Let’s Consider Editing Genes and Creating Chimeras 16 July 2016

chromosomes 3d illustrationSome people have a strongly felt objection to the creation of ‘chimeras’ i.e. organisms formed by a mixture of genetically different tissues. They consider it to be a sort of genetic contamination – the improper crossing of the natural boundaries of species. This view is, in my opinion, misplaced. It is a ‘yuck factor’ that should not be allowed to prevail.

The possibility of creating, for instance, a human pancreas within a pig and subsequently transferring that pancreas into the body of someone who requires a pancreas transplant in order to survive and whose body provided the necessary human genetic material for the procedure appears as a heartening medical advance to many of us.

It also raises ethical objections. Some of them are clearly important, even if they are surmountable. Does it involve the proper treatment of animals? Is it justifiable to use them purely as means towards our own ends? Does the procedure cause a risk of transferring genetic diseases and disorders from non-human animals into the human gene pool?

Some other supposed objections are less compelling. In particular, anxiety about the suggested genetic purity of natural species is something we should be wary of. This particular objection is often associated with religious conservatives although only they do not make it. It is not made by all of them. The religious and the non-religious alike can and, I think, should be wary of this objection.

With regard to a Christian view on inter-species reproduction, Leviticus 19:19 is sometimes cited. It says (King James version): ‘Ye shall keep my statutes. Thou shalt not let thy cattle gender with a diverse kind…’. It is not clear what, if anything, this implies for the bio-medical technique at issue. It is not obvious that it expresses a general prohibition on chimeras far less why, if it does, it does so.

However, the verse goes on to say: ‘thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed: neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woollen come upon thee’. Unless one is similarly opposed to, say, a mixed herbaceous border or a mixed flower-bed in one’s garden and, say, a suit of mixed fabrics on one’s gardener, it is not clear that one should, nowadays, be opposed on the basis of this text to the cross-breading of cattle or the creation of chimeras. The opposition is likely to appear to be hypocritical.

David Hume, the great philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment introduces his essay ‘On Suicide’ with the claim that: “One considerable advantage that arises from Philosophy consists in the sovereign antidote which it affords to superstition and false religion”. Some of the arguments he used with regard to the moral permissibility, in some circumstances, of committing suicide are relevant to the moral defence of crossing the supposed boundaries between species.

For instance, some people might say that to commit suicide or to produce chimeras is unnatural, indeed it, somehow defies nature and is thereby wrong and contrary to the will of God.

Hume argues that all that occurs is natural. All that occurs occurs in accordance with the laws of nature. The distinction between what the world would be like were there no human beings and how the world is as a consequence of the actions of human beings is not a distinction between the natural and the unnatural. What human beings do is no less natural than what non-human beings do. Human actions are no less natural than the events of blind inanimate chance.

Chimeras and, say, genetically modified cows might be less common than, say, dung beetles but they are no more or less natural. The same natural laws, discoverable by science and expressible as invariant statements of the form: ‘If A, then B’ apply equally to all such phenomena.

As human beings, we act within the context of such natural laws but we do not change them. Hume writes: “It is a kind of blasphemy to imagine that any created being can disturb the order of the world, or invade the business of providence!”

We act upon the world when we, say, build roads or houses and, say, create chimeras or genetically modified crops. It does not follow that these actions are unnatural of in defiance of God’s will. As Hume puts it: ‘In all these actions we employ the power of our mind and body to produce some innovation in the course of nature; and in none of them do we any more. They are all of them therefore equally innocent, or equally criminal.’

Notice that Hume does not say and he does not imply that all religion is false nor that all religion is superstition. He does not suggest that his views on suicide are an attack on religion as such. He thinks, rather, that some people have drawn false inferences from their religious beliefs. It is the inferences rather than the beliefs which he rejects in his essay on suicide.

If, as Genesis suggests, we as human beings are stewards of the creation, it does not follow that we must never alter it. The notion of stewardship in this context coheres more with the analogy of a conscientious, imaginative and innovative gardener than, say, that of a librarian who strives diligently to be a custodian and preserver of old books. It is worth thinking too, in this context, of the parable of the talents. Over-caution is not invariably a virtue.

Can we, in all conscience, do unto others as we would have them do unto us, love our neighbours as we love ourselves and still oppose the creation of human organs by way of mingling human and non-human tissue for transplants for people who would otherwise die? I do not think that I consistently could. However, it is a question we must answer for ourselves. Adherence to Christianity will not in itself answer it for us.

 This article is from Issue 13 of On Religion. For more articles with intelligent thinking on religion and society, subscribe to our print magazine for just £19 a year

About Hugh McLachlan

Hugh V McLachlan is Professor of Applied Philosophy in the Department of Social Sciences, Media and Journalism at Glasgow Caledonian University. He is due to retire at the end of September, 2016. He is a specialist in medical ethics and is the author (along with J. K. Swales) of From the Womb to the Tomb: Issues in Medical Ethics. He also serves as an elder in the Church of Scotland and worships at Paisley Abbey.

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