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What the world needs is a human/chimpanzee hybrid, or so the theory goes


Rod Waddington | CC BY SA 2.0

Russell E. Saltzman - published on 03/15/18

A humanzee would knock humans off their self-constructed perch of assumed superiority, writes Professor David Barash.

The time has come to create a human/chimpanzee hybrid.

This is the grotesque proposition put forward by David Barash, a retired psychology professor at the University of Washington. Not only is it a “terrific idea,” Barash insists, but also a moral one. His piece appeared in the March 8 issue of Nautilus magazine, an otherwise respected web presence.

Is it possible? Sure, says Barash. A piece of cake, really, what with all the genetic advances of recent years, plus the really, really cool gene editing that now can be done thanks to CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats). This is the technology that allows genetic researchers to make precision edits to any DNA, mammal or bacterial, to manipulate genes.

Humans have 46 chromosomes (23 pair); chimpanzees, bonobos and the other great apes have 48 (24 pair). That is a wide difference, likely wide enough to prevent meiosis, dooming the formation of gametes by which each parent contributes half of the chromosomes to the offspring. But with the CRISPR editor, runarounds might be possible — but then the offspring, if it lived, would not be a true hybrid, but a manufactured one. Still, no one absolutely rules it out.

But it ought to be done, in Barash’s view. Though not for science, understand, but for the moral point it will make to humans. A humanzee would knock humans off their self-constructed perch of assumed superiority. This, says Barash, would be a good thing. A hybrid would put an end to any idea of human exceptionalism.

Humans, after all, are really no better than any other animal. If you are perplexed by the relative weight of human life judged against the life of a chimpanzee, a hybrid ape/human ought to tip the balance to the chimp. He doesn’t say that, not exactly, but that is where it goes.

Barash hauls out the fact that chimps, after all, are our closet biological relatives, sharing a DNA match at 98 percent. Humans share 16 percent of their DNA with romaine lettuce, but it really doesn’t mean anything, finally. All the species on earth share DNA to some extent. Some newer studies point to a wider DNA chimp/human divergence than originally suspected, more like 6.5 percent. It is probably best to remember that Barash is a psychologist, not a biologist.

In any case, Barash is embarrassed that humans think of themselves as special element in nature, different, exceptional in relation to other creatures. And the Christian’s (and other religions’) faith in divine creation is to blame.

That seems to be Barash’s central point. We need to do something to subjugate humanity to nature. Creating a humanzee may just be the way to let humans know they’re not hot; they are not the creation of a Creator and they have no right to think so. Science will put humans in their place.

There is another moral component, but Barash dismisses it. Even if a humanzee’s existence revealed “no prospects of enhancing human welfare,” it would still be worth it to shut down human exceptionalism. The hybrid human/hybrid chimp would be valuable for the moral instruction of humanity.

“How,” Barash asks, “could even the most determinedly [human]-centric, animal-denigrating religious fundamentalist maintain that God created us in his image and that we and we alone harbor a spark of the divine, distinct from all other life forms, once confronted with living beings that are indisputably intermediate between human and non-human?”

There it is. There is no scientific value, he admits, in creating a hybrid human/chimpanzee except for the moral instruction of humans, especially those “religious fundamentalist” (I keep thinking he missed “knuckle-dragging”) humans hanging onto the idea that God made us in his image.

And what might happen to a successfully bred hybrid? It would be disposable. Take a luckless hybrid and ask, what is to become of it? As Barash puts matters, “… it is at least arguable that the ultimate benefit of teaching human beings their true nature would be worth the sacrifice paid by a few unfortunates.”

Barash’s piece in a well-reputed, award-winning science web magazine has received uniformly negative responses, especially in the comments at Nautilus. That was a case of the readership showing greater sense than the editors. It happens.

But does Barash have any case to make, that the Christian theology of a special creation contributes to abuse of animals? Only the ignorant, my opinion, would make that argument.

The history of the Church is filled with saints (not just St. Francis of Assisi) exhibiting care of animals, respectful treatment, kindness and compassion. Barash is equally ignorant of Christian biblical injunctions on care of the earth, and of Scripture pointing to animals and humans as having the same origins, springing from God in the glory of Edenic bliss.

In fact, I’m wondering just how much Barash really loves the creation around him, since he seems so, well, anti-human. Remember, as St. Francis is supposed to have said: “If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”

I know that quote but I found it most recently in War for the Planet of the Apes, should you wonder.

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