Unreal Nature

February 27, 2009

In Human

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:38 am

Scientists in Germany have now mapped 65% of the Neanderthal genome, and could bring one of these hulking fellas to life.

… Dr. George Church, at Harvard, says Neanderthals could be brought back with existing technology, at a price of about $30 million. The trouble, says Richard Klein, a paleoanthropologist at Stanford, is that you wouldn’t know whether to put Neanderthals in a zoo or at Harvard.

… These scientists really seem to set great store by species. The “recipe” for creating a Neanderthal using modern techniques allows you to start with a human cell, and tinker madly (see article for what “tinker madly” means), or start with a chimpanzee cell. The article says —

To avoid ethical problems, this genome would be inserted not into a human cell but into a chimpanzee cell.The chimp cell would be reprogrammed to embryonic state and used to generate, in a chimpanzee’s womb, a mutant chimp embryo that was a Neanderthal in many or most of its features.

How does this avoid ethical problems? The idea seems to be that the resulting creature would be a mutant chimp, not a mutant human, so it would be much easier to justify poking, prodding, keeping it in a lab, etc.

If Rachels were alive to discuss the case, he’d find this the height of nonsense. How could anything be relevant to the way an individual is treated but the character of the individual itself? The special deference we feel toward anything that happens to be classified human is groundless, and not innocently so either. The flip side of the deference for humans is dismissal (relative or absolute — to make Mary Midgley’s helpful distinction) of all that is not human.

All of the above is from an interesting discussion in the Talking Philosophy forum titled, Neanderthal Ethics, posted by Jean Kazez on February 13, 2009. Comments to the thread are worth a read, too.

For some additional philosophical background on the animal ethics question see this book review, The Animal Question: Why Non-Human Animals Deserve Human Rights, by Cavalieri, Paolal; tr. Catherine Woolard; reviewed by Chris Belshaw in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews:

Cavalieri’s major claims here are first that moral status attaches to sentience — and is neither wider than this, contra the claims of many environmentalists, nor, against what is here described as humanism, narrower — and second, that there are no good grounds for believing that such status admits of degrees, such that, on a more moderate humanism, members of our species have, or typically have, more of it than animals.

… Only a few will need to be reminded of the argument that animals, insofar as they are sentient, are deserving of moral consideration, and only a few will hold out against this, either by denying the antecedent, and insisting that animals do not feel, or by rejecting the conditional, appealing here to the obscure Kantian claim that, because they cannot judge, we have only indirect duties to animals, or to the related contractarian account, where moral status attaches only to those who might be thought to have bargained with us.

… many readers will already have been persuaded that attempts to maintain a sharp divide between the human and non-human realms all fail—distinctions here are blurred first by the strong suggestions of reason, language and self-consciousness among some animals at least, and, perhaps more importantly, by the absence of such characteristics among certain members of our species.

There are also, near the end of the review, fairly cogent descriptions of the arguments against rights for animals. [ link ]




  1. Leaving aside my own views, on either human or animal (or for that matter foetal) rights, the whole area of “rights” is becoming increasingly foggy with advances in both understanding and technology in genetics.

    In very real ways, this is analogous to the conflict between classical and quantum physics. Whole structures of thought have been erected on a basis of “seeming”, and are now found to be in contradiction with new discoveries about the nature of things. But, of course, genetic implications make themselves more immediately felt in day to day life for ordinary people.

    One of the things I like about Jasper Fforde’s “Thursday Next” novels is the consideration, under a humorous veil, of rights through the resurrection of Neanderthals by the Goliath corporation. Intended as expendable soldiers, but found to be incurably nonaggressive, they occupy an uncomfortable social and moral position between human and animal. Fforde addresses the same issues in his “Jack Spratt” nursery crime novels – special rules about talking bears, for example.

    Comment by Felix Grant — February 28, 2009 @ 3:47 am

  2. Those books sound interesting. Thanks Felix.

    Comment by unrealnature — February 28, 2009 @ 7:43 am

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