Chimpanzee - Uganda
Chimpanzee - Uganda

Why Does the Proposal for Chimp–Human Hybrids Keep Coming Back?

Crossposted at Mind Matters

A few days ago, Templeton Foundation’s mailer for its online magazine Nautilus pointed to a five-year-old article by University of Washington psychology prof (emeritus) David P. Barash, advocating the creation of a humanzee: “Doing so would be a terrific idea.”

It’s not clear why Nautilus is publicizing the article now. The Soviet Union failed to produce a humanzee. Nothing much has happened since 2018 that suggests that it is imminent. We do learn something of why Barash wants one though:

Haven’t we learned that Promethean hubris leads only to disaster, as did the efforts of the fictional Dr. Frankenstein? But there are also other disasters, currently ongoing, such as the grotesque abuse of nonhuman animals, facilitated by what might well be the most hurtful theologically-driven myth of all times: that human beings are discontinuous from the rest of the natural world, since we were specially created and endowed with souls, whereas “they” — all other creatures — were not.

David P. Barash, “It’s Time to Make Human-Chimp Hybrids,”Nautilus, March 5, 2018

So it comes down to a war on the human soul. Now, here’s the interesting part: Humans are self-evidently unique; otherwise, Barash’s interaction with his readers could not occur. The human minds that enable that interaction are clearly not material things. And no one has any idea how they came to exist. Evolution theory provides no significant information here. In the end, however much many thinkers don’t like that fact, everyone eventually admits it.

Yet, on cue, readers — including many with PhDs — will agree with Barash that human exceptionalism is wrongthink. They will not ask why either he or they can maintain such an absurd view — when the very act of maintaining it refutes it. Perhaps all those years of education enable them to be oblivious to contradictions that should be apparent to an alert high schooler.

Barash, although he professes concern for animal rights, is not deterred by concern for the humanzees that a successful experiment would produce:

Neither fish nor fowl, wouldn’t they find themselves intolerably unspecified and inchoate, doomed to a living hell of biological and social indeterminacy? This is possible, but it is at least arguable that the ultimate benefit of teaching human beings their true nature would be worth the sacrifice paid by a few unfortunates. It is also arguable, moreover, that such individuals might not be so unfortunate at all. For every chimphuman or humanzee frustrated by her inability to write a poem or program a computer, there could equally be one delighted by her ability to do so while swinging from a tree branch.

Barash, “Human-Chimp Hybrids”

The risk of “a living hell of biological and social indeterminacy” … And this is the same David Barash who worries about whether worms feel pain?

What makes the suffering worthwhile?

When claims are made about the “right to life,” invariably the referent is human life, a rigid distinction only possible because of the presumption that human life is somehow uniquely distinct from other forms of life, even though everything we know of biology demonstrates that this is simply untrue. What better, clearer, and more unambiguous way to demonstrate this than by creating viable organisms that are neither human nor animal but certifiably intermediate?

Barash, “Human-Chimp Hybrids”

So the humanzee’s suffering is rendered worthwhile precisely because it enables the denigration of other human beings. Good to know.

At the time, bioethics commentator Wesley J. Smith, clearly shocked by the moral nullity on display, responded,

We are the only truly moral species in the known universe. Only we can be held morally accountable for our actions. Only we have the capacity to rationally determine issues of right and wrong, ought and ought not, etc. Indeed, if being human — in and of itself — isn’t what gives us the moral obligation to treat animals humanely, what in the world does?

And if that duty arises solely and directly from our humanity — which it indisputably does — that means, by definition, that we are exceptional. All other species are amoral and, as such, they don’t owe a duty to each other, us, or anything. Duties, and moral accountability are simply beyond their ken.

Wesley J. Smith, “Darwinist Wants Us to Create ‘Humanzee,’” National Review, March 8, 2018

Of course, that’s both true and obvious, and one needs a lot of education to be rendered unable to see it. So then why does this obviously ridiculous and clearly inhumane idea keep coming back?

Experimental physicist Rob Sheldon writes to suggest that there may be an underlying cultural trend here: When ridiculous inhumane ideas are routinely aired without pushback, we become more willing to accept inhumane ideas that are in fact quite viable:

It’s like an artillery barrage before the infantry go over the wire. The intent isn’t to be taken seriously, the intent is to make the next move seem innocuous.

The basic idea is the constant exposure to “shocking” material until it stops being shocking. And this response is entirely normal. We couldn’t function as humans without a brain circuit that filters out repetitive stimuli. Anything that happens repetitively gets ignored eventually.

He offers some examples:

The hybridization of animal-human embryos allowed to develop past the 14 day “ethical threshold”. The introduction of animal genes to “improve” the human genetic stock. And of course, the Holy Grail — extending the life of humans.

Once we remove the ethical barriers between humans and animals, we can then experiment on humans with all the tools we’ve perfected for animals.

One can agree or disagree with his thesis. But we will probably find out in the next decade or so whether he is right. If he is, what to do about the relentless march of dehumanization is a huge challenge.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Immortal Mind: A Neurosurgeon’s Case for the Existence of the Soul (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.