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The Human Difference

Eric Cohen

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In the contest for oddest pronouncement in a State of the Union address, high marks should go to President Bush's call last January for a national ban on "creating human-animal hybrids." Fortunately, the modern biotech laboratory does not yet resemble H.G. Wells's island of Dr. Moreau, that fictional place where an exiled scientist blends man and beast by vivisection. Not even our most skillful, least scrupulous genetic engineers can manufacture humanzees to provide spare parts or serve as semi-skilled labor. We are not yet so talented or so depraved.

Yet the President's call to action did not come out of nowhere. If it seemed strange, that is only because we live in genuinely strange times. In China and Britain, scientists are creating cloned man-animal embryos using rabbit eggs and human DNA. In the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, human neural stem cells are being inserted into monkey brains. At the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, researchers have produced pigs with hybrid pig-human blood cells, demonstrating the possibility of genetic fusion between man and the lower animals.

So far, no one has produced a hybrid embryo using human sperm and animal eggs or animal sperm and human eggs. But this, too, is probably only a matter of time. Many of these man-animal experiments hold out the promise of useful results, like therapies for Parkinson's disease or the possibility of mass-producing designer stem cells. Some elicit a visceral negative reaction, a Levitical sense of a sacred boundary being violated. All of them should leave us wondering: just how interchangeable is man with the other animals? Could scientists one day recreate one of our extinct, not-quite human ancestors? Or produce creatures, as Wells imagined in 1896, that are "human in shape, and yet human beings with the strangest air about them of some familiar animal"?

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It is only fitting that modern biotechnology should be raising anew ancient questions about man's standing among the animals. The trouble is, however, that modern biology has also left us bewildered about how to think through such questions, precisely because it has left us bewildered about man himself. At the very moment when our technological cleverness is increasingly enabling us to blur the boundary between man and the other animals, we lack the clarity of the ancients about what sets man apart.

Read the entire article on the Commentary Magazine website (new window will open).

Posted: 12-Dec-06



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