Monday, September 19, 2005

Gods of the petridish

From The Scotsman, a look at potential ethical minefields in the animal testing arena:

A quarter of all experiments now involve genetically modified animals - mainly mice, which are easy to alter genetically - but also horses, cats and monkeys. According to the magazine Nature, Britain is facing a "deluge" of mutant mice. They are the currency of cancer research, and new phrases have sprung up to describe them. A "knock-out" mouse has a gene missing, a "knock-in" mouse has had one changed or substituted. In addition to the celebrated "oncomouse", which is primed to get cancer (and had a patent case fought over it), there are mice which have been genetically altered to make them deaf or to give them the mouse version of Parkinson's or Alzheimer's.
The question of whether a mouse's suffering can be justified is no different if that suffering is induced from the outside, by experiments, or from the inside, by genetic engineering.
The difference arises when genetic engineering changes the nature of the animal. Is a chicken still a chicken if it is bred to have no feathers, as has been done in Israel and in India? A dog is still a dog with a docked tail, but would a sheep be a sheep without wool? Woolliness, surely, is what a sheep is all about.
This idea of a clear species identity is what makes the idea of hybrids or chimeras so disturbing. Mixing human and animal cells is a hot topic in bioethics and beyond. The government is asking for views on whether scientists should be allowed to create hybrid embryos, which would have to be destroyed after 14 days.
But the focus is entirely on the human side of the process: the implications of injecting a monkey with human brain cells or creating a human-mouse embryo. Whether it makes the monkey less of a monkey or the mouse less of a mouse is rarely mentioned. Just as we looked at Dolly and saw human clones, we look at chimeras and see talking monkeys, or Jeff Goldblum as a giant fly. The ethics of altering animal nature have been subsumed by the ethics of altering human nature.


Post a Comment

<< Home