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Monkey family on the tree in Nepal monastery
Featured image: Monkey family at Nepal monastery/vladimirzhoga, Adobe Stock

Are Monkeys with Some Human Genes Partly Human?

If they are somewhat smarter than other macaques, do they have minds and souls?

In my ongoing dialogue with Querius, I say no; a human is not reducible to a handful of genes:

Querius: I heard some disappointing news recently, that scientists had shirked ethics in China and put human stem cells into monkey brains. They noted that the stem cells had “taken” in their brains and the monkeys had shown improvement in their intelligence, most noticeably in their short-term memory.

Of the 11 transgenic macaque monkeys they generated, six died. The five survivors went through a series of tests, including MRI brain scans and memory tests. It turned out they didn’t have bigger brains than a control group of macaques, but they did perform better on short-term memory tasks. Their brains also developed over a longer period of time, which is typical of human brains.

Although the sample size was very small, the scientists excitedly described the study as “the first attempt to experimentally interrogate the genetic basis of human brain origin using a transgenic monkey model.” In other words, part of the point of the study was to help tackle a question about evolution: How did we humans develop our unique brand of intelligence, which has allowed us to innovate in ways other primates can’t?

Sigal Samuel, “Scientists added human brain genes to monkeys. Yes, it’s as scary as it sounds.” at Vox

I am curious as to what you think this means for human exceptionalism. If you can plant human cells in an animal, and the animal begins to get smarter and human-like, the discovery is a nail in the coffin to human exceptionalism. It shows that we humans and our intellect are a result of our biology which strengthens physicalist/functionalist arguments for human intelligence and consciousness.

It also strengthens the argument, that once we break down the computation of intelligence function in our DNA, we can replicate it in a machine. I’m skeptical though because I’ve not found the research papers for this.

Eric Holloway: I’m not sure that improved memory and processing speed means that the macaques are more humanlike. A computer has much greater memory and processing speed than a human and I would not give the computer even animal rights.

Of course, the real question is, what is the dividing line between animals and humans? I think the above argument shows at least that it is not memory or processing speed.

Another way to think about it is this: What if implanting macaque genes in a mouse makes the mouse smarter? Does that mean the mouse is more human-like? What if the genes of some animals, such as crows, dolphins or elephants, which are considered smarter than macaques in certain respects, are used to make the macaques smarter? Does that mean the macaque is more human-like, or more like these other animals?

Also, some animals outdo humans in certain cognitive tasks. For example, younger chimps have superior photographic memories. If implanting chimp genes in humans gave humans better photographic memories, are those humans now more chimp-like? I would say no; rather, there has been an improvement to the human’s cognitive skills. Finally, many animals have instinctive reactions that are superior to human reactions; consider the way a mongoose knows how to jump behind a cobra and kill it with a head bite.

However, I would not say that a mongoose has a superior intellect to a human.

So, while memory and processing speed are part of human intelligence, there seems to be an essential piece of humanity that is not captured by these elements. Perhaps adding human genes can improve a macaque’s cognitive ability, but I would argue the macaque has merely become a smarter macaque and has not started reasoning like a human.

It might go on to become the mightiest macaque in the jungle but it will still stay within its macaque way of thinking. It will not invent a language, discover mathematics, become philosophical, write great literature, be sarcastic, tell jokes, lie, feel guilty, worry about whether its soul is physically reducible, etc.

At any rate, I’m also not in principle against such gene modification, if done ethically because I do not think the genes by themselves make humans into humans and chimps into chimps. And, it also seems possible that, if the soul is distinct from the body, that chimp genes could be altered to such an extent that the chimp body becomes an accommodation for the human soul. In that case, the life form would be a human and not a chimp, and different ethical stands would apply.

This thought experiment demonstrates that, even if the researchers could generate a creature that reasoned like a human, that would not show a human is reducible to genetics—as it is consistent with a soul-oriented view.

On the other hand, a soul-oriented view is also consistent with researchers’ complete inability to piece together a genome that is compatible with a human soul. Perhaps part of the soul, as well as genetics, is passed on from parents. In that case, no lab creation of genomes will ever be able to generate any kind of animal, let alone humans, and the soul of lab animal can always be traced back to animal parents. It would be the same for humans. In that case, if we ever found a creature in a lab that could reason like a human, then we could infer it came from a human egg and sperm, and cannot have been completely lab grown.

These two thought experiments show that nothing genetic engineers do in the lab can conclusively show that the soul is reducible to genes. On the other hand, there are experiments that can show that the soul is irreducible. This state of affairs seems to indicate the notion of an immaterial soul is fundamentally a stronger idea than the notion of a materially reducible soul. I would say it also shows that the concept of an immaterial soul is true and that the concept of a physically reducible soul is false.

Eric Holloway’s earlier discussions with Querius:

Could AI think like a human, given infinite resources? Given that the human mind is a halting oracle, the answer is no.

The flawed logic behind “thinking” computers, Part I A program that is intelligent must do more than reproduce human behavior

The flawed logic behind “thinking” computers, Part II There is another way to prove a negative besides exhaustively enumerating the possibilities.


The flawed logic behind “thinking” computers, Part III No program can discover new mathematical truths outside the limits of its code.

Note: “Querius” is a pseudonym.

Featured image: Monkey family at Nepal monastery/vladimirzhoga, Adobe Stock

Eric Holloway

Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Eric Holloway has a Ph.D. in Electrical & Computer Engineering from Baylor University. He is a current Captain in the United States Air Force where he served in the US and Afghanistan He is the co-editor of the book Naturalism and Its Alternatives in Scientific Methodologies. Dr. Holloway is an Associate Fellow of the Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence.

Are Monkeys with Some Human Genes Partly Human?