Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Where are the limits of human-animal rights?

How far should we extend consideration for animal rights, in particular with regard to chimpanzees or other 'higher' primates?  Views on this vary from people who argue about the necessity of using non-human primates to understand human disease, or behavior, or evolution, to the those who argue that as our nearest relatives, chimpanzees should enjoy the same rights that humans enjoy.  In fact, the New York Times had a story on Sunday about the first chimp suing its owner for abuse.  Federal regulations have changed on this over the years, currently erring on the side of more rights than fewer, but this hasn't always been so.

Now, Svante Paabo, a pioneer of sequencing ancient DNA (from fossils) and the first and one of the major sequencers of Neanderthal fossil DNA, has written a thoughtful NY Times piece about the rather culpably casual rhetoric about 'cloning' a Neanderthal that has followed the sequencing of several Neanderthal genomes.  The  widespread headlines by promoters of this sexy idea usually omit some important technical details that clearly show that the idea is not actually cloning a Neanderthal (Svante briefly itemizes some of this), but that's not our point here.

Neanderthal; BBC website

The Neanderthal is treated in the usual stories, even by prominent investigators who should know better, as some object of study, as an 'it'.  But we know that Neanderthals and other populations that once existed, or at least are identified as populations by some sample fossil finds, could interbreed with the direct ancestors of us modern humans, or is that the way to put it?

If 'they' bred with early 'us', then what makes them 'they' rather than others of 'us'?  The answer is that this is a misrepresentation of the population dynamics.  What happened, based on current knowledge and interpretation, is that two groups of our ancestors met and inter-bred.  The only reason one is called 'them' and the other 'us' is that the vast majority of the DNA you and we carry around seems  to have come from the ancestors being referred to as our own, and only minority from the Neanderthals who are often treated as a truly different kind of life--a different species.  This shows some modern arrogance on our part, as if they were some sort of strange interlopers into our noble lineage.  Instead, they were just part of our lineage.

Is old-fashioned racism lurking beneath the jolly stories here?
Of course, in our current scientific system, including news and other attention-seeking media, we quickly see evaluations of what functionally important genes 'they' gave to 'us'?  (Anything we gave to them must have been rather devastating, if the interpretation that they all died out is correct).  Whether the list is of 'good' or 'bad' genes, does the assignment of such genes as being owned by one or the other ancestral group an unmixed scientific assessment?

Or, by classifying the groups as us and them, and then saying 'they' had this or that genetic variant that they gave to 'us', are we carelessly indulging in just another form of group generalization, another form or value-judgment racism?  Do we blame their inferior nature for the 'bad' genes, for type 2 diabetes, say, that we got by some careless intermixture with 'them'?  If genes they gave us were superior (say, high-IQ genes such as found in certain racial groups today--you can fill in the blanks, we're sure), then why did they die out and we persevere?  If we won but they had the superior genes at the time of encounters, then why doesn't this make people think twice about ritualized Darwinist assertions of how who adapted to what?

If it was a few of their good genes mixing with our overall-better genomes, then why didn't the offspring, who were 50-50 in terms of ancestry, lend superiority to their part of the interacting groups?  Of course, you can make up any story you want, especially if you believe that the 'disease' or 'superior' variants really are so--we readily know how vulnerable GWAS and other genetic value assessments are proving to be, to over-generalization.

So perhaps there's the additional issue not just of animal/human distinctions, but of careless talk reinforcing the racism always latent in the human heart.

But even that is not our point today.

What about the clones?
Let's suppose that the modern Dr Frankensteins can bring the Neanderthal 'It' to life.  How will that be done?  First, with present-day technology, there will have to be a very low-tech participant besides the Neanderthal DNA: some woman to carry the fetus.  It probably can't be a chimp, should one 'volunteer', because Neanderthals were so essentially human that a human uterus,  pelvis, and physiology would be needed to carry the new baby.  Well, there are probably plenty of people who'd volunteer for the job.  So, forgetting that minor obstacle, what will occur once the venerable Dr F has the bundle of joy in his lab?

Will it be 'human'?  Svante likens the cloning to doing that with his deceased grandparent's DNA and points out how rather spooky and wrong that would be.  Here, there would be no personally known relative involved.  But would the cloner, our kindly Dr F, have ownership of the baby?  Would the baby be considered an animal or a person?

So, would the beneficent Dr F have the right to keep little It in a cage?  Or, say, put It on display in his lab or in the (say, naming no names) nearby Boston zoo?  Would It be housed alone, or with some other animals.....and if so, which, and which type of animals as It's roommate(s)?

Would scientists have the right to poke, probe, and experiment with Neando?  To draw blood or even snip out a few tissue biopsies when they wanted to (often enough to generate a stream of Nature papers)?   Subject it to CT or fMRI scans?  Why not?  After all, this is science! 

Or, alternatively, would little Neando automatically have civil rights as a human?  Born in some august university's city here, would it have citizenship?  Would it have the right to a real foster home, with human parents?  To be taught language (not as an experiment by some always-well-meaning NIH-funded psychology professors, but by a real adoptive parent)?  Would it have the expectation, indeed the right, to go to school?

When it reached adulthood, assuming it wasn't so immunologically vulnerable that it would quickly die of some sort of infection, or malnutrition by being fed our typical diabetogenic diet, would it have the right to vote?

The real test of ethics
The real test of ethics, indeed the basic core of ethics, is when it restrains you from doing something you'd really like to do.  Otherwise, it's basically a feel-good game.  So, how seriously, no matter how many ethics seminars we may have been certified as having attended, do we take human rights?  On which side of the sadism line do our views lie?  When is it time to stop superficial speculation or even joking about all of this, even in major news and journal media, instead to take a stand and draw the line, a line that one simply may not cross?


Bones and Behaviours said...

I've been troubled by the interests or 'rights' of neanderthals since I heard about the cloning story, especially given the way corporations have of finding legal loopholes (the rule of law really means anyone who can afford the lawyers can get away with anything, even as everyone else is tied down by legal bureauocracy.)

This is really a case of needing bioethical (and general ethical) legislation already in place, based on reasonable near-future predictions, before the science is allowed - hopefully ape rights will be enough to protect the hominins, but in other contexts (such as genetic profiling) trends are already towards a Gattaca world with no protection from insurance companies.

Peter Watts has provided a parallel in the abuse of information technology for surveilance - yea, the NSA stuff was predicted in advance and what was once dystopian fiction is already reality.


Manoj Samanta said...

Very good commentary by Peter Watts. Thanks for posting.

and now we are all on some 'no fly' list for praising it :)