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Chimeras and cyborgs

/ 12:24 AM February 16, 2017

Recently it was reported that the first “human-pig hybrid” had been “created.” News of the breakthrough, which took place in the California-based Salk Institute, quickly spread globally. Predictably, the headlines were sensational: “Scientists create a part-human, part-pig embryo.” “Human-pig hybrids for organ transplants could develop into monsters with ‘OUR brains.’” Some appended their articles with renditions of what a human-pig face would look like.

In reality, the so-called hybrid amounted to four-week pig embryos, which had “one in 100,000 human cells”—hardly comparable to the mythological Chimera with three heads: one of a lion, another of a goat, and another of a snake. Even so, the mere thought of human and animal biology merging in one entity is certainly thought-provoking in many levels.

Some of the positive coverage centered on the breakthrough’s potential life-saving benefits. “Researchers hope that one day doctors may be able to grow human tissue using chimera embryos in farm animals, making organs available for sick humans who might otherwise wait years for a transplant,” the Washington Post reported. On the other hand, news reports also gave voice to the many ethical and philosophical issues raised by this development. “But what if human cells were injected into monkey embryos? What would be the ethical and cognitive status of a newborn rhesus monkey whose brain consists of predominantly human nerves?” asked Australian researchers Martin Pera and Megan Munsie.

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Then there are also more personal, but no less philosophically imbued, concerns: Can patients accept the idea of receiving a heart or a liver that’s part pig?

These questions are profound because they touch on the very definition of humanity. But for all the controversy it stirs, the “human-pig hybrid” is actually just one of many developments that show how we have advanced technologically to a point of being able to “tinker” further with our bodies.

Last year, for instance, Japanese scientists successfully “grew” a human ear on a rat’s back, announcing that an ear grown thus can be attached to adults after just five years in such circumstances. Previously, it was already demonstrated that cartilaginous body components can be attached to other parts of the body—noses have been “grown” on human arms and foreheads—but for obvious reasons employing rats would be more convenient.

It is not just animals that are being recruited in the attempt to create human spare parts. Machines, too, are taking on human functions in ways that bring them closer, in both function and form, to the level of actual organs or limbs. Artificial hearts, for instance, have successfully sustained humans for months; in 2015, the first bionic eyes were implanted. Prosthetic limbs are becoming more and more sophisticated—not quite like Luke Skywalker’s artificial arm yet, but slowly getting there.

Some envision a far greater role of machines that would effectively make humans cybernetic organisms or “cyborgs.” Futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts the coming of a “singularity” where even the human mind can be uploaded into computers, effectively making humans immortal.

These advances, contemporary and contemplated, force us to consider the limits of humanity. Can saving and prolonging lives justify the alteration of life itself? What are the pragmatic implications of these developments? Will they deepen the divide between the rich and poor?

Of course, the promised advances may not even materialize. As the Salk Institute scientists themselves are quick to add, any hope of growing humans organs in pigs is still “far away,” and many are rightfully skeptical of the singularity. Even if we free ourselves from moral and ethical considerations, perhaps biology and technology do have limits we cannot breach.

But that’s not enough to stop people from trying: For better or for worse, an unbounded curiosity and desire to push ourselves to the limits are just as human as our DNA, maybe even more so. Part-exciting, part-frightening, the future may prove to be, of our hopes and fears, itself a chimera.

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Gideon Lasco (www.gideonlasco.com) is a medical doctor and anthropologist.

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