University of Washington psychology professor emeritus David Barash is not keen on the idea that human beings are a cut above the rest of creation, and wants to see scientists create a human-chimp hybrid to disprove it. He explains:

“I propose that the fundamental take-home message of such creation would be to drive a stake into the heart of that destructive disinformation campaign of discontinuity, of human hegemony over all other living things.

There is an immense pile of evidence already demonstrating continuity, including but not limited to physiology, genetics, anatomy, embryology, and paleontology, but it is almost impossible to imagine how the most die-hard advocate of humans having a discontinuously unique biological status could continue to maintain this position if confronted with a real, functioning, human-chimp combination.”

He cheerfully acknowledges the historical background of Frankenstein (2018 is the bicentennial of Mary Shelley’s fictional creation) and of Stalin’s efforts at developing a “new Soviet man” (half chimpanzee).

But what are the chances of Barash’s hybrid hopes coming to fruition? First, despite headline claims, the question of how much human and chimpanzee DNA is shared is controversial because a good deal depends on what you want to count and what difference it makes in terms of a live birth.

As Barash notes, the Soviet Union did try to breed a human-chimp hybrid. Kristin Hugo recounts at Newsweek:

“An old rumor has circulated in headlines again, that a scientist has claimed a humanzee once existed. The Sun reported that evolutionary psychologist Gordon Gallup had recalled an alleged experiment in which scientists impregnated a female chimp with human sperm. According to the story, the chimp gave birth to a hybrid, but the scientists became concerned with the ethical implications the infant would bring up, so they allegedly killed it.”

Ah yes. As with extraterrestrials, the evidence somehow disappears somehow just when we need it. The fact that humans have 23 chromosomes and chimps have 24 suggests that bio-engineering would be feebly rewarded at best.

That said, today’s efforts are further along than we might think. As Ann Gauger notes at Evolution News and Science Today:

“Human pluripotent stem cells have been added to mouse, cow, and pig embryos already, and the results were published in the journal Cell in 2017. In the biggest experiment, the researchers successfully created pig/human chimeras and implanted them in female pigs. They terminated them after 28 days because of ethical concerns.”

She also reports:

“Despite Barash’s claims, the likelihood of being ‘confronted with a real, functioning, human-chimp combination’ is low because full-fledged human/chimp embryos are unlikely to develop. Varki and Altheide report a 4 percent difference in the DNA sequences of chimps and humans, with many of those differences being significant, especially in the brain.

Another study estimates as much as 17.4 percent of gene networks in the cortex of the brain are specific to humans compared to chimps, significantly more than would be expected from a simple 4 percent DNA difference. Then there are cell surface differences, differences in infant development, differences in reproduction, physiology, and the immune system, just to name a few.

In fact, chimps do not make a good medical model for human beings, for we do not get the same major diseases.”

Yes that’s true. In the United States, experiments with chimpanzees for medical purposes related to humans were terminated in 2011 because of lack of relevance. But all perinatal human lives, can, in any event, be ended at will in the United States, thanks to Roe v. Wade, 1973. So they are free for experiment.

In the early 2000s, one brainwave was to reclassify humans and chimpanzees so as to appear in the same biological category. Chimpanzees would be classified with modern humans and extinct humans such as Neanderthals instead: The common chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes, would be reclassified as Homo troglodytes, just as modern humans are Homo sapiens.

The researchers were open about the philosophical and political implications of their proposal: “challenging our long-held view of the boundary between humans and other animals.” Humans, they agreed, “appear as only slightly remodeled chimpanzee-like apes.”

The obvious problem is, no matter how one tries to classify and reclassify the problem, chimpanzees simply do not do what humans do. The humanzee proposal aims to get past that problem by simply importing the human part by force.

Barash himself seems more of an evolutionary psychologist than an evolutionary biologist. The difference matters. Evolutionary biologists classify living and extinct life forms by their fossils and genomes.

Evolutionary psychologists, by contrast, try to guess how long-dead humans and animals thought by applying the principles expounded in explicitly Darwinian evolution theory. Barash is the author of Homo Mysterious: Evolutionary Puzzles of Human Nature (2012), reviewed at New Scientist by Kate Douglas.

Evolutionary biologists express qualms about evolutionary psychology, a science without a subject.[1] Evolutionary psychology is about not-quite-humans, about which we literally know nothing, having no examples.

Barash is blasé about fate of any being that might be produced:

“But what about those presumably unfortunate individuals thereby produced? Neither fish nor fowl, wouldn’t they find themselves intolerably unspecified and inchoate, doomed to a living hell of biological and social indeterminacy? This is possible, but it is at least arguable that the ultimate benefit of teaching human beings their true nature would be worth the sacrifice paid by a few unfortunates.”

That will make a convincing case for euthanasia, one suspects. Possibly the main ultimate outcome of the project?

In recent years, a number of odd claims have been made for chimpanzee intelligence and compassion, by those keen to equate chimpanzees with humans. For example, we are told that our human intelligence tests are a failure with chimpanzees, which is held to be a fault of the tests. We must also endure science writers’ shock and horror when chimpanzees snatch and eat newborn young,  with no sense of wrongdoing.

We can be sure of only one thing: All questions are a one way street. Chimpanzees will never test humans for intelligence or display any opinion about our moral sensibilities. The only purpose of proposals such a Barash’s is exactly what he says: to break down the idea that human beings are special.

We will be hearing a lot more of that in the near future. One ought to ask why such a cause sells so well.

[1] The term was coined to refer to the study of extraterrestrials.

See also: Are apes entering the Stone Age?

Denyse O’Leary is an Ottawa-based author, blogger, and journalist.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...