The Monster in the Closet

Having read the Science article on H-NHP neural grafting, I have gained an appreciation for the complex ethical questions that have arisen.  The possible ramifications of misguided, overly ambitious, or otherwise faulty experimentation in this particular field are seriously mind-boggling.  We’re talking about a total elimination of the boundaries between man and ape.

Your future coworker?

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, despite the Hollywood tendency to play up the dystopian aspect.  One could even argue that the fantastic portrayal of parahumans in cinema and literature leads to a blasé attitude regarding the real possibility of their existence.  Consistent exposure to over-the-top stories involving the parahuman conquest of humanity can push the notion of parahuman existence beyond our serious consideration, out of the realm of the possible.

Considering this leaves me wondering about a hypothetical lack of serious consideration and concern society for the possible effects of H-NHP neural grafts and other similar envelope-pushing studies.  What happens if experiments are allowed to goes too far too fast, yielding results we didn’t expect or aren’t prepared to deal with?

Try to follow me on this.  A young child named Tommy watches a scary movie just before bedtime.  As he’s lying in bed, Tommy fears there is a monster hiding in his bedroom closet, and the thought is keeping him awake.  There are two possible ways for Tommy to allay his fears.  He can either:

  •   Stay in bed and tell himself that the monster doesn’t exist.

~or~

  •      Check the closet and verify that there is no monster.

Perhaps out of sheer convenience, or perhaps fearing what he might find, Tommy chooses to stay in bed.

Now, since monsters aren’t real, Tommy will be fine.  But, say there was a monster in the closet, and Tommy didn’t bother to check.  Well, guess what?  Now there’s one less hungry monster.

Om nom nom.

So, how does poor Tommy’s fate relate to H-NHP neural grafting?

In our situation, the monster is replaced by the spectre of radical alternation of cognitive function as a result of H-NHP neural grafts, forcing us to reexamine the subject’s moral status, and perhaps even our concept of humanity.  Taken to the extreme, we end up with apes conquering the Earth.

The likelihood of even the lesser outcome?  Quite low, due to factors cited in the article.  But, as the committee states, “one unanimous conclusion of our group is that we are unable to rule out the possibility of effects on cognition of the sort that matter to moral status.”  Because we can’t definitively rule out the existence of this “monster”, I believe we must at least entertain the possibility.  We need to get out of bed and check the closet.

I believe proactive establishment of regulations are the key to navigating these murky waters.  While indecision on Tommy’s part may cause him to lose a few hours of beauty sleep, hesitation on the part of the scientific community to lay out boundaries could come at much greater cost.  The sooner we put safeguards in place against unnecessarily risky experimentation, the better.

I’m glad that the importance of this is understood and expressed by (at least some) members of this study.  They have the sense and the bravery to get out of bed and face the closet.  The committee’s recommendation to require monitoring of cognitive function changes in H-NHP graft subjects seems an appropriately cautious opening measure, and I advocate the implementation of further restrictions.

Poor little Tommy didn’t have the foresight to check the closet.  Let’s not follow his example.

-Cletus

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~ by vanderbiltblog on February 24, 2012.

One Response to “The Monster in the Closet”

  1. Cletus,

    I half-agree with you. I think that science is going a good clip or two faster than rationality, and has been for a while. Consider Einstein and the atom bomb, an example which came up in class but which I think is worth examining in more detail. Einstein described himself as a pacifist, yet much of his research on the relationship of mass and energy fueled the development of international weaponry. He later said that he never foresaw the chain reactions of his work, and he lived with the horrific consequences for the rest of his life.

    People are lunging ahead, grasping for revolutionary science without fully thinking through what its consequences might be. Moreover, in a way, our legal system even rewards speed. Consider the rule of ex post facto: you cannot charge someone for doing something before it is officially legislated or ruled as crime.

    That being said, I think your extrapolations are a little extreme. I don’t think that, in the worst-case scenario, apes will take over the planet, or that humanity will engineer its own downfall. This is not a compliment to its self-restraint, but a reference to its ruthlessness. In the event that we did create a super-intelligent species, we have the resources, the power, and (as history has shown) the self-preserving violence to harness and subvert it. I find these preemptive bans reassuring, actually. The alternative is not our material demise but our ethical ruin.

    Monstrous indeed. Maybe we should sleep with the lights on.

    Julia Ray

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