GENETICISTS studying human and chimpanzee DNA have concluded that a few million years ago, pre-humans and pre-chimps produced hybrids between the two species. And in the American evolutionary wars, this is good news.
Of course, the very idea of ancestral human beings and chimpanzees “exchanging genes” makes people squirm, because (let’s face it) this means sexual intercourse between our ancient human and animal ancestors. It is hard enough to contemplate our parents copulating; to think of our very great-grandparents not only descended from “monkeys” but having sex with them is difficult to conceive. But conceive is what they evidently did.
There is, however, an even greater source of discomfort at work here; not simple squeamishness about sex but a deeper repugnance that goes to the heart of why so many Americans continue to be so resistant to the theory of evolution. And this is why I not only welcome the news that humans and chimpanzees commingled genes in the past, I also look forward to the possibility that, thanks to advances in reproductive technology, there will be hybrids, or some other mixed human-animal genetic composite, in our future.
This may seem perverse, because even the most liberal ethicists shy away from advocating the breeding or genetic engineering of half-person/half-animal. Why, then, am I rooting for their creation?
Because in these dark days of know-nothing anti-evolutionism, with religious fundamentalists occupying the White House, controlling Congress and attempting to distort the teaching of science in our schools, a powerful dose of biological reality would be healthy indeed. And this is precisely the message that chimeras, hybrids or mixed-species clones would drive home.
The latest tactic of creationists in the United States has been to accept “microevolutionary” events, such as drug resistance in bacteria, but to draw the line at the emergence of human beings from other, “lower” life forms, cloaking their religious agenda in a miasma of pseudoscience. It is a line that exists only in the minds of those who proclaim that the human species, unlike all others, possesses a spark of the divine and that we therefore stand outside nature.
Should geneticists and developmental biologists succeed once again in joining human and nonhuman animals in a viable organism -- as our ancient human and chimp ancestors appear to have done long ago -- it would be difficult and perhaps impossible for the special pleaders to maintain the fallacy that Homo sapiens is uniquely disconnected from the rest of life.
It is one thing to ignore the fact that we share roughly 98% of our genotype with chimpanzees; but such “ignore-ance” would require even more intellectual sleight-of-hand when human and nonhuman cells are literally conjoined.
Moreover, the benefits of such a physical demonstration of human-nonhuman unity would go beyond simply discomfiting the naysayers, beyond merely bolstering a “reality based” as opposed to a bogus “faith based” worldview. I am thinking of the powerful payoff that would come from puncturing the most hurtful myth of all time, that of discontinuity between human beings and other life forms. This myth is at the root of our environmental destruction -- and our possible self-destruction.
Four decades ago, historian Lynn White wrote a now-classic article in the journal Science making the point that much of the damaging disconnect derives from the Judeo-Christian proclamation of radical discontinuity between people and the rest of “creation.” White argued that the Western world took its marching orders from a literal reading of Genesis: not only to go forth and multiply but also to dominate and, whenever inclined, to destroy the animate world, which, lacking our unique spiritual essence, existed only for human use and abuse. Whereas “we” are special, chips off the old divine block, “they” (all other life forms) are wholly different, made merely of matter. Hence, they don’t really matter.
So let’s hear it for our barrier-busting, hybridizing past as well as our future -- anything that promises to wake up Homo sapiens to its connection to the rest of life. Or, better yet, let’s leave the last words to that modern icon of organic wisdom, a kind of hybrid himself, SpongeBob SquarePants. Mr. SquarePants, a cheerful although admittedly cartoonish fellow of the phylum Porifera, is only distantly related to anyone reading this. But related he is. As any child knows, Mr. SquarePants “lives in a pineapple under the sea, absorbent and yellow and porous is he.” Ere long, even the most resistant anti-evolutionary “species-ists” will be forced to admit that absorbent and porous are we, too.