April 25, 2012

Rise of the Planet of the Apes postponed

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.


AdygheChabadi said...

Hi, Dienekes!

I think the question why it is or isn't ethical is secondary...
IF chimps were meant to have the FOXP2 gene that humans have they would be born human in the first place.

It is sort of like when the weed freaks say, "If God didn't want us to smoke marijuauna...He wouldn't have created it."

In a way, your question is similar. Just because we can, does that always nessitate that we should???

In my opinion, humans have done enough bio-damage as it is...allowing GEN-EN flora and fauna to escape into the wild.


Dienekes said...

IF chimps were meant to have the FOXP2 gene that humans have they would be born human in the first place.

No one is "meant" to have anything. Populations have genes that evolution has allowed them to have through a combination of chance and necessity.

Our ancestors didn't have the human-specific form of FOXP2 either, but we ended up having it.

In a way, your question is similar. Just because we can, does that always nessitate that we should???

We should certainly not do things just because we can, but there are good reasons to figure out what human-specific genes do, as mentioned in my post.


What do you mean "undo them"? What do you think will happen if we have a chimp with a human gene, that we will need to undo?

pconroy said...

I;d imagine a Chimp with a human FOXP2 gene would just be better at making specific sounds/grunts, and possibly saying a few simple words clearly enough to be recognized by a human.

However, IIRC one of the 5 Bushmen who was genotyped with Desmond Tutu had a different FOXP2 than the normal human one, so this guy and others like him might make a godd study group?!

Creative said...

Mans whole existence is based on manipulating himself and his environment.So to be a bit cynical, it was naturally intended to be this way.

Heavy D said...

If the chimp is given these genes and becomes humanesque, won't it be deserving of the same rights as you or me? At which stage do you decide that it is sufficiently humanesque? Is it ethical to bring into existence a sentient being for the sake of your own curiosity given that it will liklely have a terrible and unhappy life?

I think the ethical considerations are very clear. Some experiments go too far.

Dienekes said...

If the chimp is given these genes and becomes humanesque, won't it be deserving of the same rights as you or me?

We don't know whether it will become humanesque or not, and we can't know unless we actually do the experiment. If it becomes humanesque we can give it all the rights that it deserves.

Since humans differ from chimps in many many genes, I doubt that it will become humanesque by tweaking only a single one, however.

At which stage do you decide that it is sufficiently humanesque?

This can be decided by law, taking into account the available evidence.

Is it ethical to bring into existence a sentient being for the sake of your own curiosity given that it will liklely have a terrible and unhappy life?

Your contention that it "will likely" have that kind of life is completely unfounded. Even if it becomes "humanesque", it may lead a very good life. After all, one of our ancestors got our version of the FOXP2 gene, and we have no evidence that he/she suffered for it; in fact, he has seven billion descendants, so his life can't have been all that bad.

Also, it is not simply a matter of "curiosity", since the knowledge acquired by such an experiment might benefit mankind (and even chimpkind) in more direct ways by increasing our knowledge about what makes us (and them) be who we (and they) are.

I think the ethical considerations are very clear. Some experiments go too far.

I won't take your word for it.

There _are_ experiments where a negative outcome is anticipated on good grounds. If someone proposed to study the response of chimp skin to a solution of HCl, biologists and chemists could make a very good case why that would cause pain, suffering, and possibly death to the animal.

But, there is no reason to think that this would be the case if we introduced human FOXP2 to a chimp genome.

apostateimpressions said...

All morality is arbitrary, rationally foundationless. It is an illusion to think otherwise. The world has no significance, moral or otherwise; all that is happening is the evolution of the species, all else is illusion. The argument that something might get hurt is silly, things get hurt all the time, its part of life. Life is sustained and advanced through suffering and competition. What would be the conclusion of this moralism, that we shouldnt kill animals or eat meat? Should we not eat plants either? The moralism is arbitrary and tends toward nihilism, the denial of life and its preconditions. All that we can do is either convince others to accept certain acts in line with moral illusions or else just ignore them, according to which course best serves our purposes.

AdygheChabadi said...

Hi, Dienekes!

Well, first, let me answer 'apostateimpressions'...I had to do it while my train of thought was focused on it.

'apostateimpressions', morality serves great purpose in human civilization...all wise people understand that great purpose also. Human beings evolved a sense of right and wrong very far above and beyond 'lower animals', mainly, because the human animal is mentally very complex. A sense of morality and, even, our perception of something beyond self or ourselves (God or whatever is applicable in your life) is derived from our higher brain. As far as is known to us, most 'lower animals' lack such functionality.

Humans, in general, have a natural tendency towards order, which morality greatly helps to maintain. It is this natural tendency towards order and the moral constructs derived from it that has helped humanity build stable societies and civilization. Without it, the world as we know it would be far less than it's current state (makes me shutter to even think about it).

AdygheChabadi said...

Hi, Dienekes!

Now, to answer you...haha

To undo it...simply means to have a way of counteracting any negative outcomes. We tend to do things without thought given to real and possible consequences.

There is already bio-pollution taking place because of mindless GEN-EN experimentation...and currently there is no way to stop the bio-pollution that has been done by GEN-EN hybrids escaping into the wild. The scientists don't know the long-term consequences and seem to care.

That is what I meant.

As for something being meant to be...to that I say...there is obviously no evolutionary need for chimps to develop our type of FOXP2 gene, otherwise, they would have evolved like humans did.

Also, there was some news not long ago about some children born without the FOXP2 gene...I think.

apostateimpressions said...

Adyghe, thanks for your thoughts. I will offer you my train of thought.

I agree more or less that we have evolved an instinctive predisposition to morality but I dont think that we are all slaves to these predispositions as if we are programmed robots. Knowledge and insight take us beyond naive moral assumptions. Also morality has a fluidity, peoples' moral assumptions change as cultures change. There are different types of morality. Egoistic aristocratic morality is ordered toward the excellence of the few rather than toward the dignity and comfort of the many that modern democratic morality takes for granted. Britain had slave islands for centuries in the Caribbean with hundreds of thousands of African slaves just a couple of centuries ago. Ancient and highly progressive classical societies like Greece and Rome were slave based. Europe was aristocratic for a thousand years. So we cant take basic democratic assumptions about the purpose of society for granted nor assumptions as to how human progess is best served. You and I can probably agree on the basic premise that morality is aimed at the improvement of the human species but that immediately raises the rational question of how that is best done. Is human progress best served by pandering to the masses or by promoting the opportunities of the best? For instance, which should trump which, the "rights" of all to procreate or the eugenic need for the state to direct breeding? Both aim at human welfare but through contradictory methods. Is human welfare best served by extending political power to the masses or by their exclusion from the decision making process? Is human welfare promoted by giving charity to poorer countries to feed their starving children or by letting them die according to their own abilities? Do we favour unfettered expansion of the human population or do we forcefully set an environmentally sustainable limit? Are 10,000 rap singers worth a single German composer? Are all the art classes in British state schools worth a single Italian renaissance master? Are all the council estates in Britain worth a single wood or a single country estate? Is the expansion of the economy through immigration worth the further destruction of the English countryside? Are British cities really worth their existence at all? What would be an ideal British population, 1 million or 100 million? How do we judge? Do we judge according to aesthetic principles or how? Should we allow ugly people to breed or is the world made an uglier and worse place by their existence? Should we allow only the beautiful and well-proportioned to breed? Should we allow crude and vulgar "pop" music on the airwaves if beauty is our object? Are the masses simply vulgar trash that society would be better off without or else put to higher purposes? Do we care about human quality? Is our social ideal _aesthetic_ or democratic? Should we approach politics as artists with a clean canvass and a fresh block of marble or as slaves to predefined morality? There are no answers to these questions written in stone, no ten commandments to guide us. We are on our own with these problems without any manual or guide book. There are no moral laws beyond those that we invent for ourselves. The only set laws are those of Nature which we either struggle to work with or else fall foul of. I reckon that we could do much better but we are unlikely to because the whole orientation is firmly democratic without any regard or concern for the consequences. The masses rule, for better or for worse and they couldnt care less about any of these questions. Their own good is the only good. Their instincts are poliitcally petty. The most that we can do is to intuit what we are basically trying to get at and to then think seriously about how it is best achieved. It may be that we have to be highly transgressive of conventional morality, just as transgressive as liberals are but in the opposite direction. "Health" is probably the underlying instinctive principle.


apostateimpressions said...


But whatever we decide there is no "truth" because our objectives have no sanction, we are just being what we are the same as every species. Locusts will devastate crops and cause human starvation because that is what they do. They are not "wrong" to do it. They dont do it because the world is disordered. That is just how the world is. And even if we were totally rational about how human welfare is best achieved, we still wouldnt be "right", we would just be doing what we do (or perhaps rather what we dont now do). The world itself has no moral significance beyond what we do or do not ascribe to it. Genocide is no different to mowing the grass, we either personally care about it or we dont. Some Hindus wont tread on grass btw. Some people think nothing of genocide. Indeed it wouldnt really matter if the entire universe ceased to exist. It is only our own will that cares or not and we are clearly not "obliged" to care. Ultimately every individual must decide for themselves how they live, There is no guide book and no sanction beyond what Nature and society inflict. In that sense we are free. And so it is with scientists engaged in experiments. There is no moral truth about what they do. They have to instinctively intuit their objectives and act accordingly. Bodies, elected or otherwise, may impose limits but that doesnt make them "right". Im not convinced that we should be concerned for animals at all, and if we are then we should think seriously about reducing the human population as the first step toward animal welfare and possibly toward human welfare. The survival of species is clearly opposed to human expansion; this is the greatest mass extinction since the dinosaurs went extinct. Peak oil may be the best thing for nature and for us, bringing an end to industrial capitalism and a collapse of the human population. Perhaps we should just return to feudalism rather than worry about whether a few monkeys might get hurt in experiments. Its easy to say "poor monkeys" but much harder to undertake a rational reorganisation of human society. And it may be that the greatest sinners are the greatest saints. Alexander, Ceasar and who can say who else?

shenandoah said...

If there is "no truth" or any real "morality"... why bother with science at all? What's the purpose of it, simple greed? Pure curiousity? Scientific experiments and related data has concrete effects on others not involved in 'science' -- on the greater Society which generally FUNDS scientific research. If science can't perform within the framework of some sort of benefit to Society -- we don't need it. Buh-bye, 'Science'.

Brian said...

I supported Dienekes' position, starting several years ago:


If the gene has any effect, it would likely change their ability to vocalize, not make them "smarter", and that might make us slightly less likely to view chimps as mindless pieces of meat. A good outcome, I think.

shenandoah said...

Since the same people who view Human beings as nothing more than "mindless pieces of meat" would continue the same attitude with apes -- why bother? For amusement? People who are kind to animals don't NEED to play Dr. Doolittle with them, at least not on the taxpayer's dime.