The Problem of the Humanzee


Richard Dawkins has written:

ethics and our politics assume, largely without question or serious discussion,
that the division between human and ‘animal’ is absolute. ‘Pro-life’, to take
just one example, is a potent political badge, associated with a gamut of
ethical issues such as opposition to abortion and euthanasia.

What it
really means is pro-human-life. …  But
such ‘essentialism’ is deeply un-evolutionary. If there were a heaven in which
all the animals who ever lived could frolic, we would find an interbreeding
continuum between every species and every other. For example I could interbreed
with a female who could interbreed with a male who could … fill in a few
gaps, probably not very many in this case … who could interbreed with a
chimpanzee.  …

would change everything is a practical demonstration, such as …   a successful hybridisation between a human
and a chimpanzee. Even if the hybrid were infertile like a mule, the shock
waves that would be sent through society would be salutary. This is why a
distinguished biologist described this possibility as the most immoral
scientific experiment he could imagine: it would change everything!

The distinction between a chuman, or hybrid of male chimpanzee and
a woman, and humanzee or manpanzee, or hybrid of a man and a
female chimpanzee is of some moral importance.
For in the eyes of many of us there something peculiarly repugnant about
asking a woman to gestate a human-chimpanzee hybrid.  Since, however, the focus of my essay will be
the implications of chimpanzee-human breeding as such, I will use the
expression humanzee throughout.

The questions are two, should we create a humanzee? and if someone creates a humanzee, what follows?   The phrase
“most immoral scientific experiment” covers a lot of territory, but, in this
case at least,   Leon Kass’s “wisdom of
repugnance” is well-grounded.  There does
not seem to be any compelling reason to create a humanzee, except the
imperative do whatever is technically possible.
And there are plenty of bad reasons, such as the need for a slave labor
force, for the desire to create a class of subhumans.    Setting aside Dawkins’ glee at shaking us
up, we have plenty of problems already without trying to find a place for humanzees
in our society.

But in the eyes of many of us creating humanzees is not
just imprudent, but unnatural, or even monstrous.  In a world in which every imaginable variety
of sexual behavior and reproductive technology has its defenders, this kind of
argument cannot be expected to convince everyone.   But
before we rejoice at our liberation from inherited constraints, we must
acknowledge its dark side.  Eminent legal
scholar John Yoo has asserted that the President has a higher law right, which
cannot be overridden by statute or treaty, to order the crushing of the
genitals of a young boy, in order to get his father to talk.

There is a paradox involved in the
conclusion that we ought not to create some kind of entity, at least if we are
not prepared to argue that it ought to be killed once it comes into being.  For never having come into existence is not a
possible life course like going to jail or remaining free.   But everyone will concede the argument in
some cases:  we ought not deliberately to
create children addicted to drugs in order to study their effects.   

the rest of this essay, I shall approach the larger issue by examining the
question, if someone does create a humanzee, what place should the hybrid have
in our social institutions?

Not so long ago, being
conceived or born outside marriage carried with it severe social disabilities.  Even now many people believe, rightly or
wrongly, that the products of incest or rape, and even more so of incestuous
rape, ought to be aborted, and one
deterrent to adopted children seeking their birthparents is the possibility
discovering such origins.   And there are
pressures on the mothers of fetuses, however unreliably, diagnosed as impaired,
to have abortions as well.  A
woman of my acquaintance was unsuccessfully pressured to have such an abortion,
among other people by her mother, who had previously told the woman’s husband
that he was a sperm donor.  (The child did
not, as thought, have Downs.)

judgment that a certain person ought not
to have come into the world is going to have its effects on the person, even if
we do not explicitly apply it to him after birth.   But such considerations can no more be
counted on to prevent the production of humanzees, than in earlier days they
prevented the production of bastards.

It is an axiom of
contemporary ethical debate that all human beings or persons are entitled to
equal rights, including a right to life and a right to liberty.  Notoriously, however, there are endless debates
about what entities count has human beings or persons “within the meaning of
the act”; and, more fundamentally, on what grounds we are entitled to assert the
existence of human rights.  That we were
endowed with such by our Creator is no longer common currency, and even among
those who assert a religious basis for human rights, the results in practice
cover the ideological waterfront.

persistent source of difficulty is that human beings are in no observable
respect equal.   We are not, for example,
equally capable of making decisions for ourselves, as opposed to following
whoever most recently has addressed us in an authoritative tone of voice.  Under the circumstances, the following ways
of answering the questions, Who is human?
and Who is a person? have emerged.

  • A human being or person is any entity our
    laws or customs recognize as such. I call this the conventionalist principle.
  • A person is an entity presently able to
    engage in rational activity including reflection.  I call this the present possession principle.
  • A person is an entity that presently or
    in due course will be capable of engaging in such activity.  I call this the potentiality principle.
  • A person is any member of the human
    species, and perhaps also any other intelligent species.  I call this the species principle.

conventionalist principle is useless, since whether we should treat a humanzee
as a person has now no settled answer.
If the problem became real, large and powerful segments of society would
treat such creatures as freaks and monsters, to be destroyed as quickly as
possible.  Supporters of this alternative
would include those people who fear the competition of humanzee labor.   Other powerful interests would urge us to maintain
humanzees in being, in order to make use of their services.  One tempting course would be to re-invent
racism and hold that we had created a class of natural slaves.    Thus, for example, female humanzees would
be legitimate outlets for the surplus sexual energy of young human males,
whereas sex between a woman and a male humanzee would be regarded as an
abomination.    In any event, the question is one of power
politics, not philosophical reflection.

present possession principle is right on one point.  If we encountered a humanzee capable of
rational activity, we would be obliged to acknowledge him or her as one of us.   At what point we draw this line is a
complicated issue, since we cannot rely on the practice of according human
rights to impaired members of our own species.
Moreover, as in the human case, the present possession principle permits
us to prevent such a result by killing humanzees in the womb or even in
infancy.   Killing humanzee babies will
be as acceptable as killing human babies.
Michael Tooley dodges this implication in his recent writings, but he drew it explicitly at one
time, and has never explained why it does not follow from his assumptions.

potentiality principle avoids this result, but encounters the following
difficulty.   Even among human beings a sufficiently
impaired entity will not count as a person, and there is no clear standard
telling how much impairment is sufficient.
But, faced with infants or fetuses in all known respects normal, we
presume that they will in due course be capable of rational activity (though
the practice of aborting fetuses on uncertain diagnosis of impairment is to the
contrary).   But no such presumption is available for the
humanzee, which is likely to be either a very intelligent ape or a cognitively
impaired human being.

the species principle puts us back where we were.  Whether humanzees count as members of the
human species or some other, and if some other whether that species counts as
intelligent, is the question at issue.  I
conclude that there is no way of answering philosophically the question of the
status of the humanzee; in practice the issue would be one of power politics.

are three possible ways of proceeding from here.  One, suggested by Dawkins, is to abandon the
whole framework of human rights and dignity in terms of which the debate is
framed.  John Gray has vigorously
defended such a view.   A second possibility is to take the
“progressive” route and give humanzees, along with other borderline cases such
as pre-embryos, the rights of full-fledged humans.  The third is to strongly oppose the creation
of humanzees, and deal ad hoc with
the (we hope) few attempts people make to produce them.

Historically speaking,
there have been abundant examples of caste systems, in which some human beings
have been regarded as of lesser inherent worth than others.  Such systems have not always condoned the
killing of a low caste human being.  In traditional Hindu thought, killing
a Brahmin was the worst of offenses, but this did not mean that killing members of other castes was
acceptable; abortion was a paradigm of evil behavior.  (See Mahābhārata, 1.149.7, 1.56.17.)    On the other hand,
advocates of animal rights propose that we should extend our concept of equal
dignity and rights to nonhumans.  But
defenders of animal rights – whether Kantian or utilitarian in inspiration –
trade heavily on principles of equality defined and defended in human contexts
– equal rights for women and racial minorities most especially.     This true both of Tom Reagan and Peter Singer,
and of everyone else who uses the term speciesism
to draw an analogy between species membership and race or gender.  In short, the case for animal rights is
parasitic on the tradition it undermines.

The proposal to give borderline
entities the benefit of the doubt has great appeal.   But it supposes that the case for denying
them full status as persons is less than compelling.  If the pre-embryo is a borderline case of
personhood, we ought not to create one with the intention or expectation of
subsequently destroying it.  If, however,
one come into being when a woman is raped, more than a benefit of the doubt
argument is needed to require us to spare it.
And so the question of the status of the humanzee will, by default, be
one of power politics.  And once such
entities exist in significant numbers, the gravitational force of social practice
will strengthen the, already powerful, temptation to say that might makes right
everywhere.    Therefore we ought not to
create humanzees. 





4 Responses to “The Problem of the Humanzee”

  1. kirby olson Says:

    Dear Phillip, it was nice to meet you and your wife yesterday. I think I am going to enjoy your blog, and will link to it at mine.

    Mine is here:

    I blogged yesterday’s event just now.

    Best to you guys!

    Kirby Olson

  2. Kirby Olson Says:

    Write about Santorum. I’m interested in your perspective.

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