Patently frightening

If you thought The X-Files was strange, try real life. My mother always said that truth is stranger than fiction, but I still had to do a double-take at this Washington Post headline: “U.S. Denies Patent for a Too-Human Hybrid.” Seems a New York professor tried to get a patent on a yet-to-be-created thing that would be part human and part critter.

The story deals with the intricate issue of defining humanity. In other words, here’s further proof that biotechnology has zoomed beyond the conceptions and definitions embodied in our legal system. How is it that patent clerks are standing around the water cooler debating what percentage of human genes determines whether they’re talking about something or someone? What looks human, in theory, may not be; what looks inhuman may be. Who would ever have thought we’d arrive at a place where these are serious considerations? What kind of a society do we live in?

Or who would have thought that more than 100 years after slavery was abolished in the United States, the issue threatens to resurface again, only this time those at risk of being enslaved won’t be the Africans but the not-altogether-humans?

Said the Post:

“Patents on humans could also conflict with the 13th Amendment’s prohibition against slavery. That is because a patent permits the owner to exclude others from ‘using’ the invention. Because ‘use’ can mean ‘employ,’ officials wrote, a patent holder could prevent a person from being employed by any other — which would be tantamount to involuntary servitude.”

Let me back up a bit.

According to the Post story, the U.S. Patent and Trade Office rejected the claim of Stuart Newman, a professor at New York Medical College, to receive a patent for a partly human creature whose purpose in life would be to serve the needs of medical research. The patent application was rejected because it was deemed that the creature would be “too closely related to a human to be patentable.”

When I spoke with Newman by phone, he explained that he applied for a patent on a technique to combine human embryo cells with embryo cells from a monkey, ape or some other type of animal to create a blend of the two species. Because the combination of cells occurs so early on in embryonic development, the result would be a whole new creature. By comparison, he said there are sheep alive today that have partially human livers because human cells have been successfully introduced into the livers of those sheep – but they are still sheep. Why? Because the combination of cells did not take place until far beyond the embryonic stage; it happened too late to have a radical impact on the creature’s biological and physiological development.

Newman also said that the “blended” human/ape (or human/whatever) creature wouldn’t be a hybrid but a chimera, which is a Greek term for a mythological creature that had a lion’s head, a goat’s body and a serpent’s tail. A hybrid is the result of two different types of animals mating and producing offspring; Newman prefers chimera for these more synthetic, homemade creations.

Newman went on to say that he strategically applied for the patent to draw attention to something that needed to be stopped. Jeremy Rifkin — the Washington, D.C., activist-author who is also president of the Foundation on Economic Trends — asked Newman to come up with a designed-to-fail plan for a patent that would be just outrageous and offensive enough to garner attention. The almost-human chimera seemed like just the right-sized weapon to slay Frankenstein.

“I’m a developmental biologist,” Newman said. “I’ve always been involved in political critiques of how science and technology get used. I’ve always wanted to make sure science was used for good things, not bad things.”

Why is patenting genetically engineered subhumans so bad? Because owning the patent on something automatically defines that particular thing as property — and property, unlike human beings, can be owned, bought and sold.

Considering that it wasn’t all that long ago when black people were legally considered property, this argument surrounding the creation of genetically engineered, almost-human mutants that could be owned by 100 percent humans has an eerie back-to-the-future feel to it.

The Post article raises the troubling question, “At what point is something too human to patent?” Although the patent officials claimed it wasn’t that difficult in this particular case because Newman’s hybrid would have been far more human than critter, the problem remains that it may soon be possible to manufacture different types of “borderline” chimeras in the future whose mixed-up biological makeup could be programmed to develop into something just two steps below human — but so close to the wire as to raise all sorts of moral and ethical problems.

In other words, it may be possible to design a semi-human critter that’s just enough of critter to be patented, and thus considered property — but just human enough that it can still serve the needs of medical research better than mice or monkeys ever could. Meanwhile, until courts or Congress get involved, the patent office is being put in the position of deciding where to place that dividing line.

Unfortunately, the patent office doesn’t have the force of law here. If some twisted billionaire comes along who wants to fund the research to create a race of subhuman slaves, he can. He just can’t have a patent on the process. As crazy as this may sound, Newman says that the gap between science fiction and science reality is swiftly closing. Newman pointed me to a headline that appeared last year in the newspaper Florida Today: “Getting chimeras to do dirty work not bad idea.” The article was about the prospect of chimeras — exactly the kind that would have resulted from Newman’s proposal — cleaning up uranium dumps. Sure, the radioactivity is a tad unhealthy, but who cares? They ain’t human.

“It’s a kind of funny, market-driven thing,” said Newman, who added that it’s not the scientists who would necessarily sanction such a crazy thing.

“I know a lot of the scientists that are involved in this kind of work, and none of them want to make designer people,” he said.

Just for a moment, let’s return to the days when slaves were considered property. That human beings were legally defined as the property of other human beings stripped them of their humanity and made them no more worthy of consideration than a mule by those whose humanity was still legally intact.

Fast forward to today. Slavery is over, but what hasn’t changed is the craving for cheap, always affordable, slave labor. One of the more popular and intriguing themes in science fiction literature is man vs. machine, as in Isaac Asimov’s robot novels. In a nutshell, Asimov explores the dehumanizing effects of slavery — on both the enslavers and the enslaved. Our humanity is gauged by how we treat the “subhumans” — and our inhumanity by the lengths we will go to dehumanize others simply to reinforce our sense of self.

The robotic slaves in Asimov’s story were created to serve the needs of mankind, just as Newman’s proposed chimeras would be created solely to serve mankind as guinea pigs, and just as black Africans were deemed property upon their arrival on these shores so that they, too, could serve the needs of “mankind.” Like I said, this all has a very eerie back-to-the-future ring to it.

And back in the future, slavery can never be acceptable whether those to be enslaved are 100 percent human or 49 percent human — unless we decide it’s OK after all. And we’d never do that, would we?

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to [email protected]
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