Of mice and men—and the monsters in-between

by , Australia

25 April 2005

Genetic engineering began in 1973 when Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen successfully inserted a foreign gene into a bacterium. Boyer went on to co-found a biotechnology company and in 1978 began the world’s first commercial production of human insulin from bacteria.

More recently, scientists have begun to insert whole foreign cells (the special ‘stem cells’ you may have heard about) into developing embryos to produce chimeras—artificially created hybrids between species. (The word comes from a Greek mythological monster with the front parts of a lion, middle parts of a goat, and the tail end of a snake.) In this way, researchers at the Mayo Clinic have ‘created’ pigs with human blood flowing through their veins. And at California’s Stanford University, they have begun work on an experiment to ‘create’ (engineer would be a better word) ‘mice with human brains’.1

The main justification for creating chimeras is therapeutic (for humans, not for the chimeras). Animals with human organs could perhaps provide more accurate responses for drug testing and other kinds of medical procedures, and the organs themselves could be ‘harvested’ for transplantation into humans to replace malfunctioning ones. At present there are no laws to guide their creation or use.

The (militantly pro-evolution and largely atheistic2) US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is currently formulating guidelines for human embryonic stem cell research, and these will include consideration of chimeras. But the recommendations will only have voluntary force. The task facing Christians is to clarify our own thinking so that we can have useful input into the process of bringing such guidelines into legislation.

We should be under no illusions regarding secular thinking—it is on the slippery slope to destruction when it comes to ethics and morality. Each generation tolerates things considered offensive by the previous one. The world has no absolutes, so the trend must continue. What can Christians do?

We could perhaps quote Leviticus 19:19, ‘Do not mate different kinds of animals.’ But if we did, someone might counter that we are hypocrites because the rest of the verse says ‘Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.’ So why don’t we get rid of our cotton-polyester shirts? And ban all mixed cropping? Because verse 19 in that particular chapter of Leviticus (addressed to the Israelites and containing a mixture of civil and ceremonial laws), seems to address ritual cleanliness. This is related to boundaries that helped keep order in societies that were always one step away from anarchy,3 and in particular to keep the Messianic people separated from the surrounding pagan nations. When the Messiah came, the barrier between Jew and Gentile was broken down (Ephesians 2:14). Now both Jews and Gentiles can become one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28, Col. 3:11).4 There is thus no biblical justification for opposing good stewardship where it favours things like permaculture and composite materials.

The important question is not, ‘At what stage does human stem cell research become problematic?’ but rather ‘What does “human” mean?’ To many people, being ‘human’ means nothing more than ‘looking like other people’ and being ‘ape’ means ‘looking like apes.’ Superficially, we don’t look all that different—humans just have less body hair and a more upright stance (actually there is a great deal of difference but I refer here to secular thinking). But God tells us that ‘human’ means being made like God Himself and being part of God’s eternal family (Genesis 1:26–28, Psalm 8 and Hebrews 2:6–11). No animals are given that status. The world cannot understand this viewpoint because our educational system has been captured by evolutionary thinking (see also 1 Corinthians 2:14 and Colossians 2:8). God and the Bible are no longer thought relevant in matters of science or indeed to be the beginning of any wisdom or knowledge (contraProverbs 1:7, 9:10). Academic bodies like the NAS therefore feel free to answer ethical questions without reference to God’s Word, the Bible.

Things are changing in the broader culture, however, especially in the US. The NAS has become so concerned about rising interest in ‘alternatives to evolution’ (i.e. scientific creationism and intelligent design) that the President of the Academy has recently written to all members personally asking for their help in combating the problem in their states and counties.5 This follows on from their teachers’ guidebook, Teaching about Evolution and the Nature of Science, promoted with huge fanfare (this provided the target for Dr Jonathan Sarfati’s book Refuting Evolution).

The President’s letter makes it clear that they don’t want to admit that there are weaknesses in the theory of evolution or that there are alternatives to it. The reason, of course, is that they fear that once people see the arguments against evolution they might not believe it (leading atheistic anticreationist Eugenie Scott admitted as much)! The main reason it survives is that the arguments against it have been so effectively suppressed.

So what can Christians do, and what should they think, about chimeras, and many of the other ‘biotech’ ethical issues of our age? Without pretending that the answers are always going to be easy or clear-cut, if we start with the biblical ‘big picture’, it will make a huge difference. Some basic biblical starting points, that help us define some absolute barriers not to be crossed, would be

  1. The intentional destruction of innocent human life, which begins at conception, is defined as murder and is totally forbidden,6 no matter how ‘noble’ the therapeutic cause or how ‘incidental’. This is why using adult stem cells (obtained with informed consent) in therapy or research is acceptable, whereas using those harvested from embryos or aborted fetuses (murdered unborn children) is not. See also Stem cells and Genesis.
  2. People are intrinsically different from plants or animals; in addition to their biological differences, there is the spiritual reality that people are made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26–27), so human life is sacred. Thus, while there may be conceivable instances in which putting human stem cells into animal embryos might be justified for its therapeutic value to mankind, it is wrong to violate human embryos by inserting animal cells into them.
  3. Humanity was given dominion over the plants and animals (Gen 1:26–28), so biotechnology research and therapy using animals (including cloning of animals, use of pig’s parts in transplants, etc.) is in principle acceptable, though we are exhorted not to be cruel to animals (Proverbs 12:10).

  4. We were not given dominion over other humans. Exploitation of another human (e.g. fertilizing an egg to create an embryo for the purpose of harvesting organs, or producing a human being through cloning) would be morally unacceptable.

Keeping such principles in mind will help us as we try to steer a course between Scylla and Charybdis when faced with new biotechnology, including chimeras. On the one hand is the danger of being complacent in the face of clear-cut evil (Isaiah 5:20). On the other is the danger of knee-jerk reactions causing us to reject something which the Bible permits and which is potentially a healing benefit. That would be opposed to the scriptural neighbour-love commandment.

At the same time, we need to continue to support creation organizations who are working hard to get the information out to the world that evolution is fatally flawed, and that God’s Word speaks authoritatively on matters of origin and destiny. It is only in the context of the true origin and destiny of the universe that today’s ethical decisions can have eternal consequences for good.

Published: 9 February 2006

References and notes

  1. Animal-Human Hybrids Spark Controversy. These mice are envisaged to have a brain with the architecture of a mouse’s, composed largely of human nerve tissue. The experiment is unlikely to generate a Stuart Little contemplating the meaning of life. Return to text.
  2. E.J. Larson and L. Witham, ‘Leading scientists still reject God’, Nature394(6691):313, 23 July 1998. See also National Academy of Science is godless to the core—survey. Return to text.
  3. J.P. Holding, About the Biblical Concept of "Clean". Return to text.
  4. See A.G. Fruchtenbaum, The Law of Moses and the Law of Christ. Return to text.
  5. The President’s letter is at <http://www4.nationalacademies.org/nas/nashome.nsf/urllinks/NAS-6AQJS4?OpenDocument>. Return to text.
  6. This is notwithstanding the so-called ‘lesser of two evils’ dilemma (really the principle of double effect).  In some cases (e.g. mother/fetus or conjoined siblings) the life of one may be sacrificed for the survival of the other when failure to intervene would result in the death of both. See also What about abortion to save the mother’s life?. Return to text.