Ethical Issues raised in Captain




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Ethical Issues raised in Captain America and Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Dr Alex Tang


There have been two recent science fiction movies that involves questionable research ethics. The first is Captain America: The First Avenger where a 'supersoldier' serum and 'vita radiation' was used to transform a skinny Steve Rogers to a hunky Captain America. The second was the reimagined Rise of the Planet of the Apes where gene therapy was used to enhance the intelligence of chimpanzees.

Each of these movies raised at least three concerns about scientific research which I will highlight briefly.

In the movie Captain America, serious considerations have to be given to the moral and theological implications of human experimentation.

Firstly, the use of human enhancement technology to make human beings into weapons. It may be argued that human beings have always being trying to better themselves. From education of the mind and physical exercises for the body, humans has always tested the limitations of their God-given bodies. Recently advances include prosthetic hip replacements which allows the elderly to walk and body sculpturing to develop the present ideal of the perfect proportioned human body by exercises, diet, supplements,drugs, surgery and hormones. Is it morally and ethically admissible to create a 'supersolder' serum in order to create a human weapon?   No doubt in most military in the word, most soldiers are enhanced by technology and stimulants to make them more effective killers. However these technologies can be removed and stimulants wear off. But a permanently altered 'supersoldier' remains altered at the end of the mission. Will that create a social problem later (see Soldier, Universal Soldier series of movies).

Secondly, is there informed consent when human experimentation was performed on Rogers? Or was it manipulation using Rogers' wishful thinking to trick him into 'volunteering' for the serum. Rogers seems blissful unaware what in store for him when he innocently asked 'why is it so big' when he climbed into the transformation chamber. I wonder how many of the people involved in clinical human trials worldwide are aware of what they are in for. In other words, do they give really informed consent? Or are they manipulated into these trials by whatever these research organisations offer them? Rogers wanted to go to the warzone. What incentives was given to volunteers of clinical trials? Why is most clinical trails conducted in the poorer and least developed countries?

Thirdly, Dr Abraham Esrkine who perfected the 'supersoldier' serum was apparently from Nazi Germany. He has tried and failed with Johann Schidmt (a.k.a. Red Skull). While it was not clarified, it was implied that Esrkine would have  experimented on human prisoners in Germany before coming to America. Why would a man with obviously a Jewish name should be a Nazi scientist involved with human experimentation is not explained. A question that arises is that is it morally wrong to use scientific data derived from coerced human experimentation? For example in the Nazi human experiments during the Second World War. Is it morally right to use such data or not? The Nuremberg Trials seem to think that it is not morally right to use these data. It then begs another question. Is it morally justifiable to experiment on death row prisoners? (see Terminator: Salvation. My movie review here).



While the movie Captain America raises issues about human experimentation, the reimagined Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) deals with gene therapy. The underlying question that should be addressed is whether that  human beings be allowed to meddle with their own genetic code? While the genetic code is not related to consciousness and perhoodhood, it does in some ways related foundationally to who human beings are physically. In one sense, we are our God given (via or parents) genetic code. Do we then have a right to alter our own genetic code? This question cannot be answered unless we have a comprehensive theology of the body and a deeper understanding of Christian anthropology.

A brief movie synopsis from Wiki (contains spoilers)

Will Rodman (James Franco) is a San Francisco scientist at GEN-SYS who has been trying to develop a cure for Alzheimer's disease by testing a genetically engineered retrovirus on chimpanzees. The virus mutates the chimpanzees, giving them a human level of intelligence. One of his test subjects, a female chimpanzee named Bright Eyes, goes on a rampage because she believes her baby, to whom she secretly gave birth, is threatened. She is killed after disrupting a board meeting. Will's boss Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) orders subordinate Robert Franklin (Tyler Labine) to put all the test chimpanzees down, but he cannot bring himself to kill the chimpanzee's baby, and instead gives him to Will, who names him Caesar (Andy Serkis) and raises him in his house.Caesar has inherited his mother's high intelligence, and learns quickly.

Three years later, Will gives a sample of his cure to his father, Charles (John Lithgow), who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease. At first, his father improves but, five years later, his body's immune system fights off the virus and his dementia more.

The first issue on scientific research raised in this movie is the scientific safety protocols. While using a retrovirus to introduce a new gene into another species is a proven method of gene insertion, delivering it by aerosol (air borne) is not safe. Maybe it is good for storytelling as in the movies but in the scientific world, it is a dangerous delivery system. It is not easily controlled and may spread to the general population. Experiments involving viruses, especially those for gene insertion must be conducted in high secured and controlled environments. There are two potentially dangerous scenarios. If the virus (usually a retrovirus) gets to the general population, it may affect the certain people. It may not be so dramatic as in the movie. Some people may die because of the effect. The second scenarios is that the retrovirus infect the germline cells like the ovum and spermatozoa. In this scenarios, the introduced gene may be transmitted to the next generation. The reason I raise this issue is that we are at the beginning of a molecular biological revolution in the field of science and genetics. Everyone wants to be part of the revolution. Genetic laboratories are being set up all over the world. Are there adequate safeguards in all of these laboratories? Will there be backlane genetic labs as in the movie Blade Runner(my review here)

Secondly regards the consequences of genetic manipulation. In this movie, it is implied that in there will be sequels and in these sequels, intelligent apes will take over the world while humans will become intellectually challenged. The chimpanzee Caesar showed the pain and isolation of an intelligent chimpanzee in a world where chimpanzees are dumb pets.  In genetic manipulation as in chimera research, scientists are bringing into beings, creatures that never previous existed. Chimera research involve mixing human and animal genetic materials. Chimera research needs to be strictly supervised. Or will genetic manipulation create a Khan Noonien Singh which cause so much havoc in the Star Trek Universe?

Thirdly, the way the scientist Will Rodman stole samples of the experimental virus and inject it directly into his father who has Azheimer is a horrifying example of how human trials can go wrong. The methodology is important for all experiments. There is a reason why FDA has strict protocols for all drug trials. Scientific experiments need to be objective and impartial unlike a Frankenstein movie.

It is interesting how these movies make the point that research in intelligence must also be intelligent research and that Hollywood is asking these moral and ethical questions which many of us are blissfully unaware


|posted 03 August 2011|


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