Genetic Modification: What defines you as ‘human’?

This is a discussion we really, really ought to have had long before we developed the technology to do this.

It is not a good situation when ‘public debate’ – for whatever reasons, be it cultural, religious or just because it is easier to control an ignorant population – does not keep up with our technological abilities.

This all comes down to the whole ‘knowledge’ versus ‘wisdom’ thing…

What prompted this?

We have long been served plant-foods which contain artificially spliced in genes from other plants – or, possibly, animals.  And, we are not permitted to know (legally) what is what.  Now, we are about to be presented with meat which contains the genes of several animals…. (H/T: BCF)

We may know what we are doing – technologically.  But, do we understand what we are doing, both morally and legally?

* * *

We can no longer even agree on what defines ‘male’ versus ‘female’.

Really – do think about it.

It used to be easy:  the external presentation was sufficient.  And, any hermaphrodites were either so successful at passing themselves as one or the other sex that the question was really mute.  Even that really, really weird case in some isolated pacific islands where ‘every generation’,  some ‘clearly female children’ would, during puberty, develop into males.  To the islanders, it was clear:  while the child ‘appeared’ female, it was ‘a female’.  When the external presentation changed and the child began to look like a man, the (now) youth became ‘a male’!

But, now….

It is no longer so simple!

At first, it looked like our scientific knowledge actually simplified things:  females have two X chromosomes while males have one X chromosome and one Y chromosome.  Simple, right?

Except that….

Back in the late 1980’s, we learned that there are many men who have the required XY combination – plus another X chromosome!  Sometimes, as many as 5 or more ‘scrunched’ looking X chromosomes were found!  (Not important here, but they also found that the men with the extra ‘scrunched’ X chromosomes had a propensity for becoming very, very violent criminals.)

The question then becomes:  is a person with two X chromosomes legally female?

Or, is the presence of a Y chromosome that which defines a person as ‘male’?

We never really had that public debate….when we learned that one’s self-perception as ‘male’ or ‘female’ is set by specific hormones affecting our brain development while we are still fetuses!  If a particular chemical gets released during a very specific point of our fetal development, we will think of our selves as ‘male’.  If it does not get released – or gets released late, or in too small amounts, we self-perceive as ‘female’, regardless of our genetic makeup or our sexual orientation!

Then we learned how to perform ‘sex change’  operations….

…which opened a whole new debate!

If a person is born female – double X chromosomes – and undergoes a sex-change operation, that person is now legally male:  regardless of ‘genetic makeup’.  So, we are back to ‘external presentation’ as being the key defining element.

Except for the case of Caster Semenya

(Aside:  this case would be mute if we did not practice strict sexual apartheid in sports – another issue we should really, really take a look at … but that is not the focus of this post.)

What I am trying to point out is that where  ‘male’ and ‘female’ used to be defined easily (more or less), using ‘common sense’, the scientific advances we have led to technology which muddles the debate, to the point where different countries around the world have irreconcilably different legal definitions of ‘maleness’ and ‘femaleness’!

* * *

Still, this is a minor debate compared to the ‘what defines ‘humanness” debate!

In my never-humble-opinion, this debate is more charged with religious pitfalls than just about anything else!  After, all, the whole ‘abortion’ debate is only a sub-section of this greater debate of  ‘where’ we draw the legal – as well as moral, as it is wrong to legislate morality, so the two ought not necessarily be the same – line of what defines who/what is or is not human!

(This is NOT meant to be an ‘abortion debate’ –  please, don’t turn it into one!  I only mentioned it because I wanted to underlie both  just how important and charged this debate is ….and how bizarre it is that we are NOT having this ‘greater’ public debate!)

For many years, I had a neighbour whose daughter was born missing a pair of chromosomes.  Still, she was completely human!  Disabled, yes.  But, she WAS a human being!

Yet, because she was missing two whole chromosomes, she was genetically more different from ‘average human’ than most primates are….and we certainly don’t consider THEM human!  ALL primates are used as ‘live meat’ – without any regard to anything else – in all the vaccination-producing and other ‘medical’ labs in the world!

So, what defines YOU as ‘human’?

Just how much genetic damage and/or mutation do you have to suffer before you and your children  are no longer defined as ‘human’?  Legally or morally?

We share 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees – yet, legally, they are ‘live meat’.

And people missing  way more than 2% of human DNA, like my ex-neighbour,  are still ‘human’!

This is a really, really important public debate we ought to be having now!  OK – we should have been having it long ago….  Still, delaying it now is dangerous to the very core of our society!

Why?

Because now that we have the technical ability to swap genes between species, we are putting our ability into practice without having defined how we will ‘consider’ the ‘results’!

We can take genetic material from one species, splice it into another – and have the ‘spliced’ genes passed on to the next generation!

And,  we have not had the public discussion about this.  About what makes one species unique – and how that uniqueness is or is not affected by splicing in genes from another species!

Yes, this has been going on for a long time.  Animal genes were spliced into plant genes, genes from one animal are being spliced into another – we have the technical ability!  Yet, we have not really – really – had the public debate about it…

Oh, sure – we have talked about ‘Franken foods’!  About plants which have been genetically modified in one way or another.  Still, much of the  public debate has been stifled – and, perhaps more ominously, there is actual legislation that forbids produce labels which would identify whether the food one is about to purchase has – or has not – been genetically modified!

WHY?

“To prevent  prejudice against genetically modified foods!’ – we are told…

No – I don’t mean to get into weird conspiracy theories here.  I think the answer is very simple:  money.  If a genetic manipulation is financially beneficial to the ‘genetic manipulator’, that ‘genetic manipulator’ will consider investing in ‘product-favourable legislation’ to be no less important a component of their investment in ‘bringing the product to market’ as  ‘scientific research’  how to do it actually is.  That is not a ‘conspiracy theory’ – that is simply ‘good business sense’.

Again – the mechanics of this are not the point of this post.  Let’s just accept the current state of things as they are now – not as they ‘ought to be’ – and get to the greater issue.

Just how MUCH genetic material from one species does a living organism have to contain (or be missing) before it is legally considered (or no longer considered) a member of a particular species?

We do now have mice which have had ‘human breast cancer’ genes spliced in – and pass them on to their offspring.  That means that human genes (OK – ‘broken’ human genes, but human genes none-the-less) are present in sentient beings which do not enjoy any of the rights and freedoms of fully-human beings.  Just how MUCH of our ‘human’ DNA should a creature contain before it is ‘human’?

Legally?

Morally?

What about my neighbour, born missing a few chromosomes?  If a child is born with ‘sufficiently large’ genetic disorder, will it no longer have the legal protections of other humans?

* * *

OK – let’s consider the story I linked: ‘ pork’ which contains mouse genes is now being proposed for sale, without any labels informing the customers that they are buying (presumably for consumption) meat which contains both pig and mouse genes.  We also know there are ‘genetically designed’  mice out there, which contain human genes…

And fish are about to enter our food markets which contain ‘beef-genes’…tip of the proverbial iceberg!

How long before we are being served ‘animal meat’ which contains ‘some’ human genetic material?

How MUCH human genetic material does a meat have to contain before it is considered ‘cannibalism’ to consume it?

Will it be illegal for us to even know we are consuming ‘flesh’ which contains ‘some’ human DNA?

What I am trying to say is….before we physically blur the lines between species – something our technology today permits us to do with impunity – we ought to remember that we, humans, are just a species ourselves!

Any ‘genetic pollution’ we permit, any ‘genetic-line-smudging’ we allow, will, necessarily, set a precedent for all ‘species-specific’ blurring of lines – even the lines of the human species.

I do NOT pretend to have any of the answers.  I freely admit I am deeply conflicted on the issue….

Really – we ought to talk about this!

4 Responses to “Genetic Modification: What defines you as ‘human’?”

  1. Steynian 407rd « Free Canuckistan! Says:

    […] MADMEN @ PLAY– Genetic Modification: What defines you as ‘human’? …. […]

  2. SUZANNE Says:

    I promise I won’t turn this into an abortion debate 🙂

    But you raised an extremely important question, about the nature of humanity.

    There’s something about humanity that is special that it can produce civilizations and all that it entails: culture, laws, religion, literature, etc.

    Animals don’t do that.

    We’ve reduced the answer to the question to DNA because that’s the empirical marker that is most convenient.

    We’re a species that can engage in higher critical thought. But many people reject this idea as a marker for human beings, because they point out that some animals have a higher thought capacity than some human beings at some point in the latter’s development. But collectively human beings have a far greater capacity for thought than any other species. If we just defined ourselves as the rational species, and then accepted any individual who is the product of our species, that would solve the problem. So that even a profoundly mentally handicapped person is a member of our species simply for being produced by the species that is capabe of rational thought.

    There may come a time when we’ll take DNA from a bunch of animals and try to create human beings. I don’t know how that will work out. But this is hypothetical at this point.

    Xanthippa says:

    This may be less hypothetical than you think…

    The same technology which is used to splice beef genes into trout will also work to splice human genes into animals and animal genes into humans. And, if you think that there are no experiments trying this, think again!

    As I pointed out: there exists a lab-created species of mice which contains human DNA, specifically, human breast cancer DNA. These mice have now reproduced for many generations – passing this human DNA onto their offspring.

    Does that make them human?

    Does the fact they have SOME human DNA mean they now enjoy all the legal protections granted to humans?

    What if scientists figured out that splicing some octopus DNA into kids makes them smarter – and, in some ‘less regulated’ country, scientists started to do this. Or another animal species’ DNA which might cure, say MS or Asthma…

    Now, you might have a population of individuals who have mostly human DNA, but also some octopus DNA. Are they human?

    How much DNA can you splice into an individual without altering their ‘species-status’?

    THAT is the debate we really, really need to have now.

    Because it is no longer just ‘hypothetical’!

  3. SUZANNE Says:

    Parts don’t define the whole. A mouse with some human parts is not a human being.

    What I meant when I said it’s hypothetical is that as far as I know, there hasn’t been a whole human being created from “spare parts” DNA. I’m no scientist, but it’s not impossible that it might not work.

    Before I worry about the DNA, I want to know what this being can do is potentially capable of doing. Like if you build a creature who doesn’t have 46 chromosomes but can reason like a human being, I might consider that creature a human being in a substantial sense.

    I find it still hypothetical at this point, but not unimportant.

    Xanthippa says:

    Point well taken.

    Still, where does it leave us when we discuss people who, due to their genetic malformation or problem or so, are NOT able to reason ‘like a human being’… I go back to my ex-neighbour with the 2 whole missing chromosomes: severely disabled, unable to effectively communicate, just screech a bunch, even her appearance was not what we would define as ‘fully human’.

    Yet, she WAS a human being, with the same rights as you and I.

    She was missing a whole pile of genes that define ‘us’ as ‘human’….

    You say you don’t care about mice that have a few human genes – OK, I get it.

    BUT!!!!

    WHERE is the line we must draw? Not just morally, but legally?

    Just how much – or how little – human DNA must one HAVE in order to be defined as ‘human’?

    Yes, hybrids that look non-human may not appear threatening to our status. But, ‘that’ is not likely to remain ‘hypothetical’ for long. Our DNA is 98% identical to chimpanzee DNA….just how much human DNA would need to be spliced into chimp DNA to make them ‘in-between species’? How will we – legally – classify them? If they demonstrate free will and intelligence, will we be legally or morally justified in banning this ‘half-human-half-chimp’ creature from breeding with whomever it falls in love with?

    All I am saying is that we really, really need to have a complete and honest debate about this within our society!

    …and, of course, about the greater implications of this nilly-willy blurring of ‘natural’ lines between species….

  4. nick w. Says:

    i have been trying to figure this out for a while and you kind of told me a little but my parents were hiding from me until now that i was genetically designed i didn’t want to believe it but when they showed me pictures of when they were making me i was blown away and you may not believe me but I’m not asking you to but if you have anything that could tell me more please send me an email it would help a lot


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