Clone's Dream

Tuesday and Thursday

Organ Transplants and Uplift Genetics

See the character in panel 82? His name is Falkland, and he's a Snake. That is, he's a member of an uplift species whose morphology is that of a serpent and whose genetics are a pastiche of a half-dozen different snake species, plus some human and otherwise mammalian genetics.

When I was writing this story, I figured uplift genetics was something that we'd figure out by the end of the 23rd century, and I wanted some alien and outsider perspectives and some ways to talk about discrimination and so on, so I included some uplift animal characters.

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But this is especially relevant today, because, while I was browsing comics a yesterday (well, day before yesterday by the time this goes live), I saw this over at User Friendly.

Now, every so often Illiad makes a strip that plays off current events, and every so often he picks things that haven't been getting the above-the-fold coverage that means everybody's heard of it. But it was, after all, April First. And I hadn't heard about this yet, so it was a bit mysterious. I went over to and entered the word "zanjani" in the search box, and rapidly discovered that Mr. Zanjani was real and had published a bunch of papers about in utero stem cell transplantation, biologic barriers, etc... So then I went over to Google, picked "news", and entered "Zanjani" again to see what had happened with him in the last week or so, and got a dozen different stories about his recent hack of sheep.

Mr. Zanjani has, apparently, created a creature whose morphology is that of a sheep, but the creature is a chimera - that is, some of its cells are genetically cells of one species, and some of its cells are genetically that of another. In this case, 15% of its cells are human. The objective of this is to provide compatible donors for organ transplant operations into humans. This is big news.

It's not quite on the level of custom-tailoring creatures with all-new genomes on spec, and it's nowhere near creating something with human-level intelligence, but it is a significant "break" in terms of what we know how to do, and a big step forward toward treating some patients who need organ transplants. And it's creepy as all get-out, which is basically the code word for "presents ethical questions we haven't even really considered yet."

In many ways, I'm a materialist. I don't believe that there is anything outside physical reality that contributes to the nature of our souls and experiential existence. So I'm not the sort to wonder whether "God" will bestow "souls" on this type of creature or not. But the fact remains, that creature has a brain that is 15% made of human neurons. Now, for reasons of scale and sheer numbers, that represents less than 3% of a human brain in addition to about 85% of a sheep brain, with the same number of neurons as a sheep brain. But still, human neurons are not exactly like sheep neurons. Human neurons have longer axons and bushier dendrite bundles and make more connections. I suspect that this creature's consciousness or self-awareness or whatever, while nowhere near human scale or even rhesus-monkey scale, is not exactly like that of other sheep.

And therein lies the ethical dilemma. We wish to create creatures much like ourselves for medical purposes. But. We do not wish to create them quite so much like ourselves that their welfare becomes as important as our own. And when you start messing about giving animals human brain cells, there are a bunch of questions about experience and capability that you have to answer before you can know that you haven't done that.

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Ray Dillinger ||   

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