A US-Chinese team of scientists have produced embryos that include human cells and cells of a nonhuman primate, the long-tailed macaque. What are we to make of such experiments? How are we to assess their ethical implications?
The first thing to note is that this is by no means the first attempt to produce creatures that are a mix of human and nonhuman-primates. Already in the 1920s a Russian scientist, Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov, had attempted to cross human beings and chimpanzees. In a series of experiments in French Guinea he tried to impregnate female apes with human sperm, but without success. One practical problem was that the chimpanzees resisted the artificial insemination procedure. Another was that he had a limited number of experimental animals. They were supplied by hunters who typically captured baby chimps while killing the adults. Indeed, there were serious fears at the time that the species was facing extinction in the wild.
When these initial attempts at crossing chimps and human beings failed, Ivanov asked the colonial authorities for permission to impregnate local women with sperm extracted from a dead male chimpanzee, without telling the women the origin of the sperm. The governor did not object to these experiments in principle but would not allow them to take place in the main hospital in Conakry. Ivanov therefore returned to Russia before he had the opportunity to undertake the second phase of his research. No evidence exists that women were impregnated as he had planned.
It should not be assumed that these experiments were simply the actions of a maverick. Ivanov was sponsored by the prestigious Institut Pasteur in Paris and he also found supporters in America. The leading supplier of apes for research in the USA expressed opposition to impregnating chimps with human sperm because of animal-welfare considerations but was not opposed to impregnating African women with sperm from a chimpanzee. ‘No cross of female chimpanzee with man. Man is too big and, if the cross should be successful, the childbirth would be too painful for the mother. No objection to cross of male chimpanzee with female Homo.’
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