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Don’t monkey around with the borders of humanity

Credit: YouTube


March 21, 2018   2 mins

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.


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

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William Cameron
William Cameron
3 years ago

The high level of public tolerance is made possible by furlough pay . If that did not exist folk would be less tolerant. Furlough makes sense -but it cannot go on indefinitely.
And the public support for government – regardless of political views- was strong at first but will start to fray unless people see progress.
The Government has done its credibility a huge disservice with its palpably false claims on testing numbers- that was – and continues to be -very very stupid. Making statements everyone can see are untrue is bound to damage public confidence in other statements.
The Swedish system works because people behaved sensibly and continue to do so. The Imperial model forecast much higher death rates (dont they always ?) for Sweden – but it is said they hadn’t factored in Swedish sensible conduct . And Britain too- if lead with honesty -can also behave sensibly. So Govt credibility could be key to managing this.

D Glover
D Glover
3 years ago

‘A survey released at the weekend showed that 73% of Brits think protecting lives should take precedence over the economy, ‘

Well, that’s fine until you think what a ruined economy means. There’ll be no money for the NHS when the next plague sweeps in from the East. I’m sure terrorists and hostile states have noted how vulnerable we were.

Badly educated kids will leave school and enter a job market that doesn’t need them.

There will be no hard currency to pay for the half of our food that is imported. The free trading nations of the world aren’t going to send us food out of charity.

Liscarkat
Liscarkat
3 years ago

Pubs, restaurants, sporting events, discos, and airline travel are not going to disappear. What we are doing now is not, in that idiotic phrase, “the new normal”. It is temporary, and although it will take more time than we may want it to, normality will return and we’ll burn our (useless, silly) masks.

Fred Bloggs
Fred Bloggs
3 years ago

Great photo at the top!

It is noticeable that Barash views humans “made in the image of God” as being entirely about rights and not even slightly about responsibilities. And just supposing we confer “human privileges” on chimpanzees and orangutans then we will see that, as they do in the wild, each species will tear the other species limb from limb.

juliandodds
juliandodds
3 years ago

I think you are right Freddie. The population have been poorly served by the media and the government messaging. Their levels of fear, particuarly given who is and who is not at risk are perplexing but ‘reason’ and pragmatism will have to win the day eventually. Not being paid to stay at home will help. I like the 3 lanes idea but I would label the lanes LIVE, DISTANCE and SHIELD. Under my plan GPs would give everyone in the country a risk ranking from 1-9. 3 LOW risk groups who will be invited to ‘LIVE’, 3 MEDIUM risk groups who will be invited to ‘DISTANCE’ and 3 HIGH risk groups who will be mandated to SHIELD. Households with mixed vulnerabilities would be invited to shuffle into temporary household ‘pods’ with hotels and holiday accomodation being used under a government scheme for those not able to shuffle themselves. When the whistle blows ALL businesses (inc. pubs, restaurants etc) re-start but with only the LOW risk group being allowed to work. The intention would be to maximise R0 amongst the LIVErs, suppress it amongst the DISTANCErs and minimise it amongst the SHIELDers. Community Immunity in 15 weeks. Back together for October 1st! I have a detailed program mapped out for anyone interested.

olivps
PO
olivps
3 years ago

Nothing like allowing “nature” to settle the issue. The money is going to stop flow by August and then the tide will turn dramatically. Further the possibility of no-beach holiday will be hard to swallow since the post lockdown weather will not be as good as we had it recently. Then, naturally all the fuss will disappear and people would again regain lucidity and realize that after all immortality is an unachievable concept!

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
3 years ago

This is a fascinating piece. I wasn’t aware of the two different words for cannibalism in Russian but am not surprised. I would question John Gray’s statement: “Taken together, the casualties of the Revolution, the 1918 terror, the civil war and the ensuing famine cost the lives of around 25 million people in the territories of the former Tsarist empire.” This is close to the estimate of demographic losses given by Richard Pipes in “Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime”: 23M, who also puts the Russian casualties in the First World War somewhat lower, 1.1M ” 18 times the number of casualties it incurred in the First World War (1.3 to 1.4M.) The difference may be due to the emigration of 2M people, which Pipes excludes, and John Gray should too. Both estimates would seem to include demographic losses due to births that would have occurred if the Bolshevik Revolution had never occurred but never happened, which is not how most people would think of casualties. These kinds of estimates have their value, especially to demographers, but they are very misleading if the reader assumes one is speaking of actual human victims, rather than pregnancies that never happened. You can see the same problem with the Ukrainian Holodomor, and the discrepancy between the 2.5 to 3.5M range for its victims proposed by the Ukrainian-Canadian scholar John-Paul Himka and the much higher estimates ranging from 7M to 10M maintained by former Ukrainian president Victor Yushchenko and others.

Jason Scott
Jason Scott
3 years ago

I think you are wrongly assuming the Gov’t has the ability to choose an approach, and giving them credit for decisions that are out of their hands. Through incredible negligence they lost the ability to make informed decisions and choose a policy or a path. They lost that early on, through not preparing. They had to go with the laissez faire approach initially because they were not physically capable of testing, tracing, isolating, quarantining, closing airports, protecting essential health workers, care providers and the elderly. If they had done that in early February there would have been a manageable amount of cases and containment would have been an option, without a lockdown. However, having done nothing at an early stage, they lost control. The outcry over the “herd immunity” policy scared them – quite rightly in my opinion – and they had to go on full lockdown mode to avoid overwhelming the health service. That has worked, but at what cost. Enormous numbers of excess deaths and an economic recession. Now the public are starting to understandably want to know what is next. The Gov’t have only one choice – to open up until the death rate becomes less tolerable and the public opinion swings the other way, and we go back to a lockdown. From the start the Gov’t never had control or a realistic choice. The population is leading the policy.

T J Putnam
T J Putnam
3 years ago

Not surprised that Unheard harbours some ‘young’ minded people of puckish mindset. But biology does not indulge wishful thinking. While individuals and Governments may think they can sail closer to the wind after the first wave that increases the odds the second wave will be bigger and bloodier than the first, with more collateral damage of all kinds. Don’t disrespect socioeconomic realities either. Fractured public and private structures and self-delusional cultural orientations mean there can be no Sweden type path to herd immunity for a country like Britain, whether Government connives at it or not.