Monday 24 March 2008

Dr Mengele, I presume?

In an article in the Times today, William Rees-Mogg asks, “Whatever happened to the ‘yuk’ factor.” Referring to the passage of the Human Fertilisaiton and Embryology Bill through the House of Lords, he writes, “In 1990 it was not just the hereditary peers who found the idea of animal-human hybrids simply too disgusting to be tolerated. It was the common response, the “yuk” factor as a test of the limits of scientific experimentation.”

Yet that ‘yuk’ has been overcome, and it is surely a significant signpost as to where our civilization is going, especially compared with whence it has come.

The end of the Second World War revealed to the general public the true extent of what had been happening in Nazi Germany, particularly in the concentration camps.

One aspect of these camps which caused particular horror was that human beings had been used as subjects for scientific experiments. The mere name of Dr Josef Mengele was enough to send a shudder of horror through anyone in these islands who knew what he had done in the name of ‘medicine’.

The horror, however, was not chiefly at the nature of the experiments themselves. It must remembered, these were the days when vivisection was regularly carried out, not only in search of cures for diseases, but to test cosmetics — and even out of sheer curiosity. Remember Pavlov’s dogs?

No, the horror was because the subject matter of those experiments was human beings. Whatever else one might do by way of experimentation and testing, there was widespread agreement at the end of the war that one didn’t carry out such experiments on human subjects. And anyone who suggested otherwise would instantly have been tarred with the same brush of moral opprobrium as had been used on the entire Nazi state and the individuals most closely associated with it.

Imagine a citizen of those days transported instantly, rather than via all the subtle changes which have since taken place, into the present. Imagine them being told, “Her Majesty’s Government are pushing through a bill in parliament to allow British scientists even more scope to experiment on human embryos. In fact, they will be allowed to do what Stalin’s scientists failed to achieve in the 1920s and finally create embryos combined of human and animal material.”

Such a person would fancy they had woken up in some ghastly alternative universe. They would perhaps rush outside, expecting to see the Swastika — or perhaps the Red Flag — where the Union flag once hung. And imagine their bafflement when they discovered the truth that not only was this true but that the public — the great British public that had defeated Hitler — frankly didn’t give a damn. In fact, the public had been persuaded by what our citizen would read as sheer propaganda.

There are a few sane voices left. Lord Alton spoke words of sense in the House of Lord’s debate on the 15th January:

If Members of your Lordships' House believe that the reason for prohibiting a true hybrid from being implanted and born is that that crosses the line between human and other species, and if the problem is that this disturbs our sense of what it is to be human—a point made earlier by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury—we should surely, if it is so important to our common humanity and the basis of our ethics, tread very warily before permitting the creation of an animal interspecies embryo in the first place.

As the elusive question about definitions stalks our debate again today, we need to ask ourselves precisely what species this embryo is. The line will have been crossed; the species will have been crossed. Among those who are looking for funding and exploring every angle, no one really believes that the long-term prospects for stem cell research lie with cybrids or these new types of interspecies embryos. This is leading us into another blind alley. It is a scientific sideshow. Our first instincts were to ban it; those were the Government's first instincts, too, and they were the right ones.

Poor Dr Mengele! If only he had been born thirty years later. What he might have been allowed to do, and all in the best possible taste.

The trouble is, we have accepted the misconceived vision of humanity derived from a misapplication of 'Darwinism'. We have changed the way we think about what we are. Without a renewed vision of what it means to be human, our society will certainly perish, if it has not done so already.

Revd John P Richardson
24 March 2008

No comments will be posted without a full name and location, see the policy.


  1. It seems to me that the Frankenstein/yuk factor here has been exaggerated by Christians. Biologically nothing very different is happening than what has already been approved. The hybrid embryo I gather will behave more-or-less exactly as a human embryo, since all the important genetic material is in the nucleus of the hybrid, which is derived from the human "parent" cell. Surely the important point for those of us who believe that life begins at conception, is that all experimentation on human or "humanoid" embryos leads to the destruction of a human life, and so our opposition to the amendment to the bill is inconsequential compared to our opposition to the original bill.

  2. Sorry - forgot my name/location:
    Rosalind Brock
    Lincoln College, Oxford

  3. Some may feel - I would be one of them - that what has happened already is wrong. As Lord Alton has pointed out, there have been millions of 'spare' human embryos produced so far, and we have nothing to show for it in terms of cures, etc. There's also the question of "What next?"

    The biggest issue, though, is not what it is doing to the embryos but what it is doing to us. If we become little better, in our thinking about our nature, than were the Nazis, or Francis Galton's Eugenicists before them, then we are in real trouble.

  4. There is also the very important question raised about the way we are being governed - a government which allows people to vote with their conscience provided their vote won't matter has raised important questions about democracy and its usefulness.

  5. The similarities between 21st C Britain and 1930s Germany are chilling and all boils down to how we view humans, particularly the most vulnerable (disabled, unborn and elderly).

    Another thing to through into the melting pot is Gensis 1. In it God seperates out, dark/light, night/day, wet/dry, sky/ground, male/female, human/animal. Latly our culture seems to want to destroy those distinctions in the case of the last two.

    Interesting in the flood narrative God blurs the distinction between see and sky as a sort of uncreation, which of course is judgement on us.

    Darren Moore, Tranmere

  6. Welcome to the island of Doctor Moreau...

    We've finally reached a point where we've become able to unleash a Chimera upon the world. I don't see this as a leap of science, I see it as being akin to children playing with explosives.

    The irony of this all is the fact that this research is far likely to be halted by animal rights activists lodging a complaint of cruelty to the non-human partner in the petri dish.

    Kind Regards,

    A. Terry