EDITORIALS

THIS WEEK
E-SPECIES Zoologists should follow botanists into the digital age p.424 WORLD VIEW Meet the world’s only blogging stem-cell scientist p.425

MAN BITES DOG Ancient canines more than best friends p.427

The legacy of Doctor Moreau

Regulators must look past visceral disgust about human–animal hybrids. Strict but sensible rules are needed for research on hybrid embryos and chimaeric animals that could produce therapies.

T

he science-fiction author H. G. Wells coined the term humanized animals in his 1896 novel The Island of Doctor Moreau. The book invited readers to consider the ethical limits of curiosity-driven research and to ponder the moral value of the distinction between humans and animals. The book’s evil protagonist creates, through a vaguely defined process of ‘vivisection’, a colony of half-human ‘beast folk’, unhappy in themselves and frightening to others. Dr Moreau’s humanized animals evoke visceral disgust. Thankfully, more than a century later, they remain science fiction. However, the ethical dilemmas presented by Wells do not. Innumerable mice and other animals have been engineered in past decades to express a human gene and model specific aspects of human disease. They rarely inspire disgust, because they still resemble their own species. But further advances in genetic and stem-cell technologies mean that researchers could, in theory, create animals with quintessentially human characteristics or behaviours. The sight of an animal with shiny, furless ‘human’ skin, for example — exceptionally useful for research into skin disorders — could evoke disgust similar to that created by Moreau’s beast folk, even though the animal itself might be perfectly comfortable. One of the biggest horrors — although technically unlikely — could be a self-aware monkey, a creature with human thought trapped in the body of an animal, unable to express itself. Prompted by the possibilities, scientists around the world have begun to discuss the ethical consequences of taking to extremes the frontier technologies that allow mixing of species. These include the introduction of human stem cells into animals, where they could integrate into the animal’s body; or the formation of hybrid or chimaeric embryos that mix the DNA of humans and animals. The UK Academy of Medical Sciences in London has now produced a comprehensive report on the subject (see page 438 and page 448). The document is likely to lead to pioneering legislation specifically geared towards regulating research on animals containing human material. This is a timely and important step: timely because little truly controversial research in this area has yet been done, so both public debate and scientific research can take place in a peaceful environment; important because instinctive revulsion should not automatically block future research that will undoubtedly pave the way for therapies for currently incurable diseases. The report clearly identifies techniques that cannot yet be used ethically, including extensive humanization of the monkey brain or the development of embryos that mix DNA from humans and non-human primates. It distinguishes them from procedures such as the creation of transgenic mice that bear human genes, which the academy says require no oversight beyond the strict controls that already apply. The academy says that further oversight of experiments that occupy the middle ground — perhaps the human-skinned animal — should assess, on a case-by-case basis, whether the benefits to understanding or to medicine from a particular research project outweigh the potential

suffering of the animal involved, its cage mates or its carers. The UK government commissioned the report and is likely to adopt its conclusions. In doing so, it will reinforce Britain’s reputation as an attractive research environment, strictly controlled but without unwarranted hindrances. The country has some of the world’s most stringent laws on the welfare of research animals, but also some of the most rational regulations for research using human embryonic stem cells. It allows the creation of hybrid embryos that are “Advances in predominantly human — forbidden in many genetic and countries — as long as they are destroyed stem-cell before they develop beyond the two-cell technologies stage. Now the country seems ready to regucould, in late hybrid embryos that are mainly animal, as theory, create well as chimaeric animals. The United Kingdom knows that this will animals with quintessentially give it an advantage in reaping medical benefits — and that proactive legislation offers human characteristics.” protection against future calls for outright bans, should public anxiety grow. Potential therapies using human stem cells to replace damaged organs or tissue must first be tested in animals. Chimaeric animals with human brain material might be useful. For example, they could help to establish how the normal human brain develops and functions, and what goes wrong in neurodevelopmental disorders such as schizophrenia. The ethical questions raised by H. G. Wells are as valid today as they ever were. But as facts and fiction converge, the answers have become more complex.

Heart of the matter

The Heartland Institute’s climate conference reveals the motives of global-warming sceptics.

I

t would be easy for scientists to ignore the Heartland Institute’s climate conferences. They are curious affairs designed to gather and share contrarian views, in which science is secondary to wild accusations and political propaganda. They are easy to lampoon — delegates at the latest meeting of the Chicago-based institute in Washington DC earlier this month could pick up primers on the libertarian writings of Russian–American novelist Ayn Rand, who developed the philosophical theory of objectivism, and postcards depicting former US vice-president Al Gore as a fire-breathing demon. And they are predictable, with environmentalists often portrayed as the latest incarnation of a persistent communist plot. “Green on the outside, red on the inside,”
2 8 J U LY 2 0 1 1 | V O L 4 7 5 | N AT U R E | 4 2 3

© 2011 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved

THIS WEEK EDITORIALS
said one display. “Smash the watermelons!” So why does Nature this week devote two pages to such absurdities? We now have more than two decades of evidence that closing our eyes will not make the climate sceptics go away. Instead, in the United States at least, they have cemented their propaganda into a broader agenda that pits conservatives of various stripes against almost any form of government regulation. The sceptics like to present the battlefield as science, but, as the News Feature on page 440 makes clear, the fight is, in fact, a violent collision of world views. Does the following sound familiar? “They distort science, ignore reality and will not tolerate opinions or facts that conflict with their beliefs.” “Cynical manipulators or simple pawns, their purpose is only to keep funds flowing to a corrupt few who profit from the status quo.” Those are the kinds of words scientists use, often correctly, to describe the sceptics, many of whom would have the financial interests of today continue their dominance tomorrow. Yet this is also how sceptics characterize climate scientists, whose careers and reputations they claim are intertwined with protecting the science of anthropogenic global warming. To address this conflict might be seen as lending respectability to the spurious claims made by sceptics against respected scientists and robust science. So, let’s be clear: Nature is not endorsing the Heartland Institute as a serious voice on climate science. Instead, the News Feature is intended to offer researchers outside climate science a window into the motives and tactics of those who have set themselves up as such a voice. (Those inside climate science, of course, are all too aware of these already.) Despite criticizing climate scientists for being overconfident about their data, models and theories, the Heartland Institute proclaims a conspicuous confidence in single studies and grand interpretations. A 2009 report by the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, which the institute supports, is well sourced and based on scientific papers. Yet it makes many bold assertions that are often questionable or misleading, and do not “Nature is not highlight the uncertainties. Many climate endorsing the sceptics seem to review scientific data and studies not as scientists but as attorneys, Heartland magnifying doubts and treating incomplete Institute as a explanations as falsehoods rather than signs serious voice on climate science.” of progress towards the truth. As the News Feature points out, although the sceptics feel that they have already won the political battle in the United States, their attacks on science will continue. Scientists can only carry on with their work, addressing legitimate questions as they arise and challenging misinformation. Many climate scientists have already tried to engage with their critics, as they did at the Heartland event. The difference, of course, is motive. Scientists work to fill the gaps in human knowledge and to build a theory that can explain observations of the world. Climate sceptics revel in such gaps, sometimes long after they have been filled. It is scientists, not sceptics, who are most willing to consider explanations that conflict with their own. And far from quashing dissent, it is the scientists, not the sceptics, who do most to acknowledge gaps in their studies and point out the limitations of their data — which is where sceptics get much of the mud they fling at the scientists. By contrast, the Heartland Institute and its ilk are not trying to build a theory of anything. They have set the bar much lower, and are happy muddying the waters. electronic publication. They also agreed to abandon the need for a Latin description, although the names themselves must still be Latinized. The wider congress must endorse the changes before they can take effect, but it is expected to do so in time for the new rules to apply from January next year. Now, zoologists should follow suit. More than ten years have passed since the first creatures — fossilized microorganisms called protists — were described in an electronic journal (D. B. Scott et al. Palaeontol. Electron. 3; 2000; see go.nature.com/pt1cmz), with physical copies sent to libraries to meet the criteria. Nature greeted the news at the time with a headline that now seems premature: ‘Online naming of species opens digital age for taxonomy’ (see Nature 408, 278; 2000). Yet, despite much discussion in the scientific community and numerous articles published on the topic, both in print and online, the rules governing zoologists remain as strict as ever. Researchers pushing for online publications to be given equal status insist that electronic copies can now be considered a permanent record. They say that widening the number of journals that can publish discoveries will benefit the field, and that online-only journals often publish faster than traditional print publications. At this point, it seems that there is little reason to continue to demand paper on a shelf to make a species name official. Sometimes, taxonomists — and scientific publishers — resist change and the adoption of new technology. There are often good reasons for this. Proper rules are important and taxonomic anarchy would ruin science. Slavishly embracing every new technology as it appeared would be a disaster, and a demonstrably robust archive is invaluable — just ask a historian. But electronic publication has already altered the face of publishing, and it will continue to do so. Taxonomy and publishing are likely always to lag behind technological progress; in NATURE.COM fact, both already have to run faster and faster To comment online, just to keep up. Still, botanists are about to click on Editorials at: narrow the gap slightly, and zoologists should go.nature.com/xhunqv pick up the pace.

Origin of species

Zoologists should follow botanists in allowing online-only announcements of new species.

I

da had a difficult birth. This remarkably well preserved primate fossil was introduced to the world in May 2009, in a description in the online journal PLoS ONE. Arguments raged over the evolutionary importance of the unquestionably photogenic new species Darwinius masillae and the role of a television company in its unveiling; a more technical criticism came from taxonomy specialists. Under the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, publication of species names must be in a ‘durable medium’ — that is, on paper or CD-ROM, which must be made available at specific libraries. The online-only naming of Ida as a new species was therefore illegitimate. The journal rushed out a correction stating that a “separate print-only edition is available” to fulfil the requirements and ensure that Ida really was D. masillae (J. L. Franzen et al. PLoS ONE 5, e5723; 2009). But the underlying problem remained: if zoologists and botanists wished to publish their findings in online journals, they would still have to physically distribute print copies to suitable repositories. Last year, Sandra Knapp, a botanist at the Natural History Museum in London, got around the plant-science version of the same rules, the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature. She described four new plants, again in PLoS ONE (S. Knapp PLoS ONE 5, e10502; 2010), printed out hard copies of the online paper, and posted them to libraries. At a meeting in Melbourne, Australia, last week, the International Botanical Congress took the first steps to end this situation and bring botany into the electronic age (see Nature http://dx.doi. org/news.2011.428; 2011). The congress’s nomenclature section, chaired by Knapp, voted to amend the code to allow purely
4 2 4 | N AT U R E | V O L 4 7 5 | 2 8 J U LY 2 0 1 1

© 2011 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved