Since the beginnings of human culture, there have been representations and myths of mixed human-animal beings, such as the centaurs in ancient Greece or the sphinx in Egypt. In contrast, the science-based society we live in today presumes a clear demarcation between different animal species, and in particular between humans and animals.
Yet science has been exploring the mixing of human and animal cells or tissues for decades, for example in research on tissue or organ transplantation in humans using animal tissue. The creation of mice with human genes as “model organisms” to study human diseases and developmental processes has also been widely established since the 1980s. Stem cell research is opening up further possibilities for the creation of human-animal mixtures. Neural precursor cells obtained experimentally from human stem cells are transferred into the brains of laboratory animals, including primates. It is precisely the brain as the seat of human consciousness, however, that we consider to be of key importance to differentiate between humans and animals. In addition, there has recently been a major public debate in the UK about the creation of so-called cytoplasmic hybrids that were created by transplanting a human cell nucleus into an enucleated animal egg cell in order to produce embryonic stem cells.
The creation of human-animal mixtures raises a number of ethical questions:
- Are we about to blur the hitherto seemingly so clear dividing line between humans and animals?
- Does the creation of mixed human-animal beings raise fundamental questions about our concept of humanity?
- Are there limits regarding the amount and type of human genes, cells, tissues and characteristics that one may transfer into animals without leading to a change in the moral status of the animal?
The German Ethics Council is currently preparing an Opinion on these and other related questions, aiming to contribute to the analysis and assessment of ethically relevant developments in the field of research on human-animal mixtures and to answer the question of whether and – if so – on what points science, society or politics need to act.
On 25 February, the members of the German Ethics Council will hold a public hearing from 10 am to 3 pm to discuss these issues with ethicists from Great Britain, the United States and Austria who are working on the topic of human-animal mixtures.
We cordially invite members of the public to attend this hearing as members of the audience. The German Ethics Council also wants to learn about the views of the audience on the issue of mixed human-animal species, and will therefore conduct a written survey during the hearing. In addition to the questions, further information on the topic can be found in the survey form (document in German).