Don’t monkey around with the borders of humanity
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In a challenging essay for Nautilus, David P Barash, professor emeritus of pyschology at the University of Washington, presents an argument that is by turns fascinating and horrifying.

His thesis is that hybridising humans and chimpanzees might not just be possible in the near-future, but would also be a “terrific idea”.

Most people would see it as terrifying not terrific – but Barash believes that blurring the distinction between humans and animals would persuade the former to treat the latter more, um, humanely:

“…I propose that generating humanzees or chimphumans would be not only ethical, but profoundly so, even if there were no prospects of enhancing human welfare. How could even the most determinedly homo-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?”

Barash blames religion for human cruelty to animals, specifically “the nonsensical insistence that human beings are uniquely created in God’s image and endowed with a soul, whereas other living things are mere brutes.”

There are many problems with his argument, but let’s start with Darwin’s theory of evolution which has long overturned old assumptions about the absolute distinction between people and animals. Throughout the western world, most people accept that we too are animals and that, furthermore, we are descended from non-human animals. But has that fundamental change in worldview led to a general improvement in the way we treat our non-human kin? Hardly: we vivisect, factory farm and destroy habitats on a greater scale than ever before – and do so in the name of science and progress.

As for the notion that an intermediate form of life between humans and other animals would transform our thinking, the fact is that intermediates already exist. For instance, the great apes are intermediate between us and the other primates (monkeys, lemurs etc). So does that biological understanding of closer kinship change our behaviour? Again, the results are disappointing:

“Although such recognition has contributed to outrage about abusing chimps—as well as other primates in particular—in circus acts, laboratory experiments, and so forth, it has not generated notable resistance to hunting, imprisoning and eating other animal species, which, along with chimps themselves, are still considered by most people to be ‘other’ and not aspects of ‘ourselves’. (Chimps, moreover, are enthusiastically consumed in parts of equatorial Africa, where they are a prized component of ‘bush meat.’)”

Would an even closer relative in the form of a ‘humanzee’ lead us to change our ways? It seems unlikely, given how people treat other people they consider to be ‘sub-human’. Human-chimp hybrids actually would be sub-human – so I hate to think how they would be used and abused.

Barash notes that the hybridisation of humans and apes has been attempted before – in the early 20th century by the Russian biologist Ilya Ivanov:

“Stalin is believed to have been interested in such efforts, with an eye toward developing the ‘new Soviet man’ (or half-man, or half-woman).”

If true, this doesn’t strike me as the highest recommendation.

Ilyanov’s experiments failed – and the man himself was eventually sent into exile, where he died. However, any would-be successors in the 21st century would be hugely more likely to succeed (given recent advances in the relevant science and technology).

We must, therefore, be on our guard.

In the meantime, we must also strive to improve our treatment of animals – not in spite of any lingering sense of our unique humanity, but because of it.