“You are my creator, but I am your master; obey!” This is the demand of the monster as he argues with his creator, Victor Frankenstein. Even before Mary Shelley’s great work was published in 1818, humans have long been fascinated with the idea of capturing the keys to life itself, to playing god. Long a topic of science fiction, we moved a step closer in 1996 when scientists in Scotland successfully cloned a sheep named Dolly. The act showed that a single cell from a donor could be used to create an entirely new genetic replica of a living animal.
Along with this, and the steady move toward experiments involving humans and human organs, has come a wave of concern about the ethics of such experiments. Is it acceptable for me to create a clone of myself to provide replacement organs? What if I ensure that the clone doesn’t develop a brain or a nervous system? What if I develop the organs I need inside another animal—say a mouse or a pig? Many of these ideas may sound bizarre at first, but they are questions that scientists are seriously asking. If organs can be quickly and safely produced in such a way, countless lives could be saved. Suffering could be alleviated.
This month, scientists have moved a step closer to making this a reality. Hiromitsu Nakauchi—who leads teams at the University of Tokyo and Stanford University in California—will splice human cells into mouse and rat embryos that will then be placed in surrogate mother animals and carried to term. According to the journal Nature, “Nakauchi’s ultimate goal is to produce animals with organs made of human cells that can, eventually, be transplanted into people.”
Ethicists worry that the human cells will not simply stay in the organs they begin in. These cells, called “stem cells” have the ability to develop into virtually any cell in a human body. It is thus possible for some of them to hitch a ride in the animal’s bloodstream and enter into and fuse with the brain of the animal, giving rise to a potentially new form of consciousness, one combining non-human and human processes.
Nakauchi plans to move slowly, to encourage and incorporate such feedback from concerned quarters of society. “It is good to proceed stepwise with caution, which will make it possible to have a dialogue with the public, which is feeling anxious and has concerns,” science-policy researcher Tetsuya Ishii of Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan told Nature. Eventually the experiments would need to proceed to larger animals such as pigs in order to produce organs capable of helping people.
In China earlier this year, worries over creations of chimerical creatures were manifest as scientists incorporated human brain genes into a macaque monkey. While the scientists did not grow human brains in the animals, the genes allowed the animals to perform better on memory tests and their brains developed longer into the animal’s lives—a trait more typical of humans. The fact that there were behavioral changes raises a slippery slope concern: as we make animals more and more physically like us with human organs, or more behaviorally like us thanks to human genes in their brains, at what point, if ever, do we convey upon them the same rights we give fellow humans?
From a Buddhist point of view, however, this is missing a much larger issue: the ethics of engaging in such experiments in the first place. Even without human-like traits or organs, animals are worthy of our concern, as famously noted in the Discourse on Loving-Kindness:
Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born—
May all beings be at ease!
While experimentation on genes or individual cells does not raise concerns, scholar and author on topics of Buddhist ethics Peter Harvey has suggested that the use of animals in experiments like these might be seen as analogous to the sacrifices of Vedic or Hindu religions encountered by the Buddha. While the motive might be to benefit humans, experimenters must realize that their actions cause direct harm to the animals being experimented on in the first place, and that benefits might not come at all, leaving instead a trail of further suffering. One need not even think of worst-case worries, such as animals gaining the ability to rise up against their creators, as in Frankenstein, or some new super-virus being born in the process that wipes out significant swaths of humanity.
Damien Keown, the world’s foremost expert on Buddhist ethics, has likewise observed: “The notion that compassion for one being can justify causing the death of another is an instance of selective rather than universal compassion.” (Keown 120) It also encourages a sort of ethical utilitarianism, which Buddhism tends to avoid, instead offering clear moral rules such as the first precept, to abstain from causing harm to living beings.
Some might argue that this is merely a “lower-vehicle” view, and that Mahayana ethics allow for the end to justify the means. However, in China, a clearly Mahayana Buddhist society, we find the practice known as fangsheng (放生) or “life release,” which dates back more than 1,000 years and is intended as a means for accumulating spiritual merit through compassionately freeing an animal that would otherwise be sold as property or as food. Applying Buddhist principles to our treatment of animals leads us more in the direction of setting animals free, or if that is not ecologically possible, keeping them in conditions where they can live full lives and enjoy comfort until their natural deaths.
For those of us who love science and eagerly await each great new discovery, this leads to a difficult choice that must be made. Thinking of the possibility of myself or a loved one in need, the idea of ready-made organs ripe for harvesting is certainly appealing. However, as we look into the processes here and our complicity in the act of obtaining those organs, it becomes clear that the moral—albeit difficult—choice is to turn down any organ created in this way and to discourage further research of this kind. Instead we could encourage greater participation in voluntary organ donation programs. While painful and possibly dangerous, we can even donate organs while alive and indeed, stories of people giving kidneys to strangers demonstrates the incredible selflessness of some of our fellow humans.
All of us are subject to the conditions of sickness, old age, and death. While we each hope for good health, our progress on the Buddhist path requires that we face reality and seek to alleviate suffering in ourselves and others.
Harvey, Peter. 2000. An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics. Cambridge, University of Cambridge Press.
Keown, Damien. 1995. Buddhism and Bioethics. London, St Martin’s Press.
Japan approves first human-animal embryo experiments (Nature)
Scientists added human brain genes to monkeys. Yes, it’s as scary as it sounds. (Vox)
Karaniya Metta Sutta: The Buddha’s Words on Loving-Kindness (Access to Insight)
What makes someone donate a kidney to a stranger? (Washington Post)