Jack Honer’s recent TEDTalk and CNN piece on turning a chicken into a dinosaur raises a number of ethical questions that no one, save Horner himself, seems to even raise. Are we all so enamored with the idea of having a real live “dinosaur” that this speciesism can just pass on by?
In “Why we’re creating a ‘chickenosaurus’” Horner writes,
The Build a Dinosaur Project continues as researchers attempt to identify two atavistic genes proposed to control the appearance of the three-fingered hand and the primitive tail. This search involves the knocking out of target genes in early developing chicken embryos.
This is some high-level stuff, and I won’t presume to get into the genetics of extracting dinosaur genes from fossils or the extensive research behind that. To be sure, I think the study of paleontology is incredibly cool, and I love Horner’s use of evolutionary tales to illustrate just how vast and incredible our earth and its species’ history is. But, and this is a huge but, demonstrating evolution and “attempting to satisfy the aspirations of sixth-graders” does not justify the misuse, mistreatment, or genetic modification of chickens. Horner’s own critique ironically explains this:
It is interesting, for example, that some people consider simple genetic engineering, such as the dino-chicken, to be unethical, while they find selective breeding — potentially producing the same results over time — to be an ethical endeavor.
Do they? I don’t. Dog breeding, cat breeding, horse breeding – it’s all unethical. Animals are not ours to breed and modify as we see fit, killing hundreds or thousands in the process, thirsting after the perfect lap dog or thoroughbred. Those who do question this dino-chicken endeavor should turn that hypothesis inwards, or to any pet they may have bought from a breeder or pet store.
Is selective breeding okay in humans? No? How about humans who don’t know otherwise, such as the comatose or severely mentally handicapped humans? I think most rational people, Horner included, would argue that it is immoral to do so, and the same logic can be applied to dogs, cats, chickens, and any sentient animal. This argument is of course a very short summary of the one made by Peter Singer in Animal Liberation, that sentient beings are not ours to harm, mutilate, or use for research (see, for instance “The case for animal equality” on this page).
So it’s surprising me that I could not turn up one legitimate inquiry into Horner’s ideas based on ethics; only fleeting remarks that there may be “ethical reasons” against having a dinosaur hatchery. You think? I will make note of this interesting paper, entitled “‘There is No Unauthorized Breeding in Jurassic Park': Gender and the Uses of Genetics,” which claims:
…a great deal of the opposition to genetic technologies expressed in contemporary popular culture is grounded in a profound anti-feminism, through close readings of the film and book versions of ‘Jurassic Park’ as well as the movie ‘Gattaca.’ Pitfalls for feminism in contemporary discussions of reproductive technology and genetic determinism.
While I’m all for feminism, that seems to be a little outside the scope of what I’m after. But if college lit courses left you with a thirst for more, read the full study here and let us know what you find in the comments section!
We need to be critical about this, any other animal experimentation that occurs for some supposed benefit. Even if animal testing results in drugs that help humanity, the moral basis is shaky at best. Genetically modifying, breeding, and abusing an already cast-down species like the Gallus gallus domesticus to birth something might be resemble a dinosaur is unethical and cruel.
Note: While searching for an image for this post, I did come across this pseudo-skeptical look at PaxArcana. It seems they are more concerned with the impending doom of getting eaten by a dinosaur than the cruelty that hundreds of chickens will have to go through to birth such an animal. It also appears Horner’s entire justification (ethically, anyway) is that we already genetically modify plants and mice, as this Wired interview illustrates.