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The French writer Vercors (Jean Bruller) begins his novel, You Shall Know Them , just after Douglas Templemore injects his infant son with strychnine chlorhydrate. Although anguished by the killing, the father had planned the act even before the child had been sired. It was his attempt to save the mother, a female of the species Paranthropus erectus that had been discovered off the coast of New Zealand.

Because of their almost-human qualities, industrialists plan to use the creatures as “beasts of burden” in Australian factories. Outraged by this forced slavery, Templemore, a British journalist, devises a plan to test the legal status of the species. Using artificial insemination, he impregnated one of the captured females with his own seed. While the mother remained jailed in a London zoo, Templemore took his offspring home and put him to death. After killing his child he called the police to arrest him:

The inspector drew nearer. His pale eyelashes were fluttering like moths.

“Mr. Templemore, what exactly do you expect us to do?”

“Your job, Inspector.”

“But what job, sir? This little creature is a monkey, that’s plain. Why the dickens do you want to . . . ”

“That’s my business, Inspector.”

“Well, ours is certainly not to meddle . . . ”

“I have killed my child, Inspector.”

“I’ve grasped that. But this . . . this creature isn’t a . . . it doesn’t present . . . ”

“He’s been christened, Inspector, and his birth duly entered at the registry office under the name of Garry Ralph Templemore.”

Fine beads of perspiration broke out on the inspector’s face. He suddenly shot a question at Douglas.

“Under what name was the mother entered?”

“Under her own, Inspector: ‘Native woman from New Guinea, known as Derry.’”

“False declaration!” cried the inspector triumphantly. “The whole registration is invalid.”

“False declaration?”

“The mother isn’t a woman.”

“That remains to be proved.”

“Why, you yourself —”

“Opinions are divided.”

“Divided? Divided about what? Whose opinions?”

“Those of the leading anthropologists, about the species the Paranthropus belongs to. It’s an intermediate species: man or ape? It resembles both. It may well be that Derry is a woman after all. It’s up to you to prove the contrary, if you can. In the meantime her child is my son, before God and the law.”

The rest of the novel focuses on the series of trials set to determine whether Templemore is guilty of homicide or animal cruelty. But what was merely a hypothetical question of science fiction in 1953 has become a potential bioethical conundrum in 2010. That is why the The Arizona state Senate on Thursday passed a bill making it illegal for a person to “ intentionally or knowingly creating a human-animal hybrid .”
The bill, which passed 16 to 12, would prohibit anyone in the state from “creating or attempting to create an in vitro human embryo by any means other than fertilization of a human egg by a human sperm.”

The measure would also outlaw “transferring or attempting to transfer a human embryo into a nonhuman womb,” “transferring or attempting to transfer a nonhuman embryo into a human womb” and “transporting or receiving for any purpose a human-animal hybrid.”

While the legislation will likely draw snickers and jeers on the internet and cable news programs, the concern is one that should be taken seriously. For almost a decade scientists have been blurring the line between human and animal by producing chimeras —a hybrid creature that’s part human, part animal.

The Chinese began in 2003 by fusing human cells with rabbit eggs to produce the first human-animal chimeras. In the 2005, scientists at Stanford University created mice with small amounts of human brain cells . By 2008, British researchers had created the first human-animal hybrid embryo . The underlying ethical assumption is that humans—at least at the embryonic stage of development—are nothing more than genetic material that can be mixed with other species in whatever way that scientists deem appropriate for their research.

In response to the experiments at his university in 2005, David Magnus, director of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University, said he believed the real worry is whether or not chimeras will be put to uses that are problematic, risky, or dangerous.

For example, an experiment that would raise concerns, he said, is genetically engineering mice to produce human sperm and eggs, then doing in vitro fertilization to produce a child whose parents are a pair of mice.

“Most people would find that problematic,” Magnus said, “but those uses are bizarre and not, to the best of my knowledge, anything that anybody is remotely contemplating. Most uses of chimeras are actually much more relevant to practical concerns.”

In Vercors’ novel the “practical concerns” are industrial; in America, our practical concerns center on our nation’s shared religion: technology. And when the religion’s most powerful denomination—biotechnology—shows an interest, minor quibbles about dignity and human value are easily quelled. Ironically, we consider ourselves too civilized to create chimerical slaves for the factory, yet show no concern for chattel produced for the laboratory.

“What is man that thou art mindful of him,” the Psalmist asks. “Opinions are divided,” reply the technologists, “opinions are divided.”

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