Saturday, May 30, 2009

Human FOXP2 in Chimps - Ethical or not?

Jerry Coyne, one of my favorite evolutionary biologists who blogs over at Why Evolution is True, talked about the mouse FOXP2 experiment I mentioned the other day. He definitely took a bit of the wind out of my sails, since I had gotten pretty excited, but he's probably more realistic than I am about this thing. However, one thing got to me:
"Of course the definitive experiment, swapping a human or chimp gene with the copy from the other species, and observing the result, is unethical."
Noooooo! There goes my experiment.

But seriously. Forgive me if I'm just being a naive young scientist - I am but a lowly undergrad - but why would one argue that doing this experiment with a chimp would be unethical? He states it like it's such an obvious black and white issue - "Of course" it's unethical. But I would be more inclined to view it as a gray area. It's highly unlikely we'd create apes who run around speaking French ala Michael Crichton's Next. Many more genes than FOXP2 control the various brain and throat structures associated with human speech for us to see this happen.

Do we just have some special connection with chimps because they're our cousins? If so it seems like we're applying the Scala Naturae to our ideas of what's okay to experiment on and what's not (one of my big pet peeves). Fruit flies and mice are just lowly creatures, but a chimpanzee is too close to the "perfection" of humans to fiddle with. I know we experiement on chimpanzees - but why are those studies okay, yet this one wouldn't be?

I'm not necessarily defending my half-joking experiment of sticking FOXP2 in chimps and seeing what happens. I'm just honestly curious what people think and the reasoning behind these ethics. There's no "Ethics in Science 101" class we're all required to take (though there should be), so I love talking about this kind of stuff. What do you think? Is putting the human gene for "speech" into chimpanzees going too far? Where do we draw the line?


  1. Jen,

    What I meant is that it's unethical under current federal rules for experiments. Now personally I also think it's unethical. Do you think we should do transgenic experiments on apes and humans just to answer an evolutionary question (which really won't be answered anyway by a simple gene replacement of FOXP2?

    We all draw lines. I have no problem with euthanizing a fly, but wouldn't put down a chimp after I'd finished studying it. And I suspect you do, too. Don't you kill mosquitoes or bacteria that infect you? But you wouldn't kill a cat or dog that was annoying you.

  2. I really do not see a problem with sticking FOXP2 into a chimpanzee. Will we feel less inclined to harm the animal because it could have the potential to express its emotions in a more humanly manner? Will we isolate it from its kin because it has a more complex faculty than them (assuming the chimpanzee could actually form a simple language with just this one gene)?

    I don't get it. What's the inherent harm? We don't know necessarily what's going to happen? Are we afraid it might deform the chimp? Is that a problem because they are too close an evolutionary relative? Does it matter? We've never done this and it seems like there's no blatant harm in conducting the experiment.

    I haven't taken an ethics in science class, so someone please educate my ignorance.

  3. I have a bit of a problem with "it's unethical" being presented without argument, especially when it's paired with an "of course." We can imagine an argument -- for example, we might think that animals with more complex mental functions feel more pain, and that it's wrong to needlessly inflict pain or risk inflicting pain/harm. But without that kind of argument, how can we separate ethical objections from non-ethical objections of sentiment?

    Jerry's comment makes that clear -- I take it that a large part of the reason we kill mosquitoes but not cats (at least in this culture) isn't that we have considered ethical objections to killing cats, but that we feel more of an affinity to cats than to mosquitoes, we treat cats as pets, etc.

  4. Jerry,

    I think the most important part of your comment is that such a transgenic experiment probably wouldn't solve the evolutionary question, and thus the "risks" involved aren't really worth it.

    But I think I side with Paul when it comes to what we feel we can euthanize and what we can't. Do we have any real reasons other than cultural affinity? I know I'd have a hard time personally euthanizing most animals, but I don't necessarily morally object to others doing it. I would just feel bad being personally accountable for the death of a living thing, even if I think their death is worth it in the name of science. I would also feel worse euthanizing something cute and furry rather than a fruit fly or a fish. To me that seems like an arbitrary convention my mind has concocted, no something based on reason.

    Hmmm, but like I said, I don't know. It's a complicated issue and I'll have to think about it. Thanks for your input though!

  5. Sacrificing chimpanzees is performing and has played an important role in scientific experiments, so I'm not sure if I follow Jerry's second point.
    Regardless of ethics, however, inserting the gene into a chimp would provide an interesting subject on a variety of issues including the role of language in group identification (i.e., not just evolutionary biology).

  6. "There's no 'Ethics in Science 101' class..."

    Does your university not have "applied ethics," or "ethical issues in biotechnology" or something like that offered by the philosophy department? They're pretty standard philosophy department courses.

  7. Yep, there's a biomedical ethics course and an ethics and animals course offered at Purdue.

    Here are the descriptions:

    Biomedical Ethics
    "An examination of the moral problems raised by developments in medicine and the biomedical sciences. Topics include abortion, reproductive technologies, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, experiments involving human subjects, and health care delivery. Typically offered Fall Spring."

    Ethics and Animals
    "An exploration through the study of major historical and contemporary philosophical writings of basic moral issues as they apply to our treatment of animals. Rational understanding of the general philosophical problems raised by practices such as experimentation on animals or meat-eating will be emphasized. Typically offered Fall Spring."

    But like Jen said, she isn't required to take an ethics course. I just graduated from Purdue with a BS in chemistry and I wasn't required to take an ethics course, either.

  8. What I think is arbitrary is that we so often regard philosophers as experts on ethics. I think a philosophical background does as much to inhibit as to help good consideration of ethical questions, so if you can find an ethics course in a different department that's probably better.

    As far as the question of chimps, remember that it is nothing but an historical accident that there are no living intermediates between humans and chimps. If you consider all of our ancestors and all the chimpanzees ancestors going back 5 million years to when we shared a common ancestor, there is no biologically meaningful division in there, so where would you draw the ethical line? Isn't giving rights to humans and not chimps a bit arbitrary when you think about all the organisms that have ever existed, rather than just the organisms which happen to be living today? Richard Dawkins makes this argument better than I can, you should really read his writing on it.

    I think what matters ethically is cognitive abilities, thinking and feeling and communicating and stuff like that. That's what I would use to draw a non-arbitrary distinction between humans and animals that I would have no objection to experimenting on, like mice. But if that's what we're going to use, then we do have to give serious moral consideration to chimps. They do, after all, have significantly greater cognitive abilities than most animals. Dolphins also have quite impressive cognitive abilities, and it can certainly be argued that they too should be given significant moral consideration.

    As far as the FOXP2 gene, putting the chimp version in a human would obviously be unethical. The reason the gene first got the attention of scientists was because of the horrible consequences for people who had mutated versions of the gene. I do however think it might be ok to put the human version in a chimp. What could happen? Would it really be that bad if we did have a chimp running around speaking French? Of course I ask this knowing next to nothing about biology, maybe something horrible would happen. But I'll certainly agree that it's not nearly as black and white and it was made out to be.

  9. "What I think is arbitrary is that we so often regard philosophers as experts on ethics. I think a philosophical background does as much to inhibit as to help good consideration of ethical questions, so if you can find an ethics course in a different department that's probably better."

    Hey now! I resent the statement that a philosophy background would hinder seeing the right sort of approach to take to an ethical question, seeing as how I also have a BA in philosophy!

    Really, though, you're mostly right, Frank: much philosophy draws arbitrary distinctions and plays them off like they are absolute (religion, anyone?). I majored in a field that I now want little to do with, at least, little to do with the part of the field that doesn't integrate evidence-based results (which is most).

  10. "What I think is arbitrary is that we so often regard philosophers as experts on ethics."

    Well of course it's arbitrary in the sense that they happen to be the relevant experts in ethics - that is, it's as arbitrary as a class on biological taxonomy being taught in the biology department.

    I think it's terrible that they don't require future scientists to take an ethics class, but it's not that uncommon. It's strange though that hard science gets away with this where medicine, psychology, business, and education usually don't.

    Regarding the OP, it's really not uncommon for ethical systems to draw a distinction between different species. Remember that the scala naturae would not have been a successful meme if it had been totally counterintuitive.

    From the standpoint of ethical individualism, your position on euthanizing cats makes perfect sense. We care about those things that directly impact our lives, and the further away something is, the less morally important it is.

  11. Setting all moral and ethical considerations aside, I can say that a member of the leather trade industry, I hope for the day when human FOXP2 is introduced into chimps so I can begin selling all those wonderful Planet of the Apes outfits, which were all the rage in the 60s.

  12. Just kidding. But as a lawyer, I will say that I see nothing unethical, immoral or even illegal about it. The real dilemma is what rights are granted to the new creatures?