In 2001 a paper was published in Science in which human brain stem cells were grafted into the brains of fetal monkeys. Subsequently, a working group was convened to consider the ethical implications of such studies and the findings were published in Science in 2005. The working group unanimously rejected ethical objections grounded on unnaturalness or crossing species boundaries. A recent National Academy report notes the notion that there are fixed species boundaries is not well supported in science or philosophy.
They agreed that the central issue is whether introducing human cells into nonhuman primate (NHP) brains raises questions about moral status. One conceivable result of human-HNP neural grafting is that the resulting creature will develop humanlike cognitive capacities relevant to moral status. How does that change our moral obligations towards them? To the extent that a NHP attains those capacities through neural grafting, that creature must be held in correspondingly high moral standing. (Which I suppose might include not having to undergo neural grafting).
The criteria deemed plausible and widely accepted for determining moral status were mental capacity such as the ability to feel pleasure and pain, language, rationality, richness of relationships. But there’s a problem here, acknowledged by the working group - establishing whether and in what ways engrafted animals undergo cognitive or behavioral changes requires an understanding of what the normal range is for a particular NHP species. But we really don’t know. The report concedes that, “Even if we observe what appears to be more humanlike capacities in an engrafted animal, we may be unable either to establish whether capacities are outside of the normal range of that species or to interpret the moral meaning of observed changes.”
As the Tiny Shriner himself concedes, in such difficult ethical dilemmas as these, we must turn to the fiction writer. It appears our wait is already over, as Michael Crichton's new novel, NEXT, the promotional tagline for which is "welcome to our genetic world--fast, furious, and out of control," in addition to a main plotline about a cancer patient, Frank Burnet, who is being hunted down by a biotech company who wants his rare cancer-fighting cells, includes the following side-plots:
Tourists in Sumatra are cursed in fluent French and Dutch by an orangutan that has human genes, the result of an experiment barred in Europe. A transgenic parrot named Gerard embarrasses people by reproducing the words they say and the sounds they make during illicit love scenes. A UC San Diego scientist, Henry Kendall, learns that sperm he donated to a federal primate research center in Maryland has produced a son, a 4-year-old transgenic chimpanzee named Dave. Dave is scheduled to be terminated — this experiment too was illegal — but Kendall sneaks him out of the facility, takes him home and tries to raise him as a normal child, though schoolmates call him "Monkeyboy" and a passing farmer sizes him up as stoop labor. Advertisers dream of implanting their messages in genetically altered fish and animals.
Since Karl has been asking us to think about humor, is it just me and the Tiny Shriner, or is the above really, really funny? Or, scary [as Crichton would likely have it]? In other, related news, I think we can go ahead and laugh at Crichton's vision of the future [present?], since Richard Dawkins has finally decided to make it [almost] definitive: Why There Almost Certainly Is No God.
Got medieval, anyone? Still trying to stay in Karl's humor groove, we note that over at Geoffrey Chaucer's blog, the apparently self-styled medievalist rapper Baba Brinkman, who created The Rap Canterbury Tales, has absolutely no sense of humor at all. Meanwhile, Glaukopidos is laughing at Britney Spears reflecting on Antigone, among other things. JKW of Pistols in the Pulpit has finally posted his 2007 Dead List, which for some, including JKW, may be funny. And Margaret Soltan over at University Diaries lets us know that Christopher Hitchens has decided women are not funny at all, which Prof. Soltan finds amusing. The Tiny Shriner is not laughing. The Tiny Shriner is also hoping that Pete Doherty, as JKW surmises, will not die in 2007, as that would leave Kate Moss all alone with no one to behave badly with and look good together while doing it.