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Sunday, May 01, 2005

The Island of Doctor Moreau

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This story in Yahoo details what has been a growing trend; the mixing of genetic material between species. In the past, we have used animals for medical purposes; pigs and sheep produce insulin, we have transplanted heart valves and other minor organs from animals into people, we have even transplanted baboon hearts into people as a stop-gap measure to keep them alive. These have been, by and large, reasonable and relatively safe endeavors. They have been strictly physical manipulations. What we are now witnessing, however, is something very different; the infusion of human genetic material into animals.

The potential medical benefits from doing this are great, but is it worth the risk? This article sights a concern by some scientists:

``Particularly worrisome to some scientists are the nightmare scenarios that could arise
from the mixing of brain cells: What if a human mind somehow got trapped inside
a sheep's head?
The "idea that human neuronal cells might participate in 'higher order' brain
functions in a nonhuman animal, however unlikely that may be, raises concerns
that need to be considered," the academies report warned.``

I find this highly improbable. The human brain is enormously complex and requires the proper conditions for it to form properly; an animal body is simply not the proper environment for the brain to develope. (Furthermore, a sheep has no soul,) I, for one, am not going to lose any sleep over this particular nightmare. I have a worse one.

Question: why do most animals reproduce through sex? Because all higher order life on Earth has been engaged in an endless battle against microorganisms. These microorganisms adapt and evolve to prey on the genetic code of larger creatures, and they quickly ``learn`` the genetic template of their prey. Larger life forms have to continually remix their genetic code to stay one step ahead of these microorganisms. By reproducing sexually, children wind up with a new molecular variation which the microorganisms then have to adapt themselves to if they are to thrive. In short, sex is healthy for your offspring.

So, where`s the problem? Every species on Earth has a plethora of microorganisms which have specialized in parasiting and infecting that particular species. There are many, many diseases which are incapable of jumping species. (How`s your case of wheat rust coming, Billy?) By mixing our genes with animal genes, we are offering these heretofore benign diseases the chance to mutate into something that can attack mankind. Since the microorganisms are being introduced to human genetic material mixed with their favorite foods, they are going to be able to acquire a taste, shall we say, for the human genome. I fear we may create the Last Plague.

This biological alchemy is the penultimate hubris; we are ignorantly opening Pandoras box, having no idea what may be inside while believing we are shielded by our divine wisdom. The problem is that the potential benefits are so great that we simply can`t help ourselves. I understand, and I sympathize. I am a great believer in science, and I believe we should explore the double helix for the betterment of ourselves and posterity. I fear, however, that we are too smart for our own good, and our sophomoric efforts could cost us dearly. We need to be very, very careful.

What we are doing is dismantling the fundamental safeguards of life, and I fear a retribution of horrific proportions. Call it Divine Judgement, Karma, or evolution in action. Few species are interfertile. Donkeys and horses can mate (producing a sterile hybrid) and there are a few other instances of animal hybridization. Mostly, we can`t blend genetic material naturally. God made our world this way (or Nature, if you are agnostic) and our meddling with these fundamentals is dangerous.

In H. G. Wells` novel The Island of Doctor Moreau, the title character engages in just this behavior, with disasterous results. These geneticists should reread their Wells.

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4 Comments:

Blogger BonnieBlueFlag said...

What always worries me about these experiments, is the possibility of having a human mind trapped in some awful creation, and the dreadful life of that creature. Would I, or anyone else, want to live that kind of existence? How can we allow this to happen to another living being?

7:40 PM  
Blogger Aussiegirl said...

Tim, as always, another outstanding and thought-provoking article, chock-full of scientific fact and intelligent analysis of the possible problems. I hadn't even thought of this angle at all, but the thought of it is indeed frightening. Even relatively benign sounding alterations in genetics can have unforeseen effects. I just read about a plant that had human liver genes inserted to enable the plant to digest and dispose of pesticides and herbicides so that it could be grown more successfully as a crop. The problem here lies in this gene possible being carried into the wild, a completely possible outcome, and noxious weeds and other harmful plants becoming immune to all the herbicides that we currently possess. It would be like equipping bacteria with an antidote to all known antibiotics. Once we start messing with this stuff we are really asking for trouble. Why don't you work this up into an article for the American Thinker? I'm fascinated, and I haven't seen anyone come up with this angle before.

Thanks.

9:27 PM  
Blogger TJ Willms said...

The wheat rust is coming along nicely, thank you for asking.

Many of these cross species experiments have come to us using stem cells. Why would any rational human being want to expand their use until more is known about the lines we do have under research? The scientists seem to have the overwhelming desire to play God. Unfortunately, these experiments are not thoughtfully contained on any island.

2:06 AM  
Anonymous Pindar said...

Thanks, Tim, for bringing this fascinating article to our attention. I agree with the other comments that we may indeed have opened Pandora's box, but let's remember that in the original fable, what remained at the bottom of the box after the ills that were to afflict mankind had left, was Hope, there to assuage the lot of man. So we can hope that our worst fears won't be realized.

10:28 PM  

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