Should We Create Human-Animal Chimeras: Yes or No?
Harvard bioethics specialist Glenn Cohen considers the complex question of whether humans should mix their genetic material with other animals to create chimeras.
Glenn Cohen: So a recent set of controversies has to do with the funding by the federal government about a research that mixes human and animal genetic material sometimes called chimeras, but there's actually a broader – so again, the method is to think about a large number of cases; it's helpful to think about very different cases. So to use some real cases imagine you mixed human brain cells, so human brain stem cells in the embryonic stage into a mouse to create a mouse with a humanized brain and it wouldn't be a human brain. It isn't exactly the same. It's much smaller, for example, but has humanized elements. Another example is imagine you took a gorilla, treated the gorilla exactly as it is but were able to generate a human looking face, so a gorilla with a human face, how would we think about that entity?
Third example, humanized immune system. Took a mouse and we do this with, we have these at Harvard, for example, and created an immune system in order to test drugs, think about HIV, for example, that was humanized. So not the brain but just the immune system was very human like. And last example is actually valve replacements, heart valve replacements. So Jesse Helms, a senator had a pig valve placement years ago so there's a piece of an animal in him. So these are four examples of different kinds of mixing and the question is which are okay and which are not okay? Why can we generate some principles? So what might be wrong with mixing human and animal parts? So one thing that might be wrong is that we think it will confuse the boundaries between humans and animals, that right now we have a pretty clear distinction. Many people love their dogs and their cats like members of the family. They are able to say this is not a member of my family. This is not a member that has the same rights as my family member. In a world where we had much more of a continuum between animals and human beings those distinctions would become difficult. Now just because they become difficult doesn't mean that that's wrong, it just posed for us a new problem. Maybe it would illustrate a problem we should be thinking about all together. So I'm not particularly sympathetic to that argument.
A different arguments though is to say human beings are particular kinds of things with particular kinds of capacities and there's a dignity to being a human being. And if we were to mix enough animal material into a human being the thing that we would have would not be something new but would be a human being that could not flourish as a human being. It would be an undignified human being, a kind of entity that is one of that really is unable to really experience what it is to be human. Now again, you might push on this and say well yes that's true they would not be a human being and they would not necessarily have all the capacities of a human being. So imagine having some of the capacities of a human being being stuck in a rat's body for example. Sure they would be ways in which you would not flourish as a human being, but why not think of you as flourishing as a new kind of entity?
And in particular you might actually think there might be an obligation to create some kinds of chimeras. So if, for example, we think of Big Bird from Sesame Street, it sounds like a silly example but it's a good one right? Big Bird talks. Big Bird has friends. Big Bird goes to school, been at school a long time on Sesame Street I guess, but he seems to have a pretty good life. Imagine if we could take regular birds and turn them into Big Birds by doing something to them. Would we think of that as improving a little bird's life or do we think about that as hurting a human being's life through this mixture? Hard questions, but at least it might be possible that we think we're doing animals a favor by doing this.
And other answers might say it depends a lot on the specifics of the case. There are changes we could make to human beings by mixing in animal DNA that might make them better, and there are changes we could make to human beings that might make them worse and worse from a moral perspective. So, for example, if it turned out that there was, to use an example of the literature, we could give human beings night vision so they could see at night like some animals through mixing in a little animal DNA. You might think that would be great. We could do more search and rescue. We'd be better drivers. There would be less fatalities. On the other hand if the result was to produce human beings that had much stronger aggression or violence or claws or something like that you might think that's worse because we're going to do more harm. And that would suggest that the answer about whether we ought to have chimeras or not and what kind can only be answered in a particularistic way of thinking about a particular case.
I will say, and this is kind of referencing some work by my friend Hank Greely at Stanford, that there are particular kinds of changes which from a sociological perspective seem to bother us more. And he describes them as kind of brains, balls and faces. So brains, it turns out we're very disturbed by the idea of human brains or humanized brains in animals, much more disturbed by the humanized brain in mice than we are by the humanized immune system in mice, for example. The other is balls. We tend to be very nervous when we think about the idea, and this is kind of crazy and out there, imagine you could create an animal that had the ability to reproduce it's gonads, it's reproductive system was human so that you'd have animals mating and producing human beings and animals. That's the kind of thing that I think disturbs a lot of people as an idea. And the last is faces. The idea of having animals with human faces, for example, I think just disturbs a lot of people. Even though you might say a face is a face, but it's a marker of human beings in the way we relate to each other and I think there's just a strong sociological pushback against that.
It is really, really fun when Harvard professors play ‘What If…’. This is a regular part of Glenn Cohen’s work as a law professor specializing in health policy, bioethics and biotech. Invoking the Jurassic Park rule of ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you should’ and imagining all eventualities is how Cohen explores the fascinating and sometimes twisted intricacies driving our ethical dilemmas.
It’s particularly fun on the topic of chimeras, which broadly defined is research that mixes human and animal genetic material. Cohen lists some real cases as examples: mixing human brain cells into mice brains, or humanizing a mouse’s immune system to carry out studies that yield results relevant to humans. Former U.S. senator Jesse Helms had a pig valve placement in his heart many years ago. To make a more imaginative leap, what about a gorilla with a human face? How would we feel about that?
Cohen discusses a few key ethical arguments surrounding our hesitancy to mix interspecies genetic material, then moves onto a hypothetical concerning Sesame Street’s Big Bird, and surmises that when it comes to this ethical area, decisions can really only be made on a case by case basis. Some changes simply are more unethical or sociologically disturbing to humans, and here Cohen cites his friend and colleague at Stanford Law School, Professor Henry T. Greely, who sums it up nicely with three words: brains, balls, and faces. Those are the things that make us most uncomfortable in genetic mixing, perhaps because they are definitive markers of what it is to be human.
The jury might be out on chimeras, but at least you have some insight into how a bioethicist’s mind works.
Glenn Cohen's book is Patients with Passports: Medical Tourism, Law, and Ethics.
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China has reached a new record for nuclear fusion at 120 million degrees Celsius.
This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.
China wants to build a mini-star on Earth and house it in a reactor. Many teams across the globe have this same bold goal --- which would create unlimited clean energy via nuclear fusion.
But according to Chinese state media, New Atlas reports, the team at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) has set a new world record: temperatures of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds.
Yeah, that's hot. So what? Nuclear fusion reactions require an insane amount of heat and pressure --- a temperature environment similar to the sun, which is approximately 150 million degrees C.
If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it.
If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it. In nuclear fusion, the extreme heat and pressure create a plasma. Then, within that plasma, two or more hydrogen nuclei crash together, merge into a heavier atom, and release a ton of energy in the process.
Nuclear fusion milestones: The team at EAST built a giant metal torus (similar in shape to a giant donut) with a series of magnetic coils. The coils hold hot plasma where the reactions occur. They've reached many milestones along the way.
According to New Atlas, in 2016, the scientists at EAST could heat hydrogen plasma to roughly 50 million degrees C for 102 seconds. Two years later, they reached 100 million degrees for 10 seconds.
The temperatures are impressive, but the short reaction times, and lack of pressure are another obstacle. Fusion is simple for the sun, because stars are massive and gravity provides even pressure all over the surface. The pressure squeezes hydrogen gas in the sun's core so immensely that several nuclei combine to form one atom, releasing energy.
But on Earth, we have to supply all of the pressure to keep the reaction going, and it has to be perfectly even. It's hard to do this for any length of time, and it uses a ton of energy. So the reactions usually fizzle out in minutes or seconds.
Still, the latest record of 120 million degrees and 101 seconds is one more step toward sustaining longer and hotter reactions.
Why does this matter? No one denies that humankind needs a clean, unlimited source of energy.
We all recognize that oil and gas are limited resources. But even wind and solar power --- renewable energies --- are fundamentally limited. They are dependent upon a breezy day or a cloudless sky, which we can't always count on.
Nuclear fusion is clean, safe, and environmentally sustainable --- its fuel is a nearly limitless resource since it is simply hydrogen (which can be easily made from water).
With each new milestone, we are creeping closer and closer to a breakthrough for unlimited, clean energy.
The symbol for love is the heart, but the brain may be more accurate.
- How love makes us feel can only be defined on an individual basis, but what it does to the body, specifically the brain, is now less abstract thanks to science.
- One of the problems with early-stage attraction, according to anthropologist Helen Fisher, is that it activates parts of the brain that are linked to drive, craving, obsession, and motivation, while other regions that deal with decision-making shut down.
- Dr. Fisher, professor Ted Fischer, and psychiatrist Gail Saltz explain the different types of love, explore the neuroscience of love and attraction, and share tips for sustaining relationships that are healthy and mutually beneficial.
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to light recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
A new study suggests that reports of the impending infertility of the human male are greatly exaggerated.
- A new review of a famous study on declining sperm counts finds several flaws.
- The old report makes unfounded assumptions, has faulty data, and tends toward panic.
- The new report does not rule out that sperm counts are going down, only that this could be quite normal.
Several years ago, a meta-analysis of studies on human fertility came out warning us about the declining sperm counts of Western men. It was widely shared, and its findings were featured on the covers of popular magazines. Indeed, its findings were alarming: a nearly 60 percent decline in sperm per milliliter since 1973 with no end in sight. It was only a matter of time, the authors argued, until men were firing blanks, literally.
Well… never mind.
It turns out that the impending demise of humanity was greatly exaggerated. As the predicted infertility wave crashed upon us, there was neither a great rush of men to fertility clinics nor a sudden dearth of new babies. The only discussions about population decline focus on urbanization and the fact that people choose not to have kids rather than not being able to have them.
Now, a new analysis of the 2017 study says that lower sperm counts is nothing to be surprised by. Published in Human Fertility, its authors point to flaws in the original paper's data and interpretation. They suggest a better and smarter reanalysis.
Counting tiny things is difficult
The original 2017 report analyzed 185 studies on 43,000 men and their reproductive health. Its findings were clear: "a significant decline in sperm counts… between 1973 and 2011, driven by a 50-60 percent decline among men unselected by fertility from North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand."
However, the new analysis points out flaws in the data. As many as a third of the men in the studies were of unknown age, an important factor in reproductive health. In 45 percent of cases, the year of the sample collection was unknown- a big detail to miss in a study measuring change over time. The quality controls and conditions for sample collection and analysis vary widely from study to study, which likely influenced the measured sperm counts in the samples.
Another study from 2013 also points out that the methods for determining sperm count were only standardized in the 1980s, which occurred after some of the data points were collected for the original study. It is entirely possible that the early studies gave inaccurately high sperm counts.
This is not to say that the 2017 paper is entirely useless; it had a much more rigorous methodology than previous studies on the subject, which also claimed to identify a decline in sperm counts. However, the original study had more problems.
Garbage in, garbage out
Predictable as always, the media went crazy. Discussions of the decline of masculinity took off, both in mainstream and less-than-reputable forums; concerns about the imagined feminizing traits of soy products continued to increase; and the authors of the original study were called upon to discuss the findings themselves in a number of articles.
However, as this new review points out, some of the findings of that meta-analysis are debatable at best. For example, the 2017 report suggests that "declining mean [sperm count] implies that an increasing proportion of men have sperm counts below any given threshold for sub-fertility or infertility," despite little empirical evidence that this is the case.
The WHO offers a large range for what it considers to be a healthy sperm count, from 15 to 250 million sperm per milliliter. The benefits to fertility above a count of 40 million are seen as minimal, and the original study found a mean sperm concentration of 47 million sperm per milliliter.
Healthy sperm, healthy man?
The claim that sperm count is evidence of larger health problems is also scrutinized in this new article. While it is true that many major health problems can impact reproductive health, there is little evidence that it is the "canary in the coal mine" for overall well-being. A number of studies suggest that any relation between lifestyle choices and this part of reproductive health is limited at best.
Lastly, ideas that environmental factors could be at play have been debunked since 2017. While the original paper considered the idea that pollutants, especially from plastics, could be at fault, it is now known that this kind of pollution is worse in the parts of the world that the original paper observed higher sperm counts in (i.e., non-Western nations).
There never was a male fertility crisis
The authors of the new review do not deny that some measurements are showing lower sperm counts, but they do question the claim that this is catastrophic or part of a larger pathological issue. They propose a new interpretation of the data. Dubbed the "Sperm Count Biovariability hypothesis," it is summarized as:
"Sperm count varies within a wide range, much of which can be considered non-pathological and species-typical. Above a critical threshold, more is not necessarily an indicator of better health or higher probability of fertility relative to less. Sperm count varies across bodies, ecologies, and time periods. Knowledge about the relationship between individual and population sperm count and life-historical and ecological factors is critical to interpreting trends in average sperm counts and their relationships to human health and fertility."
Still, the authors note that lower sperm counts "could decline due to negative environmental exposures, or that this may carry implications for men's health and fertility."
However, they disagree that the decline in absolute sperm count is necessarily a bad sign for men's health and fertility. We aren't at civilization ending catastrophe just yet.