Op-Ed: Being Human

August 9, 2011

By Cory Cotten-Potter
What separates man from other animals? This question focuses not on the obvious species-related distinctions that readily allow us to identify humans, but on the implications of these distinctions for moral status and the ways in which we allow different animals (and humans) to be treated.  This question also plays an important, underlying  role in a recent report  from the U.K. Academy of Medical Sciences examining the use of ‘Animals containing human material’.  As research utilizing human/non-human  animal hybrids continues to develop and the groundwork for regulations is laid, we are forced to confront the question of our humanity.


Is humanity defined by man’s ability to reason, his status as a toolmaker, or some innate dignity?  Perhaps it is a combination of these traits or some x-factor that is identifiable amongst humans, but remains enigmatically indefinable.
When humanity is examined in a scientific context most of the traditional theories are problematic.  Man is a rational animal, yes, but the great apes have been shown to be capable of logical reasoning, and there is evidence to suggest that African grey parrots should be added to the list.  Man is a tool-using animal, but so are apes, dolphins, elephants, and others. Human dignity as a defining concept offers little help; although it is an integral part of many political, religious, and philosophical texts and may help shape our valuation of humanity, there is no consensus regarding its conceptual origin. Many agree that humans have an innate and inalienable dignity, yet the concept of dignity is usually proscriptive regarding humanity’s actions, not descriptive of humanity’s condition.


While man remains a rational animal, a tool-using animal, and an animal that is considered to posses some innate dignity, challenges to these qualities suggest that the concept of humanity might be better sought elsewhere.  Perhaps part of humanity’s ‘x-factor’ can be found in our trait of identifying and empathizing with one another. Again, this is problematic. Other animals are capable of empathy, and it is not uncommon for humans to empathize with non-human animals (though, perhaps only by anthropomorphically-amplifying human-like traits).
Complicating the issue of  the essential characteristics that define humanity, research into human/non-human animal hybrids holds the potential to further blur any line between humans and non-human animals.  Human/non- human animal hybrid research is not as fantastical as the name may suggest— centaurs or mermaids will not walk the streets in the near future.  In reality, the research provides useful models for the testing of new drugs and therapies through a delicate blending of different species.  While most of this research, involving things like transgenic mice as animal models, is relatively uncontroversial, this research can venture into challenging ethical waters.


On the whole, efforts to regulate human/non-human animal hybrid research have been rare and piecemeal; noting the field’s progress and foreseeing the ethical challenges ahead, the U.K. decided to act, appointing the working group via the U.K. Academy of Medical Sciences.  As part of the study, a survey was administered to 1046 Britons last year. The results are both predictable and surprising.  The poll found that roughly half were in favor of a selective blending of species for research purposes; yet, of those who supported the research some of the most hesitation was found in regard to the use of human brain tissue and eye tissue.


The concern regarding the use of human brain tissue seems reasonable and predictable. The introduction of a large enough number of human neural cells into the brain of a non-human primate raises theoretical concerns about the animal becoming capable of human like behavior.  As a result, this type of procedure should be prohibited according to the U.K. report.
Somewhat more surprising poll results show the same percentage of hesitation was also documented in regard to human eye tissue.  This seems to suggest that our concept of humanity is not only rooted in reason and intelligence but may also rest in our emotional responses to human appearance, or more specifically it may rest in our ability to identify with a given subject, thus paving the way for an emotional response. Philosophical accounts of humanity’s special moral status seem to require more than simply looking human, nonetheless, the survey results seem to indicate that  something important has changed in an animal that takes on an aspect of human appearance.


Neuroscientists have found evidence that the biological foundations of some aspects of altruistic behavior and morality are built into the human brain.  These findings suggest that a person’s ability to empathize with another plays a crucial role in the exhibition of altruistic behavior, and may be heavily influenced by the distance between the benefactor and the recipient.   The hesitation in response to the use of human eye tissue could stem from this phenomenon.  As long as the animal remains distinct, other than man, experimentation is easier to accept, there is distance.  Produce an animal that has human features such as eyes or other characteristics and that distance might disappear, suddenly the animal is no longer ‘other’, it is closer to human, and it becomes easier to identify and potentially empathize with.


Admittedly this is a speculative argument, but it does illustrate some of the ethical challenges that arise from human/non-human animal hybrid research, as well as the need for the further development of regulations in the field.  The field of human/non human animal hybrid research has the potential to advance medicine and save lives, yet it also forces us to confront difficult, and potentially frightening questions regarding the nature of humankind.


Cory Cotten-Potter is an undergraduate student at St. John’s College, and has joined the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics as an intern for this summer. His interests include moral philosophy, neuroscience, and public policy.

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Cory Cotten-Potter

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