How Much of ‘Us’ Is Really Us?

We tend to think of our bodies as “ours.” And not just our arms and our legs—the thoughts in our heads, the blood running through our veins, the stomach that processes our food, are ours, wholly ours, and nothing but ours.

But is that really the case? As but one example, your “body” actually includes 10-100 trillion microbiota, which (depending on how you count) is up to ten times the number of cells of your own DNA. So how much of “you” is really you, and how much is, say, just a house for bacteria?

Let’s push that a little further. What if it was not microbiotic DNA inhabiting our bodies, but sheep DNA? Would we then think of ourselves as part-human, part-sheep? And now let’s complicate that even more: What if using animal DNA helped alleviate the challenge of finding suitable organ donations for humans who are in desperate need of them?

These questions are becoming closer and closer to reality. In a National Geographic article about sheep-human embryos made in a lab, Michael Greshko writes: “Every hour, six people in the United States are added to the national waiting list for organ transplants—and each day, 22 people on the list die waiting. In the U.S. alone, more than a hundred thousand people need heart transplants each year, but only about 2,200 receive one.”

In response, researchers are working to artificially expand the organ supply. Some are trying to 3-D print organs in the lab. Others are working on artificial, mechanical organs. And some are making chimeras—hybrids of two different species—in the hopes of growing human organs in pigs or sheep.

As medical technology advances, and a desire to gain much-needed organs, some people would certainly accept animal DNA as part of their body. On a rational, cost-benefit analysis, it’s almost a no-brainer to do this, especially because our bodies aren’t just “us” but house all kinds of other living things. Why should a sheep heart be any different from a microbial organism?

But we aren’t simply rational creatures. We have immediate, emotional reactions to violating our human uniqueness, and the issue, I think, is not so much the human-animal hybrid per se. Rather, it has more to do with what’s called the “contagion heuristic.” As described by David Berreby for Big Think:

“Back in the 1990’s the social psychologist Paul Rozin and his colleagues asked people if they would wear Hitler’s sweater, and they usually said no, not even if it had been washed, torn or lent to Mother Teresa first. That was an important insight into the mind’s rules for reacting to contamination: It showed, first, that those rules don’t distinguish between physical and moral impurity and, second, that they’re profoundly non-rational.”

“Foreign bodies” and smartphones

Part of the pushback against the human-animal hybrid is thinking that being “part sheep” would make you feel not totally human. Since it would feel like a physical violation of “who you are,” it would also feel like a moral violation. That’s why there’s such strong immediate revulsion to the idea.

But we’re intentionally adding “foreign” bodies to our own all the time. When we take antibiotics or undertaking immunotherapy, we’re voluntarily adding outside organisms in order to build up resistance to bacteria or allergens. We also sometimes take in “good” bacteria to promote wellness, like probiotics in certain yogurts and supplements available at the nutrition store.

The other part of the challenge is that when we think about our “selves,” we think only about our bodies and everything inside of it. We forget that our “selves” actually extend far beyond our bodies. And while we may shudder to think about artificially melding sheep and humans, we don’t think twice about artificially melding our minds with our smartphones. Indeed, as Karina Vold argues in Aeon:

“[Y]our smartphone is much more than just a phone. It can tell a more intimate story about you than your best friend. No other piece of hardware in history, not even your brain, contains the quality or quantity of information held on your phone: it ‘knows’ whom you speak to, when you speak to them, what you said, where you have been, your purchases, photos, biometric data, even your notes to yourself—and all this dating back years.”

Some philosophers have argued that when we die, our digital devices should be handled as remains: if your smartphone is a part of who you are, then perhaps it should be treated more like your corpse than your couch.

So whether it’s through genetic engineering our smartphone technology, in fact, “who we are” is always artificially augmented. In many ways, human-animal hybrids are not that much more different than human-smartphone hybrids—we just have much more of a natural revulsion to the human-animal version because we don’t want to feel “contaminated” by viewing ourselves as part-sheep.

No desire for monsters

Yet let’s also not forget why these researchers wanted to use sheep DNA. It wasn’t a desire for power, or to create monsters, or even simply see what would happen. It was to help people’s lives. Pablo Ross, one of the researchers who helped boost the human cell count in the sheep DNA, acknowledges that “[a]ll of these approaches are controversial, and none of them are perfect, but they offer hope to people who are dying on a daily basis.”

As this technology advances, then, we will need to overcome our natural emotional reactions. Not that we should move forward indiscriminately, but rather, to move from a knee-jerk reaction to a more measured conversation. There are potentially great benefits with this new research of human-animal hybrids, so we shouldn’t take them totally off the table just because it feels like it violates “who we are.”

After all, when we really think about “who we are,” we could potentially see ourselves as just 10% human and 90% microbiota, or we could even see ourselves as all the data stored on our smartphone. With that recognition, talking about bringing sheep DNA into your body becomes a difference in degree and not in kind.

And if we are concerned about whether humans would still be unique as these new technologies become reality, we can instead focus on our uniquely human ability to incorporate new data and new information into a coherent narrative. As we artificially enhance our “selves,” we also can realize that our “selves” are much more than just our bodies, our minds, or even our DNA.

Because ultimately, the question of who we are isn’t fixed. It’s a story that we tell that can be changed, edited, and revised. And we’re the ones who get to write it.

(Illustration: Andrii Vodolazhskyi | Shutterstock)
Contributing Writer, ORBITER magazine