Chinese Scientists Want to Give Monkeys Human Brains

Rafael Augusto B.L. De Oliveira | @ancient_scrolls

Largely due to our intelligence, the human race was able to quickly become the ruler of planet Earth. But what if another race soon becomes as smart as us? Will our rule of the Earth be under threat?

Movie franchises like The Matrix and Planet of The Apes explore this possibility. In the first, humanity creates robots so smart that they are able to enslave us inside a simulated reality. In the latter, humans travel to a planet where apes became smarter than us and use their intelligence to rule. But now, Chinese scientists hope to bring an element of this fantasy into reality.

Chinese Scientists are attempting to make monkeys as smart as humans by inserting human genetic code into monkey brains. Yes, you heard that right! The mutation will occur by placing the DNA into monkey embryos. 

According to their paper, it’s highly likely that our current brain sizes and cognitive skills are a gift we inherited from our biological ancestors. The exact nature of the millennia of genetic mutations that fostered this remains a mystery; science has yet to uncover precisely how these genetic mechanisms helped us achieve modern intelligence.

The MCPH1 Gene

According to their research, which Beijing’s National Science Review published, scientists introduced MCPH1, a gene that scientists consider one of the most important in human brain development, to the monkeys. They administered it via a virus.

MCPH1 plays a crucial role during the development of our brains; it encodes a damage response protein and may help in the maintenance of inhibitory phosphorylation of cyclin-dependent kinase 1. 

What Happened to the Monkeys? 

During the experiments, the transgenic monkeys with the MCPH1 gene, that didn’t die and matured properly had better short-term memory and quicker reaction time during testing. On the other hand, normal monkeys did not see any special improvement. However, their sample size was too small to definitely confirm anything or make a major breakthrough.

Nevertheless, the preliminary results excited the scientists. They described their experiment as “the first attempt to experimentally interrogate the genetic basis of human brain origin using a transgenic monkey model”. 

Brain image and tissue section analyses showed that the MCPH1 gene caused an altered pattern of neural cell differentiation, resulting in a delayed neuronal maturation and neural fiber myelination of the transgenic monkeys, similar to the known evolutionary change of developmental delay (neoteny) in humans”. On the contrary, normal monkeys demonstrated typical brain and tissue development. 

China: A Haven for (Inhumane?) Animal Testing 

China has seen advances in animal rights in recent years, thanks to criticism and backlash by many. However, their laws are still considerably laxer than many other countries.

For example, China has fewer laws regarding experiments on living guinea pigs. Compared to Western countries, their policy is quite flexible. It’s also much cheaper to conduct these experiments in China than in the USA. 

The Ethical Debate

According to bioethicist Jacqueline Glover from the University of Colorado, “To humanize them is to cause harm. Where would they live and what would they do? Do not create a being that can’t have a meaningful life in any context.” 

If we start adding human brain genes to other primates, we will permanently change the way their brains process and perceive reality. As a consequence, we will also modify their behavior. Even if scientists conduct such experiments for noble purposes, there are still ethical considerations.

For example, one may consider the possibility that monkeys become extremely human-like. Where would they live? What kind of prejudices would these smart monkeys face in our civilization? How they will disperse into our society? Many ethicists have vastly different opinions on questions such as these and many more.

Without a doubt, conducting these kinds of experiments raises a lot of ethical and moral questions and may lead to suffering for those mutated beings. Nevertheless, the scientists’ results seem promising, and these considerations have not stopped them. Thus, humanity may be one step closer to finding the secret sauce for giving other beings human intelligence.

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