Moviegoers love to escape reality for a couple of hours and get lost in a fantasy world on the big screen, but few would want to live the make-believe after the lights come back up. The coincidental convergence of Hollywood’s creepy creations and actual developments in science can provoke thoughtful debate on ethical questions. Answers need to be found soon because fantasy might be closer to reality than we think.
Unnatural beasties are set to fill the silver screen Friday in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” a science-fiction thriller about cutting-edge genetic engineering gone bad. As the story goes, scientists enhance primates with genes from the human brain. The resulting smart simians turn on their creators and challenge humans for planetary supremacy. It’s far-fetched, to be sure, but even now, scientists are in the early stages of concocting human-animal hybrids.
Last month, British scientists published a report arguing that experiments involving the implantation of human genetic material in laboratory animals necessitate an effort by the scientific community to define ethical limits to the process before new life forms appear that blur the distinction between human and animal.
The practice of implanting human genes or cells in animals is not new. The procedure has been performed for years and gives researchers an opportunity to test the effectiveness of cancer drugs and other remedies on human DNA without harming human beings. But in 2008, British scientists took their work to the next level by synthesizing a human-animal embryo. The development sparked concerns that such “Frankencells” are unnatural creations that should be outlawed.
Martin Bobrow, a professor of medical genetics at the University of Cambridge who oversaw writing of the recent British report, acknowledged the ethical concerns that arise as science advances in merging human and animal genetic material. “Where people begin to worry is when you get to the brain, to the germ [reproductive] cells, and to the sort of central features that help us recognize what is a person, like skin texture, facial shape and speech,” he told reporters, according to Reuters.
Indeed, it is the humanization of those central features of the ape characters that reportedly has taken the upcoming flick to a level of realism beyond that of the original “Planet of the Apes,” released in 1968. That’s what makes such films so creepy. So far, American ethicists are taking a wait-and-see approach. The Obama administration’s Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues issued a report in December that cautioned “prudent vigilance” in the oversight of synthetic biology but recommended the feds take no role.
The ancient Greeks were haunted by the image of the chimera, a mythical creature combining the features of a lioness, a goat and a snake. Today, it’s intelligent apes that chill the imagination. But in the real world, not everything that science can dream up deserves to be brought to fruition. When genetic experimentation progresses beyond the Petri dish to the point where the product begins to resemble human beings, it’s gone too far.
The time to answer serious questions about the limits of human-animal hybrids is now - well in advance of the moment when Hollywood fantasy becomes a reality.