Who can forget Kramer’s brush with “the Pigman” in episode five of Seinfeld’s fifth season? An accidental encounter with a supposed “half pig, half man” hybrid convinces Kramer that “the government’s been experimenting with pig-men since the ’50s!” Impassioned by the idea, he makes it his goal to liberate the creature (who is really an overweight man from the mental ward).
Kramer would probably be fascinated by the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) August 4, 2016, proposal to remove funding restrictions on research that introduces human stem cells into animal embryos. These experiments could potentially create the very “Pigman” of Kramer’s dreams.
The injection of human cells into animals is nothing new. Biomedical researchers have been growing and treating human tumors in mice for decades. But this recent NIH plan is entirely different. The suggestion here is to fund research that infuses embryonic human stem cells into early animal embryos in order to produce a human-animal organism known as a chimera, a being composed of two or more genetically distinct species.
Carrie Wolinetz, associate director for science policy at the NIH, explains:
With recent advances in stem cell and gene editing technologies, an increasing number of researchers are interested in growing human tissues and organs in animals by introducing pluripotent human [stem cells] into early animal embryos. Formation of these types of human-animal organism, referred to as “chimeras”, holds tremendous potential for disease modeling, drug testing, and perhaps eventual organ transplant. However, uncertainty about the effects of human cells on off-target organs and tissues in the chimeric animals, particularly in the nervous system, raises ethical and animal welfare concerns.
A layman’s paraphrase might read something like this: funding human-animal chimeric research could lead to great medical advances like growing human organs for transplant purposes (e.g., a human pancreas in a pig). On the other hand, human stem cells in early animal embryos might also modify unintended organs like the brain, thereby creating a potentially hairy situation.
But is the “humanization” of an animal’s brain actually possible? In The New York Times, Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell researcher at the University of California, Davis, says, “There’s no clear dividing line because we lack an understanding of at what point humanization of an animal brain could lead to more human-like thought or consciousness.” But some researchers find the prospect useful for understanding neurological conditions including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. In the same Times article, NIH’s Dr. Wolinetz says, “There is a lot we don’t understand about the brain, which is one reason the possibility of these animal models is really exciting.”
In addition to potential chimeric brain cell research, National Public Radio adds the following possibility: “The NIH would even consider experiments that could create animals with human sperm and human eggs since they may be useful for studying human development and infertility. But in that case steps would have to be taken to prevent the animals from breeding.”
The idea of a human-animal chimera with human-like thought and even sperm is jarring. But perhaps we should have seen it coming.An engineered human-animal species distorts the ultimate Creator/creature distinction by mixing an image bearer with an animal.
Human beings have always been fascinated with the idea of chimeras. Homer’s 1200 BC epic poem the Iliad holds the earliest surviving literary reference to a chimera. There, the mythical monster is described as “a thing of immortal make, not human, lion-fronted and snake behind, a goat in the middle, and snorting out the breath of the terrible flame of bright fire.” The beast reigns undefeated until brought down by the arrows of brave Bellerophon and the wings of Pegasus. The New World Encyclopedia offers this description:
The chimera represents the most dangerous beast that the human imagination can conjure, taking those attributes of existing creatures to develop a new creation that is more difficult to overcome. The role of such creatures has thus been to challenge the hero to use bravery and strength in order to achieve victory.
A being with the combined might of several creatures is indeed a worthy test of human courage. In our fantasies, we confront chimeras as an assessment of our strength and cleverness. This is certainly true in the fantasy role playing game Dungeons and Dragons, as well as in various versions of the Final Fantasy video game series. In both, players must overcome chimeras as proof of mastery.
In Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, the character Beast is a human prince transformed into an animal chimera—a monster with a bison’s horns, gorilla’s brow, lion’s nose and mane, hyena’s back, boar’s tusks, bear’s arms and chest, and a wolf’s hind legs and tail. Beast’s ability to relate and even love seems to set him apart from other pop culture chimeras but his role is essentially the same: his vicious appearance and manner are meant to test Belle’s bravery, empathy, and affection. And as is the case in most fairy tales, our hero prevails.
But the NIH’s research labs are far from fairyland. And a mythical chimera is not the same as a pig with human reproductive cells and a human-like consciousness. Will human ingenuity conquer in science as it does in our fantasies? Advancement in disease modeling, drug testing, and organ transplantation are essential to our health (we need solutions for our organ donation deficit) but even so, the idea of a humanized animal is unnerving. Will this science lead to our wellness or to our ultimate woe?
The NIH will likely enact its proposal sometime early next year. The organization has received comments from the public and is aware of general concerns. Yet some are still asking: “Does the unease reflect the novelty of the idea, like concerns that surfaced with the advent of heart transplants, which were first met with revulsion and then embraced by the public? Or is this work of a different kind?”
Public opinion is often fickle. Alarm gives way to praise. Is the acceptance of human-animal chimeras in our future? And if so, what follows that? How far will science push the line? Is the injection of animal cells into human embryos the next discussion?
Theologian Peter Jones has written extensively on the idea of “oneism,” a pervasive ideology that insists on the oneness (versus the distinct otherness) of all things. Jones would likely recognize chimeric research as a form of progressive oneism in the West. He states:
Worship of the creation is oneism — everything is ultimately and divinely the same. Twoism is a way of describing the eternal difference between the Creator and the creation, as well as the distinctions God places within the creation that reflect the ultimate Creator/creature distinction.
A oneist worldview seems to be at the core of chimeric science. Certainly one must believe that “all is one” in order to create a new life form comprised of human and animal cells. This same oneist belief erases distinctions in other categories. And yet there’s a fundamental variation between other forms of nonconformity and human-animal hybrids. In short, the latter delivers an unparalleled blow to the imago dei.
In the aforelinked Times article, Jeffrey P. Kahn, the director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, asks some needed questions: “What are we doing when we are mixing the traits of two species? What makes us human? Is it having 51 percent human cells?” Christians, constrained by Genesis 1 and 1 Corinthians 15:38–39, must answer no. To be human is to reflect the image of God and only creatures born with 100 percent human cells can do that.
We cannot be unsure regarding the question of humanity. God distinguishes man and woman from all creation with the gift of His image. And it is the weight of that gift that defines our distinct dignity as human beings. Sin marred but could not remove the image of God from humanity. Men and women can alter their bodies for various reasons (whether medical or cosmetic) without destroying the imago dei. But an engineered human-animal species distorts the ultimate Creator/creature distinction by mixing an image bearer with an animal.
God made the beasts of the earth after their own kind and it was good. He made male and female in His own image and likeness and it was very good. To the man and woman He gave dominion to manage the earth in faithful stewardship. We affirm the truth of Genesis 1:25–31 when we answer no to Dr. Kahn’s question. And we prove ourselves diligent stewards in our ethical treatment of all animals—including chimeric lifeforms which are best protected by wise, well-guarded restrictions on this kind of biomedical science.
More and more, our brave new world will test both the Church’s devotion to biblical theology and our compassion for fellow image bearers, animals, and perhaps even human-animal organisms. Homer’s chimera proved the bravery of Bellerophon; may these times reveal our commitment to truth and honor.