A new Australian website called The Conversation, oriented to the “university and research sector,” has an article today by Peter Cowan, Professor at the University of Melbourne and Co-director of the Immunology Research Centre at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne.  Its title there is “Xenotransplantation: using pigs as organ and tissue donors for humans” but the excellent dignitarian site MercatorNet posts it under the wonderfully Orwellian title, “Will pigs usher in the next medical revolution?”

The article draws attention to the shortage of human organ and tissue donors and the potential for using pigs, genetically modified to reduce rejection by human immune systems, to treat several diseases like diabetes.

Why not use primates?

Humans are primates, so the obvious choice of donor animal for xenotransplantation would appear to be another member of the primate family (chimpanzees and baboons, for instance) because of their physiological similarity. But non-human primates have been ruled out as donors for several compelling practical and ethical reasons.

One of the risks to transplant recipients is infection by viruses transmitted by the transplanted organ. As our closest cousins in the animal kingdom, primates are more likely than other animals to carry viruses capable of infecting humans; HIV, the virus responsible for AIDS, originated in chimpanzees.

This “relatedness” also poses ethical problems, with the public understandably reluctant to exploit animals that share many features with humans. And even if you discount the ethical question, it’s hard to imagine being able to breed enough primates to meet the increasing demand for donor organs.

Professor Cowan does not explain how sharing many features with baboons constitutes an ethical problem with using them as “donors,” but he is doubtless right about the practical difficulties and the reluctance of the public—a nice understatement of the public relations nightmare that would ensue.

All animals are equal but, as in the Stalinized dystopia of Animal Farm, some animals are more equal than others.

A reader of The Conversation already raises this objection:

I don’t see why this article accepts there are ethical issues with using primates, but doesn’t see these same problems with using pigs. Pigs and primates are both sentient animals who feel pain and desire to avoid suffering and death – I don’t believe there is any meaningful difference between using pigs and primates.

The problem, in short, is man. Here is Animal Farm’s revolutionary pig leader (not the vegetarian graduate sociology student who wrote the above):

Never listen when they tell you that Man and the animals have a common interest, that the prosperity of the one is the prosperity of the others. It is all lies. Man serves the interests of no creature except himself. And among us animals let there be perfect unity, perfect comradeship in the struggle. All men are enemies. All animals are comrades.

Still the research will go forward and pigs will be unwilling participants in the coming revolution.  How far the processes of combining pig and man will go remains to be seen, but already we can imagine a new kind of dystopian novel that would have to borrow Orwell’s ending:

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.