Tuesday: Human-Chimp Hybrids?

What makes us human, and what makes a chimp a chimp? In this discussion, visitors to our web site had the chance to ask two researchers who have studied our simian relatives about the similarities and differences between the species.

Tuesday's Question:
Human-Chimp Hybrids?

“As you may know, in the late 1920s, Soviet researchers (under Il'ya Ivanov, probably the leading expert on artificial insemination of farm animals) conducted fairly extensive and ultimately unsuccessful experiments in human-ape hybridization (see Kirill Rossiianov, "Beyond Species," Science in Context, 2002). Although there were several features of these experiments to which virtually everyone today would object, I would like to know whether you consider efforts to obtain a viable hybrid of humans and apes to be inherently wrong and, if so, exactly why?”

—Diane in Dunedin, New Zealand, is “an historian of science (principally focused on evolution and genetics).”

Daniel Povinelli

This question reminds me that many practicing scientists embrace the unfettered search for truth as their prime directive, a universal good to be embraced. And yet in the rest of their lives, scientists (academicians in general) are a fairly politically active political group---certainly outspoken about making intelligent decisions to shape the world in which we live.

Against that backdrop, I frequently ask my students to list all the things that scientists could do, but they, either as individuals or our political representatives, have successfully chosen not to do because of the forseeable negative consequences. Viewed with a wide enough temporal lens, the list is very short indeed. True, there have been some temporary limits placed on some kinds of research from time to time, and monetary constraints have set other limits, but in general, the drive to inquire and discover has almost invariably won out---often in spite of rather obvious, negative consequences. It is a cruel logic that bears far more scrutiny that it currently receives.

The possibility of creating a “humanzee” is one of the few examples of something that is well within the grasp of science to attempt, but which (with at least one notable exception) we have so far chosen to avoid. Certainly such a project could bring money and fame (or infamy) to those responsible, but whether it is inherently right or wrong seems to me to be the “wrong” question. The right question --- and the question we as scientists and laypersons alike should become more skilled and comfortable with asking --- is, would the creation of a humanzee contribute toward creating the kind of world in which we want to live? The successful creation of a humanzee would present yet another extreme ethical challenge for our moral and legal systems. And what could we possibly hope to learn by creating such a hybrid? Imagine confronting a humanzee face-to-face (one that could speak) and the puzzled expression spreading across his or her face as you inquire, “Well, what’s it like to be a chimpanzee?” “I don’t know,” would have to be the ultimate reply, “I’m a humanzee.”

William Fields

The theoretical question of ape-human hybrids is a question of 19th-century science contrasted against the idea that the engine of evolution is genetic mutation. Hybridization research presumes that the phenotype is a direct expression of the genotype, and thus, telegraphing to new or atavistic forms is scientifically useful. It is, seemingly, a vulgar Victorian view that dramatically shocks the conscience without benefit.

In my view, the effects of symbiogenesis, epigenetics, and culture upon the phenotype constitute a far more compelling discussion regarding the dynamics of cognitive and somatic change. And in this fashion of thinking, I am fascinated by the behavioral composites that result from exposing non-humans to human language and the effects culture has upon the organism.

From an experimental point of view, ape/human hybridization seems to serve very little purpose. What is there to learn from this? To my mind, science should serve as a humanitarian force. The ape/human hybridization work does not meet this standard of praxis.

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