There are no fucking ‘monkeymen’

One of the potential highlights of the summer blockbuster season, if you’re a fan of science fiction, is the upcoming ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes‘, a reboot of the series which will lay the foundations for a new Apes franchise by providing an origin story for the series.

Now, if you’re a not a big fan of science fiction then one you that need understand about SF as a genre is that for all that deals in stories that are set in far-flung futures, alien environments and alternative realities, histories and timelines, science fiction is no different to any other literary genre when to comes to reflecting contemporary issues that are relevant to period during which stories are written. What is current, in terms of the themes that science fiction authors explore, at any given time, is nothing more than the themes that are current in wider society at the time that their stories are written.

The paranoia of the McCarthy era is, for example, reflected in the classic book/film Invasion of the Bodysnatchers.

Public anxieties about atomic energy and nuclear weapons, which spanned the period from the mid 1950s to late 70s and early 80s are reflected in everything from the 1954 film Them!, the 1955 B-movie classic It Came from Beneath the Sea and Toho’s Godzilla series, through to the dystopian post-holocaust movies of the late 60s and 1970s, which include The Omega Man, Mad Max and, of course, the original Planet of the Apes series, which puts up a nuclear holocaust back story in the second film of the series, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, only to switch to a time-travel paradox in Escape from the Planet of the Apes to explain how apes developed ‘human’ intelligence.

The rise of Cyberpunk, as a sub genre, coincides with both William Gibson’s multi-award winning 1984 novel, Neuromancer, and with the rapid development of the personal computer market and the development of what would quickly become the internet and, at around the same time, growing public anxiety surrounding developments in genetic engineering, biotechnology and nanotechnology formed the basis from Greg Bear’s 1983 classic, Blood Music, although the history of genetic engineering and eugenics as a theme is science fiction stretches back beyond the Star Trek episode Space Seed, which introduced the character Khan Noonien Singh, to H G Wells’ 1896 novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau, which is perhaps the first genuine* biotechnology story.

*For reasons I won’t elaborate on here, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus is not generally regarded as a bio-tech story, which makes references to so-called ‘Frankenstein foods’ and ‘Frankenstein technologies’ both a complete misnomer and a fundamental misrepresentation of Shelley’s novel.

There is, therefore, nothing particularly novel, innovative or surprising in the fact the origin story that Rise of the Planet of the Apes provides for the new Apes franchise is one based on the misuse of genetic engineering to create apes with human characteristics and, crucially for the underlying plot of the film/franchise, apes with human-like intelligence. This is however, still science fiction and what the film reflects is both a use of genetic engineering and an understanding of the relationship between genetics and human intelligence which lies far beyond our current understanding of the workings of the human brain.

This, however, presents no obstacles whatsoever to the International Journal of Junk Science and Scaremongering Anti-intellectual Bullshit – aka The Daily Mail – when they looking for a hook on to which they can hang the publication of an eminently sensible report on bioethics and research on animals containing human material (ACHM) in an effect to generate yet another hyperbolic moral panic that has absolutely no basis in fact:

Beware ‘Planet of the Apes’ experiments that could create sci-fi nightmare

It sounds like something from a Hollywood science fiction film: a race that is half human, half ape.

But leading scientists are today demanding tough new rules to prevent the nightmare scenario becoming a reality.

In a hard-hitting report, they warn that research is close to pushing ‘ethical boundaries’ and that extreme attempts to give laboratory animals human attributes must be banned.

Bollocks – it sounds like something from a Hollywood science fiction film because the Mail’s presentation of this story is from a Hollywood science fiction film.

Although this new report, which has been issued by the Academy of Medical Sciences, does address ethical concerns over the future direction of ACHM research and, indeed, calls for the development of much clearer and more structured system of ethical regulation in this field, its does not suggest that any current research is close to pushing ethical boundaries when it comes to giving laboratory animals human attributes.

What the press release issued with the main report actually says is:

Although the great majority of such research does not raise new ethical or regulatory concerns, the Academy’s report indicates that the fast moving pace of this science, might lead to the development of types of ACHM that approach ethical or regulatory boundaries. While the UK has one of the strictest systems of animal research regulation, scientists and the public agree that this must stay ahead of emerging research practices.

And if we turn to the main report what we find is that this statement summarises chapter 3 of the report, the title of which is ‘Future science and implications‘ the scope of which is set out in the introduction to the chapter:

The previous chapter described animals containing human genetic or cellular material (ACHM) and illustrated their use in biomedical research. Techniques that enable the transfer of human DNA sequence and the engraftment of human cells into animals or animal cells are well-established. However, continuing advances in the power of the techniques involved are rapidly extending the range and complexity of animal models that can be created. We anticipate that the use of ACHM will continue to expand, as more sophisticated models of human health and disease are developed.

In this section, we consider selected examples to illustrate possible future research directions.

In other words, this section of the report is wholly speculative. It asks the question ‘Where could this type of research lead us in future?’ and then, quite sensibly, it asked the question ‘Which of these potential research directions could and could not reasonably be pursued for ethical reasons?’, a question on which the Academy has consulted both within and outside the scientific community… generating what is, to be perfectly frank, an entirely predictable response:

We describe two methodological areas in which developments relevant to the creation of animal–human models are apparent.

1. Genetic engineering methods.

2. Stem cell methods.

We also consider three areas in which future research may be particularly sensitive or approach current social, ethical or regulatory boundaries.

1. Research involving the brain.

2. Research involving the reproductive system.

3. Research involving aspects of human appearance or behavioural traits.

…generating what is, to be perfectly frank, an entirely predictable series of responses:

Box 3.9 Two ways of viewing the brain

Some participants in the public dialogue appeared to adopt a dual conceptualisation of the brain, in which it was seen as both a purely physical organ, as simply ‘tissue’, and secondly as the source of consciousness and thought ‘greater than the sum of its parts’. When considering scientific research, participants often tended to think about the brain in the first way, and few people appeared to believe that small changes to an animal’s brain at the cellular level would have a discernable impact on its cognitive function: ‘ … a mouse brain is so much smaller, I don‘t think a little brain will be able to sit there and “think therefore I am” …’

However, in considering the possible implications of manipulating the brain as a whole, the second view tended to be adopted. From this viewpoint, some participants expressed a clear sense of unease around research involving the brain, and its potential outcomes. Some participants suggested that research that might make an animal’s brain more similar to a human brain would be unacceptable: ‘I don‘t have a problem with it until it gets to the brain … but bits to do with memories, that would be too far – it‘s a human thing to have a memory.’

Box 3.10 Public views on research involving human reproductive tissues

The creation of animal models including human reproductive tissue was a very sensitive area for public participants. Compared with other human tissues, the use of animal models involving human reproductive cells was regarded as acceptable by the fewest number of participants in the quantitative survey (42%).

‘ … that is so far out there, just awful. Perhaps if there was no sperm left on earth, but otherwise no way.’

Dialogue discussions identified several possible explanations for these responses, including:

• The cultural significance of reproductive cells (through associations with sex, the production of children, birth experiences and development, and familial characteristics).

• A suggestion that even small changes to a single reproductive cell might produce profound effects (reproductive cells were seen as easy to ‘abuse’, and contrasted with the brain, where ‘changing a few cells might not matter’).

• A view that the consequences of research involving human reproductive cells might be experienced not only by the animal involved, but potentially by resulting human offspring.

Box 3.11 Public views on research involving human-like appearance

Research involving external body parts, such as the use of human hair, skin, or the possible development of human-like limbs on animals, was often met with distaste by dialogue participants. This type of response was attributed to participants’ ability to imagine and visualise the resulting animal as ‘unnatural’. The physical appearance of animals was found to be an important way in which participants identified animals as different ‘kinds’, and changes to external features might be seen to blur these well-recognised visible distinctions between species.

To sum up (ignoring the religionists who’re opposed to ACHM research in all circumstances)…

Medical research  towards cures for human diseases – Good

Intelligent apes, human-apes hybrids and ‘monkeymen’ – Bad

Nowhere is the report, however, is it suggested that any current ACHM research is anywhere near ‘close’ to taking us in any of these directions, not least because we just don’t possess the genetic models or scientific understanding necessary to go down this route as yet nor is necessarily the case that a breakthrough in any of these areas will be made in the near future.

What the authors of the report are doing here – quite sensibly – is trying to pre-empt these issues long before they arise, or could even possibly arise, in order to put in place suggestions for a pre-emptive regulatory system designed to prevent rogue researchers going off the ethical ‘ranch’ if and when we do develop the kind of genetic models, scientific understanding and research tool and techniques that would make it possible, in principle, to open up these fields of research. What the Academy is actually proposing, on te back of this report is nothing more than:

…a national expert body, within the existing stringent system of animal research regulation, to provide specific advice on sensitive types of ACHM research.’

And the classification of ACHM research into…

…3 categories to determine the level of regulatory scrutiny required. The very great majority of experiments present no issues beyond the general use of animals in research and these should proceed under current regulation; a limited number of experiments should be permissible subject to scrutiny by the expert body we recommend; and a very limited range should not be undertaken, at least until the potential consequences are more fully understood.

To reiterate the point that there are no ‘Planet of the Apes experiments’ on the horizon, the Academy go on to add that…

We are not aware of research of the third type taking place in the UK today. We have started the conversation now so that future decisions can be made with the support of both scientists and the public.

And, just in case any Daily Mail readers happen by, I’ll put that into terms they’ll hopefully understand.

THERE ARE NO FUCKING ‘MONKEYMEN’

NO ONE IS WORKING ON CREATING ANY FUCKING ‘MONKEYMEN’

NO ONE IS CLOSE TO UNDERSTANDING HOW TO GO ABOUT MAKING FUCKING ‘MONKEYMEN’

Oh, in deference to Martin Robbins, I should also point out that…

APES ARE NOT FUCKING MONKEYS

In closing I should note that the byline on this particular piece of crap is that of David Derbyshire, who appears to the Mail’s Environment Editor, a field of journalism that is still too often notable for its predilection for churning out hand-waving ‘b-b-but-its-against-nature’ bollocks rather than taking a clear and dispassionate look at the actual science its supposed to be reporting on.

Taking that into consideration, maybe I have been too hasty in dismissing the possibility of intelligent apes here, as the Mail’s report bears all the hallmarks of it having been put together by a trained chimp.