Talking about Human/Animal Hybrids

For three years a laboratory in the U.K. has been secretly producing human/animal embryos, and has apparently made about 150 embryos. A search for “U.K. human animal hybrids” will turn up several articles reporting on this. See here for one of several articles on this. Technically, the creation of human/animal hybrids is legal under the 2008 Human Fertilisation Embryology Act However, there are regulations in place, including the destruction of these embryos at 14 days.


The reasons given for rejecting this research include that it is “dabbling in the grotesque.” The difficulty with this argument is it is based on a personal revulsion which I believe is valid, but is a difficult position in the public square. Without an appeal to something more than a personal revulsion, those that are not repulsed at the thought of human/animal hybrids would see themselves as having an equally valid position. Appealing to our natural inclinations is important, and should not be discouraged. Leon Kass’ appeal to the ‘yuck’ factor in human cloning  (Kass, Leon R. Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Dignity, 2002) is a valid argument and a strong framework for appealing to what could also be called a moral law. But these arguments are also important reminders of how what was once disgusting becomes unsettling. What was once unsettling becomes mildly palatable.  And finally, what was once mildly palatable becomes acceptable. The initial inclinations are all but forgotten. To take this a step further, those in favor of this work consider it a “moral imperative” to pursue this research because they believe it can save lives, cure diseases, and help scientists understand human development.


The “dabbling in the grotesque” argument is not robust enough for the public square. Yet, this is often the argument against such new technology, an appeal to revulsion, and the fear of a “Planet of the Apes” (or worst case) type scenario. While helpful, I think Lord Alton’s approach calls out the underlying problem. From the article:


Last night he said: ‘I argued in Parliament against the creation of human- animal hybrids as a matter of principle. None of the scientists who appeared before us could give us any justification in terms of treatment.

‘Ethically it can never be justifiable – it discredits us as a country. It is dabbling in the grotesque.

‘At every stage the justification from scientists has been: if only you allow us to do this, we will find cures for every illness known to mankind. This is emotional blackmail.

‘Of the 80 treatments and cures which have come about from stem cells, all have come from adult stem cells – not embryonic ones.

‘On moral and ethical grounds this fails; and on scientific and medical ones too.’


Lord Alton does appeal to the “yuck” factor by saying that it is dabbling in the grotesque, but he also appeals to the failed science, which is likely why this project has lost funding, to the U.K.’s global image, and to the scientists use of manipulative tactics.  He appeals to pragmatism (and money), politics, and character as well as the personal revulsion. I believe these arguments carry weight in a secular public square. Hopefully, these types of arguments allow for a common language for addressing issues and regulations regarding questionable research.


As a final note: In framing the issue of constructing human/animal hybrids, it is important to clarify the different ways that human and animal genetic material can be combined. The possibilities are hybrids, cybrids, chimeras, and transgenic (or xenotransplantation). Hybrids are the gametes from two different species. Cybrids are animal cells with human nucleus, which contains human DNA. Chimeras are organisms that are either human with animal parts or animals with human parts (or animal embryos with human cells). Transgenic embryos are usually an animal that has been implanted with specific human DNA so that it will develop an organ or material that is compatible with humans. This technique is often used with pigs to cause them to produce human insulin. See my article here for a more extensive discussion on these terms. The important point to note is that not all human/animal combinations are morally equivalent.

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