Sharp Blue: The boundaries of humanity


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Let’s suppose that some dastardly[1] scientist has created a whole series of viable foetuses that have varying numbers of human and chimpanzee genes. At one end, there’s one that’s 99% human and 1% chimpanzee. At the other end, there’s one that’s 1% human and 99% chimp. Between these extremes they vary in 1% increments.[2] Now, which of these (if any) should be worthy of the same protection that fully human foetuses should be accorded? Which of the adults derived from these foetuses should have full human rights? What determines the position of the boundary? If the answer depends on exactly which human and chimp genes are included, which factors are most important? If none are worthy of being considered human, is there any degree of chimp genome (perhaps one gene or a section of introns) that could be spliced in without removing the essence of humanity? (I’d be especially interested in knowing what any “pro-life” readers make of this situation!)

[1] I don’t propose to start an argument about the ethics of creating these foetuses in the first place so I’ll just concede that said scientist was dastardly (this shouldn’t be taken to mean that I think the work was necessarily dastardly!). I don’t think the questions about how they or adults derived from them should be treated are dependent at all on the ethics of creating them in the first place.

[2] It may very well be the case that it’s not possible to produce viable foetuses that have the full spectrum of combinations of human and chimpanzee genes. Getting around this issue is assumed to be part of the fiendish process used by my putative scientist. If this troubles you then consider that for any pair of species A and B there are paths in “gene space” that have the property that one end of the path is in the cluster of genomes for species A, the other end of the path is in cluster of genomes B, and every point along the path gives the genome of a viable organism (given a suitable environment in which morphogenesis can occur). (This is true because any pair of species have a common ancestor if one looks far enough back in time, so one can head from species A towards a genome from the ancestral species C, and from there towards species B.) Then consider artifically created foetuses with genomes spaced evenly along such a path. Although this isn’t quite my original thought experiment - there may be genes in the ancestral genomes that aren’t in either modern genome - I don’t think it seriously affects any relevant arguments. Furthermore, note that if one wishes to define species membership as a binary predicate, then one will necessarily be able to produce viable organisms that span the boundary in genetic space between the “member of species A” region and the “not member of species A” region, and furthermore to do so in such gradual steps that the distribution of individuals look essentially continuous in any variable one wishes to measure.

I suspect there will be a lot of arguing about how to quantify a different between the human and chimp genomes (on DNA? codons? proteins? protein structure? RNA helpers?), but still, the question is very interesting and valid. I have no solid evidence to back this up, but I think a few well-targeted changes to the chimp genome could increase their intelligence quite significantly and bring them well along the way, if not fully into, human intelligence, at which point personally I would accord them human rights. Of course, then the question is how you define and measure that intelligence (maybe some sort of altered Turing test).

I recall this issue being addressed in a Heinlein short story. A genetic engineering company was using intellectually enhanced chimps as cheap labour, until one of them was encouraged to demand its 'human' rights. The legal issue was complicated by the mutual recognition of legal rights between humans and intellectually-superior Martians.

Heinlein's solution was to afford human rights to those who could demonstrate some degree of artistic ability; as arbitrary an answer as one could hope for.

Are you looking for a theoretically justifiable answer or a pragmatic one? Dr Monreau's monkey-boys will not convince me to abandon my non-vegetarian, non-cannibal lifestyle. Come to think of it, why not exploit the power of this taboo? If I'll eat it, then it ain't human. Problem solved!

This is a boring question.

The question fails to arise in real life due to the sparsity of successful species; they do not generally populate huge regions of the possible genetic space.

But smearing the discrete into the continuous does not raise any new or interesting problems. The law (in Western societies, anyway) deals with continuous spaces and ambiguity all the time. How much do you have to steal before it becomes a Big Deal? How much did you have to know about the possible consequences of your behavior before your responsibility in someone's death leads to life in prison (or worse)?

Were such smeared human-monkey species to be common, our legal system would pick some nice, arbitrary boundary, much as it does today in deciding that birth + 1 second = (human with rights} whereas birth - 1 second = (human with fewer rights). And that's OK. That's how rational societies deal with continuum phenomena.

If you want an absolute distinction, ask for a fatwah. Any fatwah - Christian, Moslem, whatever. Doesn't much matter, does it?

(Hey, Plurp is alive and reading weblogs! Whyn't you post then, eh?)

I agree it's a boring question in the sense that it's not insoluble. But I do wonder what the (inevitably more or less arbitrary) criterion would turn out to be, and which criteria would be better (for anyone's favorite sense of "better") than others. Would we settle for just some quantitative measure of DNA Hamming distance? Or would we do it at a higher level, requiring some particular behavior (or potential or expected behavior)? And if we did that (or whatever we ended up doing), would we also end up classifying as less than fully human some number of entities that we would today classify as fully human just because we haven't been forced to think about the problem?

(And, can I somehow use this in my novel?)

I don't think I have anything major to add to the general conversation (my brain is exam-addled), but I did want to let you know that your post immediately made me think of the scene in Alien:Resurrection where the successful Ripley clone finds all the other failed attempts at cloning her (at various stages on the alien-human continuum). I can't recall if they're alive or not (I think they are), but she torches the lot.

I imagine that the decisions made would be subjective and case-based ... the human-chimps awarded human rights would be those that to sufficient humans showed "human" characteristics. Where it would get interesting would be if someone tried to use this the other way around -- that humans _not_ showing enough of these characteristics be dehumanised...

I think it's telling that chimp-humans don't exist. The hypothetical is based on the assumption that such creatures would be viable.

To turn a chimp into a human requires a certain number of (independently helpful) mutations. We know the time between divergence of the two species to now, and this gives us an upper limit on the time it took for humans to evolve from chimps. By dividing the number of mutations by the divergence time, we come to a mutation rate.

What rate of helpful mutations should we expect?


P.S. Speaking of _Alien Resurrection_, notice that Ripley's "mercy killing" of the failed hybrids involves her burning them. Is there a more painful way to die? Such stupidity was too typical of that film. MJ

I think this is a telling example. It's certainly true that it would be resolved pragmatically with an arbitrary limit. But it also points to a very messy area of our ideas of "rights"; we don't really have (and, I should add, we fear for very good historical reasons!) a fine-grained sliding scale idea of rights. Basically, under our law, there are two categories of entity with respect to "rights": humans and objects. Which seems really weird to me, because a chimpanzee is not a rock.

While it's true that there are anti-cruelty laws many places protecting certain kinds of animal, at bottom they are really about protecting the sentiments of humans: dogs have many more pseudo-rights than pigs, not because they are any smarter or more capable of feeling, but because we like them.

I would submit that rights are not determined by characteristics of individuals at all. Human babies do not have rights on the basis of being smart or capable or cute, nor on the basis of the potential to become such (they have rights even if it is medically clear they'll die tomorrow), but because they are human; they belong to the tribe. Ancient humans tended to extend rights only to members of the actual tribe; we are no different, except for the size of the tribe involved; most people now will at least pay lip service to including all humans in the tribe, hence "human rights".

Indeed, the real reason dogs come away better than pigs under the law is that dogs are our allies; dogs sort of provisionally belong to the tribe in a subordinate fashion.

So the real issue is the issue of cultural context and community. If the mad scientist creates these critters as a one-off, and springs the experiment fully realized on the world, the determination of their rights will have a lot to do with the particulars of the court case that settles them. If we assume that a henchman liquidates all the hybrids and is brought up on trial for murder, we can assume that he isn't going to get off easy.

If, though, they are rescued from the mad doctor's island and adopted by families with their status (pets or children?) intentionally left unclear or mired in years of legal battles, and there's no compelling ulterior interest on the part of the powers that be to distort the decision, then ultimately their human or nonhuman status -- certainly de facto, and the law is likely to follow -- will (should?) depend on the success of their integration into the human community. If, at the end of the day, their host families regard them as children, they will get the rights of human beings for the same reason human infants do -- they are part of the tribe.

A related case is if we find a living exemplar of Homo Florensis -- though H. Florensis is a lot more human than most of your foetuses, and I would be shocked if she weren't admitted into the human community.

We should not forget that the most similar living creature to man outwardly, the rare lovable Bonobo, is being slaughtered for "bush meat" in Ziare. They are far less murderous than their more common chimp relatives. I have observed them several times in extended photo sessions at the San Diego Zoo's Bonobo habitat. They are more humanlike for a variety to reasons. 1. The have fairly long "3 Stooges" center-parted dark hair. 2.They have ears that are much more human like in terms of size and shape. 3. They have bare faces, and bodies with less hair coverage. 4. They walk upright about 3 times as often as chimps. 5. They have sex for recreation, including eye contact "face to face" interaction during coitus. 6. My own observation. They look genuinely bored at times, by their fairly large habitat. If you see an individual, passing time, they look a lot like a human, who is being forced to cool his or her heels...waiting to do something. The things they do in the waitng mode are far more human than chimps or gorillas. They are not nearly as prone to violence as chimps, and can understand, if taught, as many as 450 words in English, as per some recent tests. I once took a picture of a teenage Bonobo "girl" doing the "he loves me,he loves me not" thing with a bunch of dandylions.They were only discovered tentatively in 1928,and now about 90% of original population is gone the way of the mammoth. as recently as 15 years ago, the Los Angeles Times published a series of articles about a mystery "Ape" on display at an amusement park near Disneyland. Nobody knew what this chimp/human creature even was. What a shame to go exinct because the local impovrished people have to eat their closest non-human relation! Taking this into consideration, I think they should be protected from being eaten with very strict punishment to the offending humans...Not a death sentence, but 25 years of work gang labor... or having to do forced conservation work to help protect the Bonobo habitat. It is possible, that since Bonobos are 98% identical genetically, eating them would spread virus based diseases like AIDS...Maybe it did...who knows! Ignoring their existence is tragic...they might have an imunity to something like the "Spanish Flu" that could save all of our "sorry human butts" someday soon!

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