Scientists in the USA and China have created hybrid monkey-human embryos that can survive for up to 20 days. While chimera research is not new, this latest project followed the results of a companion study last year, when Professor Weizhi Ji and his colleagues at Kunming University of Science and Technology in Yunnan, managed to grow a monkey embryo outside the womb for an extended period of time.
Those involved claim that they are following medical and ethical directives laid down by the governing bodies in each of their countries and state that these chimeras are critical in the study of developmental evolution. This revolutionary macaque-human specimen came about since international agreements prevent the teams from experimenting on human embryos. By creating a chimera of the two, using monkey ova and pluripotent human stem cells, they are not breaking any regulations.
Surely, I am not alone in seeing the massive flaws in their research? Ethical considerations aside, how can a human-monkey embryo be a valid substitute for the study of human evolution? The very fact that in both studies, the embryos perished long before they could become viable entities should be evidence enough that combining non-human and human matter is fundamentally wrong.
I understand that evolutionary scientists are keen to plug the gaps in the Darwinian theory, hoping to prove beyond all doubt that humans were once a primitive species of primate similar to that of apes, but it does raise more questions than it answers.
For one, if we were akin to monkeys, why didn’t all the other species of ape die out when we out-smarted them? Why didn’t they continue to evolve alongside us, learning to speak or perhaps create building blocks for better homes? Most evolutionary biologists would probably answer this by saying that species would need to be extraordinarily similar to cross-breed and evolve, quoting evidence of the presence of Neanderthal genes in European populations. How is it then, that we are the single species of hominin left in the world, yet there are countless sub-species of every other creature?
I also know that when similar animal species breed, such as the horse and the donkey, the resultant mule is infertile and cannot go on to found a new branch of the evolutionary tree. Types of dog can interbreed with success, creating a whole host of hybrid canines with cutesy names like Jackapoo or some other linguistic substitute for mongrel.
We know without doubt that mummified remains of hominin species have been discovered all over the world, with clear features and genetic markers that point to our ancestry. What is less clear is the lack of evidence to support the evolutionary pathway prior to the earliest known hominin fossils (Ardipithecus ramidus) found in Aramis, Ethiopia, 1994, dating to around 4.4million BCE. The debate still rages whether this discovery can be attributed to our evolutionary development, since scientist cannot agree whether the solitary remains prove that they were truly bipedal, or merely another sub-species of ape. Much of the studies on this and related topics appear to be based on conjecture rather than science.
Whichever way you look at it, something does not add up. A gorilla cannot evolve into an orangutan, a rhino cannot become a hippo and a stoat cannot interbreed with a ferret, despite its similarities. I realise that it takes millions of years for natural selection to take place, but why are we not seeing apes learning from man and constructing mud huts or a new sub-species of lion-tiger hybrids branch into their own evolutionary line and not just in zoos? If we were originally a sub-species of monkey, how did we become the dominant hominin while our often-stronger cousins remained pretty much the same for hundreds of thousands of years?
It strikes me that both the USA and Chinese teams involved in these studies are bending the rules of ethics and nature for a more lucrative purpose. By using monkey embryos laced with human stem cells, they can develop methods that skirt laws to grow human tissue for transplantation in the future. When you trace their funding streams, you find that their financial partners are less squeamish about announcing their goals.
One of the sponsors of Professor Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte’s team, freely admits that their aim in funding the project is to advance the ‘understanding of early human development, disease onset and progression in ageing; provide innovative platforms for drug evaluation; and address the critical need for transplant organs.’
So, by their own admission, the funds are to secure ways of creating a species outside of ethical and moral restrictions that can be used for growing viable human organs, test drugs and find the solution to ageing – in other words, a human hybrid designed for profit.
I shouldn’t be surprised that science fiction has once again become science fact. The question that we should all be asking ourselves is how far are these people willing to push the rule of law in order to maximise their return on investment? Will we see the film starring Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson come true in our life time? Will insurance policies include an option to grow a clone of ourselves on the off chance that we will need spare parts?
‘The Island’ may have used this barbarism as the thrust of a good story line, but the reality is rapidly catching up. Researchers only managed to achieve a few weeks of development for their monkey-man chimera, but it won’t be long before they are able to take these hybrids to full term. If it cannot be accomplished through natural processes, there is usually a solid reason why. What sort of future are we creating by tampering with the natural order of things?
Author note – I am not against the theory of evolution. Scientists should push the boundaries of science in order to progress our understanding and find solutions to problems, but not at the expense of our ethical and moral concerns.