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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Margaret Somerville is at it again: Shadows of the Endarkenment from Montreal

Margaret Somerville, the Montreal-based high priestess of the ethical Endarkenment, is at it again. This new article in the Ottawa Citizen provides her latest protestations about the imagined evils of biomedical research and innovation.

In this case, Somerville's problem is with the creation of human-animal hybrids, chimeras, or similar entities, even if only for research, and even if they never come to term. As always with Somerville's work, it is difficult to establish - through the miasma of rhetoric - exactly what the problem is supposed to be. This is typical of the neo-Luddite superstitions that form a blight on contemporary thinking about bioethics and much else.

Somerville defines a number of concepts: chimeras; transgenic organisms; hybrids; and "cybrids".

Chimeras are defined, for her purpose, as organisms that contain genetically distinct populations of cells derived, for example, from more than one embryo - whether an animal and a human embryo or two embryos of the same species. (Notwithstanding this definition from Somerville, the idea is usually that of a creature with cells from creatures of two different species.)

Transgenic organisms are defined as organisms whose genomes have received foreign DNA, e.g. if non-human DNA were inserted into a human embyro. Topical examples are the insertion of human DNA into pig embryos for xenotransplantation purposes (using animal organs in humans) and the insertion of human DNA into mice to study human disease.

Hybrids are created by fertilizing a human ovum with an animal sperm, or vice versa. E.g. a hamster ovum might be fertilised with human sperm to check on the sperm's viability and potency.

Cybrids are a sub-category of hybrids: embryos have the cytoplasm of one species and the nuclear DNA of another. They result from cloning when human nuclear DNA is inserted into an animal ovum. The hybrid embryo contains human nuclear DNA but non-human mitochondrial DNA.

Predictably, Somerville finds this all very yucky and wants us to get in touch with our inner feelings of aversion: "When we consider the amazing array of potential methods for combining human and animal DNA, we should heed our 'yuck' reaction." Later, she adds: "Most people have an ethical 'yuck' reaction to human-animal combinations, for instance, human-animal hybrids. Our moral intuitions tell us that using the human capacity to reproduce with an animal is wrong. We must make sure that intuition is not repressed."

So, what's wrong with this analysis? The first thing to notice is that Somerville illegitimately slips in the word "ethical" in her phrase "ethical yuck reaction". There is nothing that is necessarily ethical at all about yuck reactions. For example, many things give me a feeling of "yuckiness" or disgust, but say nothing whatsoever about ethical issues. Indeed, a rational approach to moral philosophy arguably consists, to quite a considerable extent, in achieving an intellectual distance from such reactions - and in distrusting them as a source of any moral wisdom.

Thus, I have a response of disgust to the idea of eating horse meat; however, I have no such response to the idea of eating cow meat. It is, of course, arguable by vegetarians that it's wrong for privileged Westerners like me to eat meat at all - perhaps because a vegetarian diet is more environmentally sustainable than an omnivore diet, or perhaps because animals that are killed for meat almost always suffer cruelty ... or perhaps for some other plausible reason. However, I find it very difficult to believe that there's anything morally wrong with eating horse meat but not cow meat. If it's morally okay to eat Clover the cow, then I think the same must apply to feasting on her equine buddy Boxer, and I have no rational basis to condemn the folks in Italy and France who are keen to offer me some cheval sauce on spaghetti. It's really just a matter of how I have been socialised.

Something similar applies to homosexuality. Perhaps I'd be better off with a more bisexual orientation - which doubles the number of people to cuddle - but the fact is, as I've said in the past, that I feel a certain degree of disgust at the idea of (say) tongue-kissing another bloke. This doubtless reflects something about my socialisation and/or my genetic makeup, and in no way implies that my friends of both sexes who are more open to homoerotic experience - and who act on that openness - do something morally wrong. The idea is ridiculous. How could my feelings of disgust at being involved with sexual contact with another human male tell me anything at all about the moral permissibility of such activity when engaged in consensually by those who enjoy it? Surely, it is more relevant to ask obvious questions, such as whether they are actually harming anybody.

The yuck factor is a notoriously doubtful guide to anything in morality. It is incredible that there are philosophers, bioethicists, and legal theorists who consider it intellectually tenable to rely on such a guide.

Somerville asks whether the ancient crime of bestiality is based on our fear that a mixed human-animal living being could result, and on our moral intuition against this. If so, she suggests, we should heed that intuition. But surely this is nonsense.

It is easy to imagine that sexual attraction to non-human animals was of no value for our ancestors in terms of reproductive fitness, and may even have had evolutionary disadvantages. Accordingly, it's no wonder if most of us find the idea disconcerting or even disgusting. This might be just as well if actually having sex with non-human animals tends to be painful or dangerous to the animals concerned and to create other dangers, such as those of inter-species disease transfer. It's not that we somehow "know" (how?) that creating mixed species is morally wrong and therefore abstain from inter-species sex. We can be sure that our ancestors, hundreds of housands of years ago, were (mostly) abstaining from sex with other species well before they could articulate such concepts. It's not that we have some deep, unarticulated wisdom that human-animal hybrids are morally problematic ... and we therefore abstain from inter-species sex: we are inclined to abstain from inter-species sex, and to find it rather disgusting, for reasons that long predate morality and are perhaps not fully transparent to us.

With no rational basis whatsoever, except an airy reference to what "most people think", Somerville concludes that it is inherently wrong to create a human-animal hybrid or cybrid. She then asks whether it could ever be morally okay to use gene-transfer techniques for transgenesis. She implies that it is always wrong to transfer non-human genes into human beings, though it is not clear why that should be so (if inserting some stretch of DNA from a non-human animal could make me more resistant to certain diseases, while having no detrimental effect, what could possibly be wrong with it?).

As for the transfer of human genes into non-human animals, she thinks at least three issues are relevant: the nature and function of the genetic material transferred; the amount of that material in comparison with the animal's genome; and the reason for the transfer. I agree that these could be relevant, but mainly because they will give us some information about the likely consequences in a particular case.

Somerville rightly thinks that, all other things being equal, it could be morally okay to insert human DNA into an animal for the purpose of recovering useful drugs from the animal's milk, or to make its organs more compatible with our bodies for the purposes of transplants. However, she rejects the idea of implanting large numbers of human embryonic stem cells into a mouse embryo - fearful of the nightmare of creating a creature of humanlike intelligence but restricted to a mouse's body.

In fact, I also have reservations about creating non-human animals of humanlike intelligence, unless we could be very sure that they could be provided with happy lives. But that consideration tells us nothing about experimenting on mouse embryos. Even if a hybrid human-mouse were born, so what? The scenario that Somerville is imagining is totally unrealistic. There is no prospect that anything faintly like a human-level intelligence would develop in any brain that could be sustained by a body the size of a mouse's. This is jumping at shadows. Or rather, it is implausible rationalisation of an irrational response.

We should stop relying on our feelings of disgust, when it comes to morality; we should stop jumping at shadows, and stop making baseless claims about certain things being "inherently wrong". What is required is a rigorous, dispassionate analysis of the benefits and harms that are reasonably likely if we go down certain experimental paths. If an animal's pain or suffering is involved, we have reason to ask whether the possible gains genuinely make certain experiments worthwhile. Otherwise, the advancement of science and medicine should not be impeded by vague "yuck factor" responses, or half-baked rationalisations of them, such as Somerville's.


Blake Stacey said...

I'm not overly squeamish about blood — I don't faint dead away when somebody gets a cut finger — but I have enough of a "yuck" response to bodily inner workings that I could never be a surgeon. However, I certainly want surgeons in my world! Variations in the "yuck" response are a good thing, because they make societally necessary occupations possible.

Chimeras are defined, for her purpose, as organisms that contain genetically distinct populations of cells derived, for example, from more than one embryo - whether an animal and a human embryo or two embryos of the same species.

So, a person who's received an organ transplant is a chimera?

About the sex-with-other-animal-species thing. . . This is one area where I think cultural dependencies might be stronger than our first impression would suggest. We don't have nature gods anymore; animals are just animals. Furthermore, most of us aren't living "on the land" these days — during our adolescent hormone-storms, we're surrounded by Hollywood specters rather than farm animals.

Suppose that Anaximander's ideas of evolution, combined with Aristotle's attempts at species classification, had developed into a full-blown theory of mutation and natural selection, taught in the classrooms of Alexandria. I wonder, for example, if a culture which produced satyrs, Europa riding a bull and Leda getting nasty with a swan would find an evolutionary purpose for interspecies affairs.

Or, if Darwin and Wallace had never lived, and evolution were discovered today in Japan, would they hunt for a selection pressure behind the attraction some men and women feel for Naughty Tentacles?

Remember, there's only so much room in the genome, and coding information about behavior into plans for proteins cannot be a simple or direct process. We have more cells in our brain than we do bases in our genome, so morphology and development can't not matter!

Anonymous said...

A genetic chimera can occur when twins, dizygotic I believe, fuse very soon after conception. You can end up with a normal looking person who has parts from one of the twin and other parts from the other. I saw this on House and CSI and we know hollywood never lies. (I just lost all credibility didn't I?)

I was thinking to about centaurs and satyrs too. Didn't the centaur myth arise from the first time the greeks saw men on horseback and not know what it was in sight? I think the thing to realise about cross species action back in the day is the cross species bit. If my memory of biology serves me right, two individuals are considered of the same species if they can produce fertile offspring. That is why a green rosella and eastern rosella are considered of the same species. In some parts of Oz their breeding periods conincide and they mate, and have fertile young, even though in other parts they don't. Just like a chihuahua and a great dane are the same species. You can't imagine them gettin' it on in a satisfactory manner, but many intermediate flea bag breeds do provide the bridge.
Horses and donkeys share the same genus, as do Lions and Tigers, but are different species and so produce young that are infertile and often have developmental problems.
Humans are a bit removed from other ape species. And greatly differ from non apes. There would not seem to be a lot of attraction. We are lumped in our own genus, so we couldn't produce fertile offspring with say a binobo even if an intrepid (or deviant) human did the funky monkey with a monkey (couldn't resist). Perhaps it's just my socialization that doesn't give me to imagining such a scenario.
But enough of my gibberish. I reckon you've got it pretty right about intuition/gut feeling not being a good guide to morality. I too don't find the idea of homosexual sex to my gut's liking, but that's irrelevant. Seems like a lot of people assume that because it makes them feel queezy it's a universally bad thing.

Russell Blackford said...

Somebody should write a book that digs back into the historical genealogy of attitudes of disgust towards sex with animals. How universal is it? Does it take different forms at different times? Has it evolved? I suppose people like Westermarck may already have collected some interesting historical data.

My suspicion is that there is a genetic element to it ... as there seems to be with the incest taboo (really a disgust at sex with people whom we grew up as young children). Admittedly, it does seem mysterious that so much psychological structure can be packed into our normally-developing brains by genetics, but there's not much doubt, IMHO, that a helluva lot can be. Indeed, that's even true of non-human animals. Think of some of the very elaborate behaviours even of insects. At all "levels" (not the right word, I realise) think of how predators often "know" exactly what prey to hunt and how to go about it. Admittedly, some are more specialised than others. All our mammalian kin are pretty choosy about what they will mate with, even though a lion will mate with a tiger if needed, or a horse with a donkey. Then there's our cross-cultural ability to read faces in the same way. And so on.

If we are "programmed" to be repulsed by the idea of sex with non-human animals - or to learn such feelings of repulsion easily - I'm not really surprised. Obviously, it's not programming that always "takes" given that various kinds of bestiality are in fact practised from time to time and place to place.

I don't think we should assume that the Greeks were less shocked than we are by the idea of inter-species sex because they had myths about such creatures as satyrs and centaurs, or about such figures as Leda, Pasiphae, etc. The former may show a fascination with the place of human beings in the cosmos, but such beings are always seeemingly anomalous. The stories of Leda and so on were strange, numinous, challenging ones involving the preremptory will of gods, not reflections of daily Mediterranean life. ;)

Anonymous said...

If we should rely on yuck factors, isn't Fear Factor more immoral than GMOs? And is eating insects unethical in some parts of the world but ethical in others?

On sex with animals: it's pretty far out on the fringe now, but not necessarily in other times and places- in Sweden, more men were executed for sex with animals than women for witchcraft in the 17th century. That could be used as evidence both for and against an innate aversion!

Humans are a bit removed from other ape species (...) We are lumped in our own genus

Humans are genetically closer to chimps than many animal species that share a genus, including horses and donkeys. It's not a very impartial designation.

Blake Stacey said...

This is the sort of post which should be sent to more carnivals. Judging from that recent Pharyngula thread about genetic enhancements, I expect there are a great many people in the diffuse godless/skeptic/anti-creationist/etc. community who are interested in these issues and would appreciate well-thought-out, evidence-based accounts of them.

Just think: you could be the man who brought transhumanism to ScienceBlogs!

Or something like that.

Anonymous said...

Just FYI: Knew a researcher who, via questionnaires, covertly figured out a particular characteristic of people who do not find giving blow jobs disgusting: a "yes" answer to the question, "I like roller coasters."


Zach Alexander said...

I'm mostly with you, but you seem to be drawing too sharp a dichotomy between the "yuck factor" (illusory) and ethics (the real deal).

But isn't ethics ultimately about "yuck factors," or at least closely related reactions? The reason we feel it's wrong to do someone harm is simply because it gives us a kind of "yuck" reaction to see someone hurt, is it not?

If so, then we shouldn't reject these visceral reactions outright, but simply handle them more critically.