Planet of the Apes: Science but Not Fiction?

Planet of the Apes: Science but Not Fiction? April 30, 2019

A researcher in North Carolina has pulled out of a genetics experiment because he’s worried about the ethics of it.

This article reports that Chinese scientists have inserted human genetic material into the brains of monkey so they will become “more human”

Like most people my mind jumped immediately to the Planet of the Apes movies. In the updated franchise this is almost precisely why the apes took an evolutionary leap: scientists looking for a cure for Alzheimer’s tested their drug on an ape who developed new brain powers.

Genetic engineering raises a whole range of ethical questions. Everyone is sickened by Dr Frankenstein experiments that produce humanoid monsters, and films like Planet of the Apes terrify us with the possible outcomes of monkeying around with nature.

But are we really so terrified? Remember the scientists always defend their work by pointing out how their research will bring about a cure of some disease, overcome poverty and famine or defeat some birth defect.

Critics say the genetic engineering is un natural, but what is “natural” about our modern life? If we were all going to be “natural” wouldn’t we be primitive hunter gatherers living in tribes in the jungle? From the dawn of agriculture human beings have struggled to be the masters of the material world. The genetic engineering of crops has helped to defeat world hunger. Why is genetic engineering of animals or human beings necessarily wrong? Where shall we draw the line?

The scientists who are working at this frontier propose that genetically engineered monkeys might be bred for organ transplant purposes. Need a new liver? Get one from the monkey farm. Need a kidney? Get one from the monkey farm.

People of faith will have a problem condemning such experimentation because the motivation seems good. The scientists want to defeat disease, improve life and make life longer, healthier and better for millions.

What could be wrong with that?

Hilaire Belloc said, “Every argument is a theological argument.”

The underlying problem with genetic engineering that involves mixing humans and animals is that human beings are qualitatively different than animals.

We have eternal souls. Furthermore, Catholics believe that what we do with our bodies affects our souls. The two are intermingled. They are a unity.

Of course, the materialistic scientist does not believe this. He believes human beings are simply the most highly evolved of the animals, and if we have the brains and skill to manipulate our own destiny, then it is arguable that this is not only our right, but our destiny.

This is precisely what the transhumanist movement espouses.

For the person of faith this is deeply problematic. In the Garden of Eden story the temptation was for our first parents to “make themselves like God” The transhumanist movement is the ultimate step in that direction.

However, it would be wrong for people of faith to simply run in horror from the seemingly horrible experiments. In the past such negative reactions to scientific and technological progress have proven disastrous. On the other hand humanity cannot simply give the scientists and technicians a pass when it comes to ethical considerations.

Just how far and in what way science and medical technology should take us will continue to be debated, and people of faith must be part of that discussion because we are concerned not only with our physical, but also our spiritual well being.

For that sake we will inevitably eventually draw a line and say. “This far, but no further.”

Image Planet of the Apes promotional.


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