Manipulating humans: Brave new world and Cordwainer Smith

BBC Spins story on human animal hybrids: Headlines say ” Human-animal embryo tests ‘vital’ and in the sidebar we see a quote: “There are no substantive ethical or moral reasons not to proceed with research on human embryos containing Animal material”…Martin Bobrow Academy of medical sciences.

But if you go down to paragraph nine and ten, you read a quote that actually contradicts there two claims:
“There are no substantive ethical or moral reasons not to proceed with research on human embryos containing animal material under the same framework of regulatory control,” he said.

There were currently no scientific reasons to create true hybrid embryos, Mr Bobrow added.
And for some reason, the very real ethical objections are simply not mentioned.

Why not? Putting one human gene into an animal embryo is probably okay, but destroying an embryo who could become a full human being is ethically objectionable to many people. And adding animal genes into a human is human experimentation.

Placing one or two human genes into another organism isn’t a problem, but itsn’t it ironic that although there are many protests about “franken foods” and transgenetic farm crops, there are fewer objections into experimenting on human embryos, even to the extent of making human animal hybrids. Indeed, one wonders why these scientists aren’t doing their work on lower animals first:why not make cat dog hybrids, or Rhesus/gorilla hybrids to do research instead? PETA would protest. But denying a human embryo the right to live, that’s okay?

MirrorOfJusticeBlog links to Leon Kass’ thoughts on the dangers of dehumanization in such manipulation.

No friend of humanity today can be the enemy of science and medicine.

Yet contemplating present and projected advances in genetic and reproductive
technologies, in neuroscience and psychopharmacology, and in the development of artificial
organs and computer-chip implants for human brains, we now clearly recognize new uses for
biotechnical power that soar beyond the traditional medical goals of healing disease and
relieving suffering. Human nature itself lies on the operating table, ready for alteration, for
eugenic and psychic “enhancement,” for wholesale re-design. In leading laboratories new
creators are confidently amassing their powers and quietly honing their skills, while on the street
their evangelists are zealously prophesying a post-human future. For anyone who cares about
preserving our humanity, the time has come to pay attention….

Some transforming powers are already here. The Pill. In vitro fertilization. Bottled
embryos. Surrogate wombs. Cloning. Genetic screening. Genetic manipulation. Organ
harvesting. Mechanical spare parts. Chimeras. Brain implants. Ritalin for the young, Viagra for
the old, Prozac for everyone. And, to leave this vale of tears, a little extra morphine accompanied
by Muzak. …

Kass goes on to use Huxley’s Brave New World to show how many of his prophecies, including the prophacies about dehumanizing effects of technology, have come true, and analyzes the materialistic mindset/denial of God and denial of human dignity that underlies modern bioethics.

Huxley’s picture of hedonism and despair resemble the drug culture of the sixties, but we have gone beyond that today. I always thought that Cordwainer Smith’s SciFi stories were more prophetic on these issues than HGWells or Huxley.

From Wikipedia

  • Planet Norstrilia, a semi-arid planet where an immortality drug is harvested from gigantic virus-infected sheep, each weighing more than 100 tons

How does a society use immortality? Other stories discuss the degeneration of society by “endless happiness” and long, meaningless life…

  • The punishment world of Shayol (cf. Sheol), where criminals are punished by the regrowth and harvesting of their organs for transplanting

How should we see criminals? Do we treat them as inhuman? and if we do, will we soon see them as guinea pigs or as  organ growers and donors?

  • Planoforming spacecraft, which are crewed by humans telepathically linked with cats and which defend themselves against the attacks of unknown malevolent entities in space with the flash of small atomic weapons (these entities are perceived by the humans as dragons, and by the cats as gigantic rats)

Can we combine humans/animal/computers to do our work? In the story, the affection between species counteracts the dehumanizing effect of the work; a strong argument about how love of animals stops the descent into dehumanization.

In the “scanners” stories, it is love for a woman that leads to the human/computer hybrids revolting against their exploitation.

  • The Underpeople, animals modified genetically into human form and intelligence to fulfill servile roles, and treated as property. Several stories feature clandestine efforts to liberate the underpeople and grant them equal rights. They are seen everywhere throughout regions controlled by the Instrumentality.

The stories include characters like D’Joan, who teaches love and leads a peaceful demonstration to prove underpeople are linked to other humans and asserts the (human) dignity of underpeople. The story continues with C’Mell, several hundred years later, and the conspiracy to grant underpeople full rights. It is belief in God that allows the underpeople to remember they have dignity and worth, although that idea is portrayed so subtly that you might miss it.

But taken together, the storie ask: Who is human? Who is worthy of respect and dignity? Can we “use” humans to enhance the powerful? Are animals genetically altered to be intelligent/semi human that do the dirty work of society worthy of rights?Making a utopia without a reverence for life ends up dehumanizing all involved is the context of Smith’s thoughtful stories. And in reading them, it makes us wonder if scientist’s hubris to manipulate animal/human hybrids may someday be recognized as the equivalent of slavery and human experimentation.

Something to think about.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket, and she writes on Bioethics at Boinkie’s Blog

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