Creating Non-Human People
Last week, the Academy of Medical Sciences released a report calling for better regulation of experiments involving animals containing human tissues or genes. One specific claim made by the report is that experiments which entail “modifying non-human primates to create human-like awareness or behaviour” should be banned. Was it right to call for such a ban?
We tend to value the rational behaviour and awareness displayed by humans very highly. It is often thought to be what makes humans superior to other animals, and we think it’s a shame when particular humans lack awareness and rationality. That being the case, surely the more individuals with such awareness the better?
The Daily Mail is quite clear about its reasons for agreeing with the report’s judgement: experiments which induced human-like behaviour in non-humans would inevitably lead to a Planet of the Apes or Deep Blue Sea situation – super-intelligent, violent, most likely malicious animals taking over the world. Worries of that nature don’t seem to be well-grounded. Experiments would aim to make the primates more intelligent than they currently are, not to make them super-intelligent, and would be very unlikely to be able to do the latter even if they wanted to. Making creatures act more like humans would hopefully make them less violent and less likely to fight us, rather than more so. And of course scientists would not be making armies of these creatures, or making them extraordinarily strong.
Martin Bobrow, professor of medical genetics at the University of Cambridge, who led the panel, said: “Where people worry is when you get to the brain, the germ cells and the sentinel features that help people recognise what is a person, as opposed to a rat or a rabbit”. Here he clearly contrasts ‘person’ with ‘rat’ and ‘rabbit’. The implication is that we are currently able to distinguish people from non-human animals, and that we shouldn’t do anything which would prevent us from recognising the difference. So in order to know how we should respond to experiments which make primates behave more like humans, we need to understand what it is to be a person.
John Locke thought that what it meant to be a person was to be rational and to have a continuous stream of consciousness. In theory, an animal of any type could be a person. In that case, if we induced in a non-human primate enough awareness and human-like behaviour they would be a person. What would be problematic about doing so? One possible answer is that it might not be possible to tell when a primate became a person. However, that doesn’t sound like a compelling reason against a modifying a primate in a way which makes them more like a person. We could decide whether it is worse to treat a person as if they weren’t a person or vice versa, and then err on the side of caution in our treatment of the resulting animals. In that case, it might not matter whether we knew precisely which were people and which were not.
However, perhaps the writers of the report were not worried about the uncertain status of the non-human primates, but about the fact that whether they were in fact people, or just close to being people, it would be wrong to test on them. If that is the case, it’s experimenting on these animals which should be illegal, not producing them.
While no reason has yet been found to think that modifying non-human primates such that they are people is in itself wrong, various bad consequences might ensue. The awareness they gained might allow them to realise that they have been exploited, or increase their suffering in some other way (particularly if they were kept confined in the research facility). On the other hand, we usually think that our lives are greatly enriched by the awareness and understanding we have of the world around us, so perhaps theirs would be too.
Alternatively, maybe we haven’t been using the right understanding of ‘person’. Maybe a person is a being with a soul or anyway one which must necessarily be human. Then experiments which modify non-human primates such that they display human-like behaviour might result in beings who feel as if they are people, but aren’t people. That seems likely to be confusing for us and upsetting for them.
Perhaps the most serious problem might be if the scientists involved had the wrong understanding of ‘people’. Say that the non-human primates were people, but that scientists assumed that only humans could be people, and therefore continued to experiment on the primates. It seems important to avoid such a scenario. But it could be avoided by legislation on how to treat the resulting animals (for example, perhaps by widening human rights legislation to cover them), rather than by banning the initial experiments.
It’s difficult to know whether the report was right to ban the experiments that it did. What seems clearer is that our reaction to human/animal mixing experiments depends to some degree on what makes a being a person.