Monday, July 25, 2011

Ban These Sick Ape-Man Frankensteins

According to a new report, urgent action is required to stop scientists creating a monstrous race of apes with fully functional human brains (just as Christine O'Donnell warned us about those mice), thus causing Planet Of The Apes to come true.

OK, that's not quite what the Academy of Medical Sciences said. But judging from most of the media coverage, you might think it was.

The report is actually about "Animals containing human material" and it notes that under British law, experiments of this kind are covered by generic animal research rules, but there are no special animal-human regulations.

Should there be?

I think there should be. We as a society allow experiments on animals or animal embryos that we don't allow on humans, even on human embyros. Clearly, we need to decide what we're going to do about organisms that have both human and animal DNA, or whatever. This doesn't mean restricting it - to clear up the rules could also facilitate such research, by making it explicit what is allowed.

However, we should tread carefully here. This is an area where our intuitions can lead us astray.

Although we have absolutely no idea how to make an animal-human "hybrid", or even whether it's possible at all, the very idea of it has many people worried. It's probably a case of the uncanny valley and lots of cultural baggage (Planet of the Apes et al).

So, for whatever reason, we have a hang-up about making monstrous ape-men. Fair enough. So long as we remember that this is entirely hypothetical, and that it might, for all we know, be literally impossible.

Yet other things in this debate are very real. Over-zealous regulation of research could easily end up delaying, say, a cure for Alzheimer's for, say, 10 years. That would be dooming tens of millions of people to suffering and death.

The problem is, that's hard to picture. It's hard to imagine how bad Alzheimer's is unless you have personal experience. Even if you do, it's hard to multiply that badness by ten million anonymous, hypothetical people. "One ape-man is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic".

Delaying science is easy to do (for politicians), and hard to picture why it's bad. Whereas "a monstrous ape-man" is the exact opposite. Easy to imagine - just look at the media interest in this story - yet nowhere close to being reality.

This is a problem. The human mind and the way we think about these issues is a problem. Even when that mind is safely inside a nice normal human skull.

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