Monday, August 8, 2016

The NIH Faith-Based Policy on Non-Human/Human Chimeras

This essay was motivated by the August 8, 2016 article in Wired magazine: "You Can Now Grow Human-Animal Hybrids, But You Can’t Breed ‘Em." The article relies in part on a conversation with Robert Streiffer, a "bioethicist" at the University of Wisconsin, Madison who once chaired one of the university's Animal Care and Use Committees. (I qualified bioethicist because I don't think the title or label has much meaning. I mention a few reasons I think that later on.)

There are two things that caught my eye in the Wired article, the main one has to do with consciousness, which I wrote about here. The other was the obvious bias of those involved in the NIH policy change which I wrote about here. For more about the biases at NIH see: "Vivisectors at the Helm." 11-1-2014.

I suspect that some of the ideas in the article about consciousness are indicative of some broadly-held notions by many people. But those ideas are more along the lines of superstition or urban myth than anything else:
Last year, though, the National Institutes of Health banned funding of animal-human chimeras until it could figure out whether any of this work would bump against ethical boundaries. Like: Could brain scientists endow research animals with human cognitive abilities, or even consciousness....
Human cognitive abilities, or even consciousness?

Most of the animals people think about when they use the word animal in this context already have "human cognitive abilities." Obviously they don't have the same cognitive abilities of every human, but neither do I. It is hard to see what cognitive ability could be inserted into a monkey, dog, pig, or mouse used in a lab that would make his or her suffering any worse.

The idea that animals would suffer more if they were slightly or a lot more like us is an echo of the assertions made by racists. Blacks don't suffer like whites was a common claim by pro-slavery writers in the South. Jews and Poles aren't as aesthetically sensitive as pure Aryans; or honest and generous. These claims of superiority are always spawned by those in the self-proclaimed better, more important and deserving group. This hatred or at least minimizing of others seems to be a sickness common to humanity.

And what I wonder the author means by consciousness. Surely he doesn't believe that animals are unconscious. I'm guessing from the context that he would say he meant "human consciousness." But the distinction has no basis in fact. Consciousness is a mystery. It is sometimes referred to as the hard problem. Since it isn't understood -- at all -- suppositions about differences between kinds of consciousness are complete and completely unsubstantiable speculation. There is no reason at all to assume that an elephant's sense of him or herself is any different than yours. And even if you think there is, your belief is nothing but a wild guess. And probably driven by the same innate propensity that has led us to demean and enslave others.

The author writes:
The boundary between human and animal is not just a philosophical debate. Human subjects in medical research have greater legal protections than laboratory animals, according to Rob Streiffer, assistant professor of bioethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
This may be the heart of the actual matter. NIH is worried about where to draw the line; costs might go up. In some southern states, the "one-drop" rule was adopted to clarify the boundary between whites and blacks; in Nazi Germany, a test based on one's grandparents was devised to determine which side of the line one was on. How many uniquely human genes must an animal have before he or she ought not be treated like an animal? As history makes clear, such trivial distinctions have been ample license to commit atrocities, and in the case of animals, they still are.
“What it takes to cross a line is a contentious issue,” says Streiffer. For example, some people believe that a lot of animal testing is wrong, because many animals can feel pain and suffering. Others argue that any organism that displays uniquely human traits—things like autonomy, moral reasoning, and controlling one’s own behavior—ought to be excluded from research.
I don't know who was responsible for that obvious rhetorical error. No organism other than a human "displays uniquely human traits." The rub is delineating the set of uniquely human traits and then explaining why some subset of them gives us the right to hurt and kill other animals. No one to my knowledge has been able to convincingly do so. That's not to say that no one has found those weak and self-serving arguments convincing, but many people also found (and find) the arguments for white supremacy convincing as well.

The author also talked to Stanford University vivisector Sean Wu who wants to humanize animals, probably pigs or sheep (he uses sheep now, but the effort to grow transplantable hearts is generally confined to pigs.)
Still, Wu says some ethical concerns about human behavior or functions being transplanted into animals are in the realm of science fiction. “There’s a lot of concern and speculation and no data that anyone can offer.”
It is unlikely that Wu could delineate any human behaviors or functions that set our suffering above the suffering of other animals. I suspect money affects Wu's opinions on this matter. His 2015 NIH grant 5U01HL099776-07, was awarded $1,605,838.

The author concludes his article with this:
One way to avoid the consciousness-raising quandary is by deleting bits of DNA that are responsible for the development of certain parts of the human brain before implanting into a lab animal. That way, you could still study the origins of Alzheimer’s or other brain diseases without worrying about creating a human-like animal. “The science is moving very fast,” says Wu. The NIH just wants to make sure its standards can keep up.
It appears that both he and Wu believe that they have a "higher consciousness" than animals. But this is just an expression of faith. It's like saying that only the faithful will get into heaven. Animals already are human-like because we are all each-other-like.

Let me finish with a thought or two about our unfortunate propensity to look to authorities for guidance and to trust their proclamations. Of course, we have to rely on those with technical knowledge we lack. I can't fix my television, rebuild the engine in my car, or remove your appendix without killing you. I've learned to rely on attorneys on most legal matters. On many such things, I usually seek multiple opinions prior to making a decision. But on moral issues, there are no experts, in spite of professional titles that imply otherwise.

NIH is going to claim that an appropriate ethical weighing was conducted when it officially starts funding this new wrinkle in hurting animals in publicly funded laboratories. They will have put safeguards in place to assure that the animals being used are not too much like us. Like Jews weren't too much like the good Germans. The vivisectors will be happy. But it seems very clear that if the NIH doesn't readily recognize that it is unethical for Carrie Wolinetz to be involved in any decision concerning the use of animals, why in the world should anyone believe them or believe that they have done a good job?

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