In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a young scientist experiments with genetically modified chimpanzees, inadvertently making one exhibit human-like behavior. I thought of the movie as I was listening to the live webcast of Svante Paabo's talk at the Genomes Environments Trait conference (not sure if/when there will be an archival copy of the talks available).
Paabo was discussing how scientists had identified amino acid substitutions in the FOXP2 gene that were fixed in humans and different from chimpanzees, and, more recently -thanks to the availability of the Denisova genome- of differences that were fixed in modern humans and different in our closest genetic relatives (archaic humans).
The question naturally arises: how can we tell what the (modern) human specific mutations actually do.
Paabo said that we could do this if we created transgenic chimps/humans with the human/chimp version of the gene, but then jokingly crossed out the idea since ethics committees would never approve it.
He went on to say that the human version of FOXP2 was input into transgenic mice instead, with some evidence that these mice had different vocalization than regular mice. Even though we cannot actually breed humans with the chimp version of FOXP2, there may actually be some of the 7 billion humans in existence that may harbor back-mutations giving them this version.
Naturally, the question arises: if nature itself mutates human FOXP2 into its chimp version and vice versa, why is it unethical to do so in the lab?
Of course, there are good ethical reasons why we wouldn't want to give human children a chimp gene: we don't exactly know what it will do, but the risk of causing harm to a human person is sufficient reason to act cautiously.
But, why is it unethical to give chimps the human version of the gene? After all, the fact that the human version is fixed (in humans) may mean that is doing something really important and giving us some ability that we shouldn't toy around with. But, what evidence is there that the reverse is also true, and the chimpanzee harboring a human FOXP2 gene would face any problems at all?
This brings me to the topic of a recently introduced bill which would ban chimpanzee research altogether. This would not only subject the issue of chimp research to ethics committees who would probably not approve it, but ban it altogether.
There are substantial benefits in learning more about FOXP2 and other genes in which humans differ from chimpanzees. There is the intellectual benefit of learning what makes us special within nature, and how we differ from apes. There is the practical benefit of potentially easing the suffering of patients with damaged copies of genes that are fixed in the human lineage. Or, of understanding how language ability and cognition emerge, so that we can one day hope to create machines capable of it, freeing mankind from a great deal of toil.
And, there is the infinitesimal potential that we'll end up with an unhappy chimp ready to organize the simian takeover of our planet. Thankfully, Pinky and the Brain do not give rise to the same levels of dread and insecurity, so, for the time being we still have the option of experimentation with mice.
Personally, I'm all for putting human FOXP2 in chimps and seeing what happens. And, I am rather dismayed that the scientific and political culture has become so risk-averse that an experiment that would bring no harm to any humans, that would benefit humans, and that may not, indeed, affect negatively the chimps involved is, nonetheless, rejected out of hand on the basis of the nebulous probability that it might.