Bio: Paula is an undergraduate student at NYU. She is currently pursuing a major in Economics and a minor in Business Studies.
Within the past decade, several controversies regarding the creation of human-animal embryos in the field of stem-cell science have repeatedly driven interspecific research to the center of public attention. Given the taboo nature of human-animal entities in Western society, few transhumanists—even amongst those in favor of radical alterations—view crossing species boundaries as a feasible option for humans to pursue. This essay theorizes the potential benefits of crossing species boundaries from a trans-humanist perspective, and defends the ethical nature of creating human-animal hybrids against several intrinsic and extrinsic concerns. Its purpose is not to excuse poor bioethical practices or promote deregulation in biohacking, but to reflect on the recent advances in biotechnology and their impact on the social sphere.
In the field of Posthumanism, transhumanists are mainly concerned with using biotechnology to overcome the limitations of human physiology and transforming the human condition (Ferrando 3). Integrating animal DNA into the human genome, however, is not commonly recognized as a possibility for transhumanists seeking “the fullest realization of [man’s] possibilities” (Huxley, “Transhumanism”). This attitude partly stems from the belief that there exists a fixed boundary between humans and animal species, and that human nature is so distinguished in complexity from animal nature that replacing human DNA with animal DNA would only produce adverse effects on the individual. However, putting aside the humanist assumption that animals are genetically “inferior”, combining human and animal genes for therapy or moderate enhancement—for example, to build resistance against pathogenic diseases, promote recovery from physical injuries, or exercise personal cosmetic preference—is, in many ways, comparable to producing transhumans through other biotechnologies, and arguably closer to scientific reality.
From an evolutionary perspective, borrowing traits from other species to advance humankind is hardly a novel concept. If we observe nature, we recognize that genes are capable of transversing species boundaries without humans acting as the mediator. Interspecific admixture serves as a proponent of diversification, which enables species to survive under more disruptive, extreme conditions. The history of evolution in human beings has proven that certain hybrid traits can possess significant functional relevance and evolutionary advantages. Instead of leaving selection to chance or the vagaries of nature, a posthuman society can adjust according to environmental pressures by exchanging genetic information with other more adapted species utilizing the genomes it has access to. Apart from envisioning a partial commitment to hybridity, we can also imagine scenarios where “interspecifics” with a greater admixture of animal DNA may provide foreseeable benefits to society. In the context of the twenty-first century, humans can extend the definition of “environment” beyond Earth’s biosphere to encompass outer space (Ferrando 124-125). If we eventually come to realize our fullest potential by evolving into a space-faring race as Huxley suggests in “New Bottles for New Wine”, human-animal hybrids resilient to extreme environmental factors—such as cosmic radiation—may prove invaluable for spreading human civilizations across the universe. Therefore, to situate interspecific research in the transhumanist discussion, we should consider where the legal and ethical line should be drawn in relation to body modification or liberal eugenics. As Huxley argues, mankind is tasked with the obligation to “explore and map the whole realm of human possibility”— including possibilities that arise from tapping into the universal genetic code and hybridizing with other life forms. Although human beings in the present possess a limited understanding of bioengineering, future technologies may allow individuals safe access to desirable nonhuman traits that will recognizably alter their physical or mental processes on a genetic level. The burden then lies on contemporary society to determine if wellbeing or “fulfillment” achieved through artificial technological alterations to the human body are in ways inherently “better” or less objectionable than similar benefits derived from inserting traces of animal genes into our genome.
Given that human-animal entities are widely regarded as social taboos in most cultures, some intrinsic and extrinsic arguments regarding the ethical nature of interspecific research must be addressed before a grounded argument in favor of hybrids can be established. The violation of the integrity of animal species and human dignity are related to concerns raised frequently in debates regarding interspecific research. In “Agency or Inevitability: Will Human Beings Control Their Technological Future?”, Fukuyama defines human essence as the summation of essential characteristics that give "humans, as opposed to non-human animals or inanimate natural objects, political rights” (161-162). According to bioconservatives like Fukuyama, exchanging DNA between human and animal species would not only undermine the morally relevant notion of personhood but threaten the genetic “intactness” of the animal as well. To understand why these arguments are problematic in posthuman debates, we can examine these terms in relation to the concept of biological species and personhood. First and foremost, we must question where the intrinsic value of the “integrity” of species lies. In other words: is it possible for species to remain genetically intact? The misconceived notion of “intactness” implies that species are stable or have an un-compromised state, whereas scientific theory shows species are constantly changing with or without human intervention. To dispute the notion of fixed species even further, it can be argued that our modern delineation of species, either by morphology or phylogenetics are anthropocentric—relying predominantly on humans to judge how much biological difference is sufficient to constitute separate “species”. A similar criticism can be applied to “human dignity”. “Human dignity” arguments draw from the value of concepts such as “worth” and “species identity” to render the creation of “interspecifics” inherently wrong. These stances fail to justify our historical understanding of personhood because they rely on intuitive reasoning. For the most part, policy-makers cannot measure “human essences”, nor can the law effectively communicate which “unalienable rights” humans are inherently entitled to without referencing some humanist standard. To understand the uncertainties associated with intuitive reasoning, consider an intelligent human-animal hybrid capable of moral and philosophical reasoning to a “recognizably human” extent and a man who is not capable of such. While modern societies could deny the hybrid basic human rights on the grounds that he/she/ they are insufficiently “human”, their actions would face severe ethical consequences. Therefore it may prove beneficial to revise the humanist connotations of “dignity” and “worth”, and consider these “essential characteristics” a distinctive combination of traits found in sentient beings rather than exclusively members of the human species.
Finally, it can be argued that since the 2010s, the public has arrived at the consensus that guidelines and supervision are necessary and crucial to interspecific research. Currently, the disagreement lies not within whether unethical experimentation should be permitted in the field of science or whether regulation of biotechnologies is mandatory, but where policy-makers should set such boundaries to avoid unnecessary “confusion” while mapping our possibilities. Admittedly, there are means through which interspecific research can be abused that yield serious moral implications. (For example, unrestrained experimentation may result in the institutionalized enslavement of hybrid races which societies may physically exploit.) However, this is not an objection against the ethical nature of human-animal hybrid creations, but society’s treatment of individuals lacking sufficient “humanness”. Before we deny interspecifics a place in society altogether, we must recognize that the discrimination against or “confusion” towards individuals we deem inadequately human stems from humanity relentlessly policing the line between humans and “nonhumans”, emphasizing their “inherent” differences and objectifying the latter. We can only anticipate future societies to broaden the definition of “human rights” and “human beings” to include human-animal hybrids with equal capabilities if we allow individuals to challenge the humanist notions ingrained in society, similar to how humanity has deconstructed concepts of race and gender in the modern era.