Culture vulture

Who goes there: man or mouse?
Culture Vulture has a self-imposed policy against trolling the Internet for column ideas. We strive to react to events within, or closely related to, our local community. But once in a while something comes along that is too bizarre to be ignored, such as the story below, which is excerpted from an Associated Press story found on the CNN web site.

RENO, Nevada (AP) Saturday, April 30, 2005 Posted: 11:16 PM EDT (0316 GMT)

In January, an informal ethics committee at Stanford University endorsed a proposal to create mice with brains nearly completely made of human brain cells. Stem cell scientist Irving Weissman said his experiment could provide unparalleled insight into how the human brain develops and how degenerative brain diseases like Parkinson’s progress.

Stanford law professor Hank Greely, who chaired the ethics committee, said the board was satisfied that the size and shape of the mouse brain would prevent the human cells from creating any traits of humanity. Just in case, Greely said, the committee recommended closely monitoring the mice’s behavior and immediately killing any that display human-like behavior.

Culture Vulture is all for humanistic progress and the development of life-enhancing technologies, but in this matter our gut reaction is similar to the pitchfork- and torch-bearing villagers who storm the mad scientist’s castle to put an end to the horrors being created in the dungeons.

The idea that technology is now advanced enough to create human/animal hybrids—the story also mentions that within the past two years scientists have created pigs with human blood and sheep with partially human livers, brains, hearts and other tissues—is the stuff of horror films and nightmares. The fact that the research is being carried out in hopes of combating human diseases and degenerative health disorders makes it slightly more palatable, I suppose, but the part that really sets off my ethical alarm is the last sentence quoted above: “The committee recommended closely monitoring the mice’s behavior and immediately killing any that display human-like behavior.”

Who’s going to be the judge of that?

Further reading suggestion
The brilliant science-fiction writer Cordwainer Smith wrote a “future history” series of stories, The Rediscovery of Man, in which he posits a society made up of hominids, the descendents of purely human genetic stock, and under-people, animals who have been given human characteristics through surgical and genetic manipulation techniques so that they can serve as slaves or indentured servants to the true humans. The thrust of Smith’s peculiar and beautifully written stories is the reconciliation of the humans with their servants by mutual recognition of empathic traits that transcend interspecies differences of physiology.

Cordwainer Smith was a nom de plume of Dr. Paul Linebarger, who is famous for his still-used text book, Psychological Warfare, originally published in 1949.