Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science

Crossing Species Boundaries

David Glover

The recent decision by the United Kingdom’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to begin granting licenses for creating human-animal hybrids for specific research purposes is likely not the end of discussion in the area of human-animal creation. People bring differing ethical systems to such discussions, some with systems informed by a particular religious tradition and some not. Sometimes people accept something under one set of circumstances and reject the same thing when conditions change. The HFEA recognizes that some individuals accept human-animal hybrid creation only under specific circumstances, while others reject such efforts, and still others do not want such efforts impeded.

The report of HFEA’s public consultation recognizes that society does not always accept a scientific research program simply because it will advance scientific knowledge. Specific modes of research are simply not acceptable under any circumstance: research on coerced or uninformed human subjects is one such example of this. At other times some specific need must be perceived before research heading toward a specific desired outcome will be allowed, and it is in pursuit of such desired specific outcomes that the HFEA has indicated it will grant licenses for the creation of a specific type of human-animal hybrid at this time.

Zygon takes a look at the human-animal hybrid debate in its September 2007 issue under a section titled “Crossing Species Boundaries.” Neville Cobbe, Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh Queen’s Medical Research Institute, brings his Christian perspective to the discussion by looking at what this cross-species work means in light of the Christianity’s view that humanity possesses the imago Dei (image of God). Cobbe recognizes the complexities and ambiguities inherent in humanity’s work and the realization of its potential while also being aware “that the fact that something is permissible does not necessarily mean that it is always beneficial or constructive.” (p. 618) He goes on to say that an additional factor influencing Christians is to look after the well-being of others. Cobbe clearly feels that something more that just scientific understanding needs to inform decisions about the acceptability of any particular line of scientific inquiry.

Stephen Modell, genomics researcher at the University of Michigan, sees the need for some specific criteria from a variety of sources in the process for determining the acceptability of pursuing a line of research. However, any such criteria must be multifaceted since “a single measure of achieved humanness is insufficient. In fact, any measure will fall short, but a practical measure will need to be a composite.… Areas of concern demand input of both experts and the public, with dialogue admitting secular and religious values.” (pp. 636, 639) Input from different parts of society is necessary before any consensus can be reached regarding the societal desirability of specific research paths.

In the concluding article of the section, philosopher Bernard Rollin of Colorado State University focuses his readers’ attention on the need to define what is ethical as new technologies emerge and evolve. This is something that can be a challenge for religious traditions to do since they are often inclined to look towards their traditions before making pronouncements on novel issues facing modern society.

As scientists continue to explore the uses of nuclear transfer and cloning techniques, they will likely find some things that are good and just and beneficial resulting from their work. However, not everything humanity can conceive of is good, just, and beneficial; and still more of its endeavors are morally ambiguous. As society seeks to decide which of its actions are ethical, scientists, religious scholars, and others from all walks of life must continually meet and converse on the issues involved so that we can move together towards a consensus understanding of which actions are the ethical ones.

Cobbe, Neville. 2007. “Cross-Species Chimeras: Exploring a Possible Christian Perspective.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 42 (September): 599-628.

Modell, Stephen M. 2007. “Approaching Religious Guidelines for Chimera Policymaking.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 42 (September): 629-641.

Rollin, Bernard E. 2007. “On Chimeras.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 42 (September): 643-647.

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initially prepared September 13, 2007

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