Navigating bioethical issues with intelligence and graceWritten by Subby Szterszky
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It may sound like a science fiction movie, but it’s not. An international team of scientists has successfully created a genetic human-monkey hybrid by injecting human stem cells into macaque monkey embryos.
According to the researchers, the purpose of their work was to learn more about human embryology and to explore the potential of growing human organs in animals for transplant. The scientists claimed to have no interest in producing a viable human-monkey chimera, and in fact none of the embryos survived beyond 20 days.
Needless to say, this research has sparked a flurry of ethical controversy, even within the scientific and bioethics communities. For Christians in particular, who recognize the sanctity of human life made in the image of God, it’s an especially alarming development. It blurs the distinction between humans and animals, and undercuts the unique value and dignity of human beings.
Of course, secular materialists have long dismissed the idea that human life is sacred or special in any way. As a result, they have little solid mooring for their ethical misgivings about research of this nature.
But human exceptionalism isn’t an abstract religious construct. The Imago Dei is attested in Scripture, nature, conscience and culture. For followers of Jesus, it’s essential that we understand this if we’re to engage the ethical challenges of our day persuasively, with intelligence and grace.
Imago Dei in Scripture
The prevailing belief of naturalism is that there’s nothing intrinsically special or important about the human race in the grand scheme of the cosmos. We’re a blip within a vast, indifferent universe, part of an evolutionary spectrum we share with all other living things. We’re no more significant than a chimp, a dog, a slug or an amoeba. There’s no objective purpose or value to our existence. Any meaning we can find is subjective, created by ourselves for ourselves.
But the scriptural portrait of humanity couldn’t be more different. After God had created his vast, wondrous cosmos with its trillions of stars and galaxies, after he had filled the earth with myriads of life forms to inhabit land, sea and air, he created humanity as his unique, crowning achievement – men and women made in his own image. He gave them a mandate to be his representatives, to exercise wise, benevolent authority over the rest of his created order. While all of God’s creation is valuable and good, the value of his human image-bearers is of a different scale of magnitude.
Even as fallen creatures, human beings retain this incalculable privilege and responsibility. Abuse of nature and cruelty to animals are serious sins because they violate our mandate, harm God’s creatures and misrepresent his character. But violence, injustice and unkindness to our fellow humans is sin of a far higher order because it assaults God’s image in others, and therefore God himself.
Evidence from the natural world
Naturalist thinkers argue that humans aren’t that different from members of the animal kingdom. We share genetic traits with certain species and have some physiological functions in common. Moreover, the so-called higher mammals exhibit emotions, social behaviour and a rudimentary capacity to learn, which renders the line between human and animal blurry at best, or even non-existent.
Human exceptionalism, however, emerges from a more realistic look at nature, human and otherwise. It’s true that some animal species exhibit emotions, display social bonding and can learn certain actions in response to stimuli such as food or danger. When we observe animals gently caring for their young, frolicking with joy or showing affection to people, it can melt our hearts and remind us of the goodness and kindness of the God who made them. But these animal responses are instinctive and don’t come anywhere near the cognitive, affective, social or spiritual capacities of human beings.
Unique among all living creatures, humans are capable of independent, abstract, creative thought. We think about meaning and purpose, have hopes and dreams, are aware of our place in the world, and of our mortality. We exercise faith and we worship. We plan and choose and share our ideas through the complex symbols of language. Our learning isn’t merely a response to physical stimuli, but a synthesis of thought and experience through which we create new knowledge.
Likewise, our emotions and relationships can’t be reduced to instinct or pack behaviour. We form bonds of affection and friendship and we love our fellow humans, committed to doing them good at cost to ourselves. Experiencing ideas and images can bring us delight or bring us to tears. We can imagine, create and appreciate beauty. And unlike any other creatures in the physical world, we’re moral agents with a capacity for good and evil, right and wrong.
All of these traits are unique to humanity and distinguish us from everything else in the created order. More than that, they reflect the nature and character of God, and underscore the reality that we’re made in his image.
The voice of conscience and culture
The Imago Dei is written in Scripture and nature, and also in our collective conscience. Despite the efforts of materialist thought leaders, most people know, deep down, that human life is unique and special and of inestimable value. We see it in history and in culture and in the faces of our loved ones. That’s why even individuals who don’t believe the biblical account of creation will wince with ethical discomfort at the idea of combining human cells with monkey embryos. If there was no qualitative difference between human and monkey life, this would not be the case.
This is also the reason why most societies in history have considered murder to be the worst crime a person can commit against another. On a basic level, there’s a universal intuition that to take a human life is to violate the most sacred thing in creation.
Throughout church history, belief in the sanctity of human life made in God’s image has brought radical changes to the surrounding culture. In the ancient Greco-Roman world, it ended the practice of infanticide and elevated the status of women, children and the poor. During Medieval times, it led to the creation of hospitals, orphanages and universities. Every major social reform of the last few centuries – the abolition of slavery, the humane treatment of workers, the emancipation of women and the establishment of basic human rights – can be traced to the concept that all people are created equal in the image of God.
As apologist Rebecca McLaughlin points out, these commitments to social reform and equal rights are neither self-evident nor universally held, separate from belief in God. In fact, they were all spearheaded, historically, by people of faith within a Christian social context. To be sure, secularists can and do embrace these commitments, but they do so in spite of their world view, not because of it. Only the biblical picture of humanity offers a consistent, viable framework for promoting the unique value and dignity of human life.
By rejecting the concept of Imago Dei and human exceptionalism, secularists have in essence sawed off the branch on which they sit. They want to maintain human rights along with social and scientific progress, but without the deep biblical roots that have birthed and sustained those movements.
This is of particular concern in the field of bioethics, especially in light of technological advances in genetic research. With the sanctity of human life removed from the equation, the only guiding principles for researchers are their own subjective ethical standards, weighed against the putative benefits of the work they’re doing. Against those factors, there’s not much serious consideration given to whether one should pursue a line of research just because one can.
Which brings us again to those human-macaque embryos, not the first such experiment and certainly not the last. Should research one day succeed in producing viable human-animal chimeras, the ethical implications are difficult to imagine, much less sort out.
Even so, we should not lose heart. God is still in control. He gives us the ability to study and harness his creation, and he draws back the curtain on its mysteries only as far as he sees fit. Moreover, he has called men and women of faith to pursue careers in science, in harmony with the truths of Scripture. Contrary to popular belief, not every modern scientist has bowed the knee to secular materialism.
As for the rest of us followers of Jesus, engaging these kinds of ethical conundrums gives us a chance to love God with all of our mind and to represent our Lord with persuasive, grace-filled intelligence. God has written the truth of our human exceptionalism into Scripture, nature, conscience and culture. In our present cultural moment, discussions along these lines have become yet another avenue for sharing the hope we have in Christ.
Sources and further reading
Josh K. Elliott, “First-ever human-monkey hybrid created in ‘chimera’ embryo experiment,” Global News, April 15, 2021.
Rebecca McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion, Crossway, 2019.
Wesley J. Smith, “What ‘human exceptionalism’ means,” Evolution News and Science Today, February 27, 2014.
Rob Stein, “Scientists create early embryos that are part human, part monkey,” NPR, April 15, 2021.
John Stonestreet and Roberto Rivera, “Why the idea of human exceptionalism ruffles feathers,” Breakpoint, November 11, 2020.
Center on Human Exceptionalism, Discovery Institute, accessed May 11, 2021.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2021 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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