Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Do These Genes Fit?

Today, AJM writes about "chimeric experimentation" and God's disdain with humans using their brains to create mouse-human hybrids that AJM calls "moumans." AJM writes: "Humans are not like other animals. God gave us dominion over His creation. We have used that dominion, in the fullness of time, to obtain mastery of the genome . . . and to conduct chimeric experimentation."

As an aside, I'm not going to confront AJM about humans' "dominion" over everything else. Some Christians (and others, I suppose) have over centuries interpreted that to mean that humans should manipulate Nature to every conceivable end, needlessly consuming everything and eventually destroying the planet. But I know that AJM believes God entrusts us with the responsibility to care for the Earth as we receive its bounties.

That said, I don't know much about this phenomenon called chimeric experimentation. I don't know its contours or its history, but I certainly understand the implications for bioethicists and theologists alike. What should we do with these big brains and opposable thumbs? It's an age-old dilemma: science fiction writers of the early Twentieth Century imagined the creation of half-breed humans/monsters (not to mention humans/machines) and Greek mythologists evisioned clove-hoofed minotaurs.

But those folks didn't know about the universal interchangeability of genetic material. Now we do. Human DNA works perfectly with mouse DNA. DNA is DNA. RNA is RNA. It's species-non-specific. (A question is why God would give us such malleable stuff in the first place. What do the Creationists think? As opposed to those of us who are theistic evolutionists or pure, naturalistic evolutionists? While we may not be "like other animals" in some ways, we certainly and remarkably share in most ways our biology.)

Harvard researchers in the early 1980s inserted human oncogenes into mice chromosomes, thereby producing human cancer in mice so they could test drugs on the animals. Did medical ethicists and others shiver, looking down the long road at whose threshold they then stood? Sure. With good reason.

AJM's point that our ability should not drive our activity is oft-repeated and true. And I speculate that it's well-accepted in the medical sciences. Indeed, breast cancer, Parkinson's disease, and ALS research; vaccine development; basic microbiology: all depend in some ways on genetic research and genetic engineering. This is genetic manipulation that is, by-and-large, well-accepted. The benefits are clear.

I note that the debate looms over stem cells because it is intertwined with the abortion debate. That is understandable, regardless of which side you're on. I leave that for another day.

I'm not sure what to make of the "chimeric experimentalists," as much as they're made out to be devils incarnate, playing God. While the benefits of human brain tissue growing in mice might not be evident, are they possible? What if such research eventually resulted in a cure for Alzheimer's? AJM suggests it doesn't matter, for somewhere these folks have crossed a line. And, in a science-fiction leap rare at Dojustly, he goes Sci-fi on us, envisioning mice-human hybrids as scientists themselves, experimenting on us! I can see it in black-and-white on the big screen in a smoke-filled cinema in 1952, the audience, mouths agape, wearing 3-D glasses.

But where is that line? Doctors have inserted pig's hearts into transplant patients (to little avail) and regularly attach artificial limbs, including working artificial hands (to much success). Have these techniques crossed a line? What about organ transplant from human to human? What about infusing an Ebola victim with an Ebola survivor's blood--full of antibodies? What about something as simple as giving antibiotics to a sick child? The list goes on and on.

When are we being human, taking care of other humans? And when are we "playing God"? All of it involves manipulating our natural environment and manipulating other organisms.

I understand that one question is where our manipulation of DNA and chromosomes crosses a line.

But another--far more important--question is at what point we should or should not use our considerable brain-power to prevent otherwise natural and often fatal consequences of our souls' existence in purely biological vehicles.

Where is the line?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

A point that can be made is that humans need to die. As we work to progressively cure every disease that afflicts us we are cause more population problems for future generations. Every time we cure a disease something worse comes up. It is nature's way of reducing our population. Thing of chimeric experimentaton this way: In Brave New World Revisited Aldous Huxley posed the question of whether it is better to cure the malaria epidemic on a small island and let future generations starve (no matter how much food we ship around the environment will not be able to sustain us eventually) or to leave the malaria and let "only the strong survive."

3:31 PM  

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