
Why would a proposal to construct humanzees likely not pass muster with IRB or institutional animal care and use committees? An unholy combination of too many impossible-to-answer questions linked with too many foreseeable, ugly consequences. Start with an easy, but extremely tricky, question that would probably immediately bubble up in a reviewer’s mind; exactly how smart – how human – will these unfortunates be? Will they warrant the full scope of protections and considerations such as respect for autonomy and notions of beneficence that are the core principles informing modern research with human subjects? Keep in mind no one will really know how human-like humanzees will be until one is actually created and raised. Imagine the public relations disaster and institutional liability that might result from greenlighting work based on presumptuous speculations. If any humanzee creation proposals ever appear I predict they will not fare well with oversight committees. For a creative and light-hearted take on how Victor Frankenstein might have managed IRB demands back in the day see the paper by Harrison and Gannon (2).
If my grandchildren ask whether humanzees could come here, I would reassure them it will never happen. At this stage of their lives I would not go into the possibility groups elsewhere in the world might consider creating humanzees a great idea or that what I believe is a general scientific community consensus in our nation could change. For the moment, creating a walking, perhaps talking, humanzee is beyond our capabilities. The real test will come in the fast-arriving future when we can perform a modern version of the Frankenstein story.
It can’t happen here, can it? Not now.
(1) David P. Barash. It’s Time to Make Human-Chimp Hybrids. Nautilus, 8 March 2018.
(2) Gary Harrison and William L. Gannon. Victor Frankenstein’s Institutional Review Board Proposal, 1790. Science and Engineering Ethics 21(5):1139-1157. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11948-014-9588-y