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In February 2002 a chimp named Andy was born. The genes that formed his egg were genetically modified to include a star fish gene. Animals (e.g. chickens) have been genetically modified for many years, however this is the first time the technique has been successful with a primate.
Put bluntly this experiment was done to see if it was possible. Clearly this is no justification. The reasoning behind this serious step is that it will eventually lead to the addition of such genes as the once suspected of producing Alzheimer's disease. In this way, it will be possible to test possible solutions to this disease. This new step produces two questions.
- Should geneticists be allowed to test on possibly self-conscious primates in this way? (A question of animal rights.)
- Is developing this science moving us too close to the possibility of genetically modifying humans? (A question of human rights.)
Human eggs have already been selected for reason inherited diseases and even to give the best chance of a bone marrow match. How far is too far?
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I'd like to make a financial point. I appreciate the medical worth of being able to study Alzheimer's disease as a means to saving or improving human life, but is it worth the money? Couldn't more significant improvements to human health in general be made by increasing public health awareness programs in areas such as diet or exercise?
Chimps can consistently pass the mirror test. Although not proof of their self-consciousness it is a strong argument for it. Until we are certain that they are not self-conscious surely it is morally wrong to give them diseases such as Alzheimer's. If they have a disease then they suffer just as badly from it.
Comment 2 assumes that all self-conscious beings are on the same level morally. I agree. Our rights stem from our awareness of the fact that we have life and have dreams and ambitions to go with it and not from our intelligence. Although it is highly probable that most animals aren't self-aware chimps may be and as such have many more rights.
In response to comment 3: If chimps are found to be self-conscious, and therefore on an equal footing with man, and do have ambitions etc., should they be given the right to vote in order to change society so that they can better fulfill them. No one is excluded from voting because of a lack of intelligence, or a failure to understand the issues involved.
As a scientist, I may be biased but may I remind the public that humans have been adapting other species for years - selective breeding. We have evolved as a very intelligent and unrivalled species. It is really a case of Darwinian survival of the fittest - we are here to ensure continuation of the species, and if this means adapting other organisms, and ourselves, then so be it.
Ethical questions like the ones posed here have been debated for every major medical advance that comes along. Indeed, many of us would not be here today if the ethicists, and theologians had gotten their way. Modern antibiotics received their fair share of ethical debates when first introduced. There are those today who believe that prayer is all you need to cure disease. While these debates rage on, people are dying of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's and other slow acting mental degenerative diseases. It seems that those who want to slow progress are always the one's who are young and healthy. Its easy to be an idealist when there is nothing at stake for you personally. Should chimps or other apes for that matter be used to find cures for these diseases though? No! Chimps probably are self-aware as is a 2 or 3 year old human. This of course doesn't mean you would give them the right to vote anymore than you would a 2 or 3 year old human. People with very low intelligence don't usually vote either, but we wouldn't perform these experiments on them or on 2 or 3 year old humans.
I have a question sparked by comment 5: is there a difference between specifically, genetically modifying an egg to achieve a result and cross-breeding for characteristics, as we do to get tomatoes with longer shelf-lives or the Romans did for healthy slaves?
Yes, there is a huge difference between naturally cross breeding organisms and tampering with their genetics using unnatural methods. The power that genetic modification gives us to change things for good and bad puts it in a completely different league.
When humans have come close to doing something that was once thought of as being impossible these same conversations have always occurred. "We can't open up the human body to try and fix it! Think of all the harm it would cause!" I believe if our minds have the capability of figuring out how to do something, it will eventually be figured out, and then it's up to us as a society to figure out how to stop our discoveries from killing us off...
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