Jerry Coyne, one of my favorite evolutionary biologists who blogs over at Why Evolution is True, talked about the mouse FOXP2 experiment I mentioned the other day. He definitely took a bit of the wind out of my sails, since I had gotten pretty excited, but he’s probably more realistic than I am about this thing. However, one thing got to me:
“Of course the definitive experiment, swapping a human or chimp gene with the copy from the other species, and observing the result, is unethical.”
Noooooo! There goes my experiment.
But seriously. Forgive me if I’m just being a naive young scientist – I am but a lowly undergrad – but why would one argue that doing this experiment with a chimp would be unethical? He states it like it’s such an obvious black and white issue – “Of course” it’s unethical. But I would be more inclined to view it as a gray area. It’s highly unlikely we’d create apes who run around speaking French ala Michael Crichton’s Next. Many more genes than FOXP2 control the various brain and throat structures associated with human speech for us to see this happen.
Do we just have some special connection with chimps because they’re our cousins? If so it seems like we’re applying the Scala Naturae to our ideas of what’s okay to experiment on and what’s not (one of my big pet peeves). Fruit flies and mice are just lowly creatures, but a chimpanzee is too close to the “perfection” of humans to fiddle with. I know we experiement on chimpanzees – but why are those studies okay, yet this one wouldn’t be?
I’m not necessarily defending my half-joking experiment of sticking FOXP2 in chimps and seeing what happens. I’m just honestly curious what people think and the reasoning behind these ethics. There’s no “Ethics in Science 101” class we’re all required to take (though there should be), so I love talking about this kind of stuff. What do you think? Is putting the human gene for “speech” into chimpanzees going too far? Where do we draw the line?