THE ETHICS COLUMN
Reinventing the Monkey
Inserting human genes into other species has become a staple of both scientific research and industry over the past three decades. These chimeras generally prove uncontroversial: No reasonable person believes that engineering a potato to produce serum albumin renders that plant more meaningfully human nor is there much outcry when mice embryos are modified with snippets of human DNA. In contrast, a considerable uproar has arisen over research conducted by Chinese researcher Lei Shi and colleagues, recently published in National Science Review, that reports inserting the human MCPH1 gene—a crucial engine of cognitive development—into the brains of rhesus monkeys. These monkeys proved to be smarter than their peers. That led the explanatory journalism website, Vox, to run the headline: “Scientists added human brain genes to monkeys. Yes, it’s as scary as it sounds.” But is it really?
There will always be individuals who oppose any animal research for any purposes, arguing that animals cannot meaningfully offer informed consent. But the widespread objection here does not appear to be to animal research per se. Rather, the combination of monkeys and brains is what has set off alarm bells. On the one hand, rhesus macaques and humans share about 93% of our DNA (compared to roughly 98% with chimpanzees and 60% with bananas), raising the prospect that a little nudge might make them too human to be treated as subject of involuntary experimentation. On the other hand, the distinctive aspects of tampering with neurological tissue raise the prospects that such creatures will become smart enough to do us human beings damage—the so-called Planet of the Apes scenario.
At this point, both scenarios appear far-fetched. To be clear: The monkeys weren’t that much more intelligent. They proved able to remember more quickly and effectively the shapes and colors of images on a screen; they did not type Hamlet. The likelihood that tinkering with one or two genes will transform a species that diverged from our evolutionary tree many millions of years ago into our intellectual equal is implausible. The genetic distance remains so great that the monkeys are no more meaningfully human than are the albumin-producing potatoes.
That does not necessarily mean that all genetic tampering with primate brains is ethical. Far more challenging are recent studies in which the gene that causes Huntington’s disease has been inserted into macaques, subjecting them to considerable suffering. The cost-benefit calculus in such studies is stark and grim: The present suffering of monkeys vs. the potential to develop treatments for a deadly human ailment. But inflicting a fatal illness on a monkey is not the same as endowing it with a few additional IQ points.
For intelligence enhancement studies in primates, the best ethical threshold may be that researchers do not want the animal subjects to become so smart that they prove meaningfully aware of their non-human status—and their absence of rights. One might similarly ask if it would be ethical to raise an impaired human being’s IQ from 30 to 60, making him more aware of his limitations, and possibly producing existential distress. These are complex philosophical questions with no easy answers. Fortunately, nothing about this particular experiment in China suggests that they will have to be answered any time soon. #