I was going to write some more about zombies this week, but then I saw this article from the Guardian:
Gordon Brown today mounts a passionate and personal defence of scientific research using animal-human hybrid embryos as an ‘inherently moral endeavour’ that could save millions of lives.
Writing in today’s Observer, he challenges critics in the churches and elsewhere who condemn what they regard as ‘Frankenstein science’, arguing that MPs ‘owe it to ourselves and future generations to introduce these measures’ when they vote on controversial embryology legislation this week.Â
Apparently some people think genetic engineering is the same thing as making a new person out of spare body parts dug up out of the local graveyard. Cut-and-paste monsters are actually more interesting to me, even if they are less controversial these days.
More on genetic engineering and spare body parts below the fold.
The human/animal hybrid embryo issue has been discussedÂ in the UK news for some time now.Â Instead of being sidetracked into arguing about whether or not embryos have souls (they don’t), I’d like to focus on the animal/human hybrid part of this controversy.Â I am not sure why people are so freaked out about genetic engineering. In plants and livestock, it’s not really very different than what we’ve been doing for thousands of years with artificial selection. It’s just that now we have a much more direct way to manipulate the genes of our food sources.
Regarding the human/animal hybrid question –Â never mind that it’s a false dichotomy: humansÂ areÂ animals, we’re not vegetables or minerals, are we? –Â we share many of our genes with other animals already. Depending what study you read, humans and chimps share anywhere from 96 to 99 percent of our genes, and humans and rats share 25 percent of our genes. So, in a way, we already are hybrids of a sort. The fear of sharing genes, I’m guessing, is based on the idea that humans are somehow special and endowed with some kind of supernatural “humanness,” along with an unwillingness to admit that we are mammals, just like chimps and rats. I mean, the creationists can’t deal with the idea that humans and apes share a common primate ancestor. Their heads would probably explode if they even thought about the idea that humans actually are apes!
I’m not sure why people think this concept is related to Frankenstein’s monster either.Â I guess they’re really afraid of hybrid creatures like Novice Hame in Doctor Who and C’mell from Cordwainer Smith‘s stories, rather than cut-and-paste monsters like the one Doctor Frankenstein created.
We should be careful and make informed decisions about what we do with technology (alas that doesn’t happen often enough), but technology itself is not good or evil. Take the cut-and-paste monster idea. We are already doing a very good job of using spare body parts from corpses. Here are a few examples:
- Hand transplant: In 1998 surgeons in France grafted a new hand onto the body of a man who had lost his hand in a saw accident 16 years before. Unfortunately, in 2001 the hand had to be amputated because it was rejected. But we don’t give up easily!
- Third US hand transplant: In 2006, the third US hand transplant was performed on a man who had damaged his hand in an industrial accident over 30 years before. As far as I know, he still has his new hand.
- Full face transplant: Doctors have also performed full face transplants on patients who were so deformed they could not go outside for fear of being harassed and taunted. (Isn’t what that says about human beings very sad?) Unlike the movie Face Off, the recipient does not look like the donor because he keeps his own skeletal structure.
- Face transplants: Here’s a slideshow with more info about face transplants. I can’t tell you more about it because after reading the text on the first picture, showing a beautiful little girl before her face was cut off in a lawn mower accident, I could not make myself watch the rest.
Most organ transplants, the kinds that have been happening for decades, are invisible and less disturbing. We may not be able to create a new life out of used body parts, but we can certainly save lives with the same technologies that many uniformed and superstitious people consider monstrous.
So if you’ve been wanting to become a monster but have been hesitating about the vampire or werewolf options, please think about become an organ donor. Unlike mummies, you shouldn’t have any need to hoard your spare body parts after you die. Let someone else use your body parts and you’ll gain a tiny piece of immortality.
This link is to a US site with information on becoming an organ donor. If you have links to sites in any other nations, please post them in the comments.
In closing, I would like to emphasize that I am in no way insinuating that the people needing cosmetic surgery are monsters. I am thrilled that we have the medical technology to help these people gain new lives, and I hope that we can stop uneducated and superstitious people from hampering scientific research and preventing other life-saving technologies from coming into use.