Monkey Men?

Published May 23, 2021 by Nan Mykel

Theunis Bates, in The Week’s Editor’s Letter (5-14-21) writes that…The stuff of science fiction is once again becoming the stuff of reality. In a breakthrough study, researchers in the U.S. and China have created for the first time embryos that contain both human and monkey cells….Scientists hope that these mixed species “chimeras”–named for the fire-breathing creature of Greek mythology that’s part lion, part goat, and part snake–will help them find new ways to grow human organs for transplant and provide better subjects in which to test drugs and study disease. “Our goal is not to generate any new organisms, any monster,” study co-author Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte told NPR.org. The embryos were destroyed after 20 days, but bioethicists worry that someone will push this work further and try to produce a chimeric baby. Human cells might end up a part of the resulting creature’s brain, raising questions about whether the hybrid would be classed as human, animal, or something else entirely.

“I don’t think we’re on the edge of Planet of the Apes,” said Stanford University bioethicist Hank Greely. But it’s “time for us to start thinking about. Should we ever let these go beyond a petri dish?”

History suggests that these clusters of cells won’t remain in the dish for long. In the early days of artificial intelligence, researchers insisted that thinking machines would be used only for good and that the killer robots of The Terminator were dystopian nonsense. Yet Russia, China and the U.S. are all developing AI weapons that can identify and “engage”–that is, kill–human targets….The chimeras are coming, because whatever science can do, it inevitably will do.

Nan says: Dare I point out that no human embryos should be taken from people of color? From our recent vision of the underbelly of much of humankind, I’d vote for giving up on the dream of a Nobel Prize in exchange for empathy and avoidance of even more evil in the world. And I for one would donate any betterment of my health or longevity in order not to cause harm. Impossible to envision Russia, China and the U.S. agreeing to anything, much less limiting it to only good. The Week’s news story is on their page 21.

An adjacent thought: Are we building our robots with any ethics? If so, whose ethics? And how do you think that will turn out?

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