Comment »Posted on Saturday 3 January 2009 at 7:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Musings

I’ve just read a piece by Richard Dawkins about the possibility of a “hybridisation between a human and a chimpanzee”, and how such a creation could effect our world. It was originally published on as part of their What will change everything? series. I saw it on the Guardian, where you’ll also find some other comments. Here are mine:

Dawkins makes the very true point that, currently at least, the division between humans and animals is an absolute. He uses the example of pro-lifers, who in actuality are pro-human-life – after all, “Abortion clinic bombers are not known for their veganism”. In some way, humans are seen as completely separate from other animals, perhaps simply because we are the ones making the distinction.

This idea, however, runs completely counter to evolutionary theory. Go back far enough in the evolutionary chain, and you will find a female who was mother to two offspring. One would eventually lead to humans like you and me, and the other to modern day chimps.

Dawkins thinks that a “practical demonstration” would change everything, and presents four possible scenarios that would challenge the status quo:

  1. The discovery of a long lost tribe of Homo erectus. Unlikely, given our extensive knowledge of the world.
  2. Successful hybridisation between a human and a chimpanzee, described by “a distinguished biologist” as “the most immoral scientific experiment he could imagine”.
  3. A chimera, creating in a lab and consisting of an equal number of human and chimp cells. Chimeras, named for the mythical creature, are made by physically mixing the cells of two different species. Human/mouse chimeras are already being created as part of normal genetics research, but are destroyed long before they develop beyond a bundle of cells
  4. We know the full human and chimpanzee genomes. It wouldn’t be too difficult to look at the two and create a sort of “average” genome, though using this genome to create a living organism would be much more difficult. Dawkins believes it will be possible during the lifetimes of those alive today.

Dawkins doesn’t make it clear either way if he would support any of these endeavours, merely stating that it “would require further thought”. For myself, although I find the concept of such a hybrid to be inescapably interesting, I hope never to see such a being created.

The reason is simple: the feelings of the poor creature itself, if it were capable of human emotion. A hybrid would either spend its entire life in secret captivity, doomed to a lab-bound existence, or else if exposed to the world it would be subject to an endless media frenzy and calls for its destruction. Either would sheer misery.

Science can give us wonderful solutions to seemingly impossible questions about the world, but there are some questions that should not be answered. I feel that this is one of them.

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