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Human/animal hybrids: are they possible, and could they be saved?

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123RF.com/Riccardo Meloni 7585-cow
Published: 24 October 2013 (GMT+10)

Scientists in China announced that they’ve engineered cows to give milk that is similar to human milk. The Telegraph website1 reports:

The scientists have successfully introduced human genes into 300 dairy cows to produce milk with the same properties as human breast milk. … The researchers used cloning technology to introduce human genes into the DNA of Holstein dairy cows before the genetically modified embryos were implanted into surrogate cows.

The Chinese cows give milk that is said to be 80% the same as humans, but in Argentina, cows that have two human genes (compared to the Chinese cows which have one), may produce milk even more similar to human breast milk. Although both the Chinese and Argentine scientists insist that the cows’ modified milk is safe for human consumption, there will be long periods of testing to ensure that there are no negative effects for humans (especially as this was conceived as a way to give infants something superior to formula when the child is not breast-fed).

These cows are otherwise identical to other cows; the genes added only seem to affect the composition of the cows’ milk. But such experiments raise the question: is it possible to have a true animal/human hybrid? And if there were a true human hybrid, would that creature be able to be saved? And is this experimentation moral?

Animal cloning and genetic experimentation on humans

There are real concerns with animal cloning, including health problems in cloned animals and reduced lifespan.

God created humans to be stewards over His creation. This gives us a certain amount of authority over creation, and the privilege to use it for our benefit, but also the responsibility to care for creation. In principle, animal experimentation (providing that it does not involve imposing gratuitous suffering on the animals) is allowed. However, there are real concerns with animal cloning, including health problems in cloned animals and reduced lifespan. So while it is allowed under the dominion mandate, there are valid concerns for the welfare of the animals involved.

Under the same principle, adding human genes to cows to modify their milk is not prohibited by Scripture. However, the dominion mandate does not give humans the right to experiment on other humans, so this sort of experimentation on humans would be unbiblical.

Human or animal?

Would it be possible to engineer an animal with so many genes that it would become partly human? With current technology, the answer is an unequivocal ‘no’. The cows with the human genes are not human in any way, except that their milk is closer to human milk in its composition—the genes are only expressed in the udder. The genome of an animal like a cow is so complex that manipulating more than a few genes will likely result in a non-viable egg.

Going the other way, it would theoretically be possible to add animal genes to human clones (though this would be deeply immoral). Such humans might have an enhanced sense of smell, greater muscle mass, or some other exaggerated feature, but they would still be humans, much like the cows are still cows.

What is a human?

But we might ask: what if technology allowed us to manipulate the DNA of a creature so much that it was impossible to tell whether it was human or animal? What if a viable creature were precisely 50% human and 50% chimpanzee genetically, for example?

There is no indication that the image of God could ever be present in part in hybrids in proportion to how genetically similar they are to humans.

It is difficult to make pronouncements based on things that are far from being possible, but such a hybrid would either be 100% human or 100% animal. This is because humans aren’t simply another animal—we are created in the image of God. Therefore they are different in kind, not merely in degree, from other animals. There would be degrees of hybridization where the person would still be able to form language, understand the Gospel, and display other clear indications of humanity. And there would be other degrees where the animal would clearly still display animal behaviors and not have human behaviors, even if their organs were similar to human organs, for instance. And even if there were degrees where it looked ambiguous to us, the spiritual state of the creature would still be either 100% human or 100% animal (though human and animal genomes are too far apart for current technology to be able to create, say, a ‘half-cat’, ‘half-human’ creature).

There are humans with genetic anomalies—for instance, Down Syndrome results from an extra chromosome—who everyone acknowledges as fully human. And every single one of us has thousands of genetic mutations accumulated and passed down from our ancestors (and we accumulate more throughout our lives), yet we are not less human than people several thousand years ago. So there is good evidence that humanity is not defined solely by genetic ‘purity’, but by the presence of the image of God.

Are hybrids possible? Yes and no

Any animal that has even a single human gene is a ‘hybrid’, in one sense. But this does not make the animal capable of being saved, nor does it display any of the distinctive human characteristics which differentiate us from animals. Furthermore, there is no indication that the image of God, the main distinctive characteristic of humanity, could ever be present in part in hybrids in proportion to how genetically similar they are to humans.

References and notes

  1. Gray, R., Genetically modified cows produce ‘human’ milk, The Telegraph, 2 April 2011, telegraph.co.uk. Return to text.

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