Friday's report by the Academy of Medical Sciences on the increasingly fuzzy boundaries between the human and the animal is the latest in a long series of policy reflections on how to keep pace with developments in the biosciences.
It can justly be said that politics and regulation have not dealt well with our newfound capacities for muddying the boundaries between us and other species. And yet the last two decades have witnessed an unprecedented growth in bioscientific techniques that increasingly call into question what it means to be human. Take the human genome project: many of us may have intuitively suspected that we might have more genetically in common with the chimpanzee than even Darwin had envisaged, only then to be told of our cousinly closeness to the fruit fly, maize and the zebra fish.
Casting a glance back to the 1990s, trans-species transplantationseemed to promise a new era of limitless animal organs and tissues. Who knows, it may still. But that dream slowly sank from view amid concerns about potentially catastrophic trans-species disease, and increasing evidence of its poor performance in preclinical trials with primates. Move forward a decade and we have the trans-species embryodebate, resulting in legislative changes permitting a whole new class of research embryos incorporating animal DNA. So to the classical question of "what is an embryo", has been added the equally vexing puzzle "what is an animal".
Bioscientific hybrids are difficult to categorise, disorderly, existing on the fringes of the humanised animal and the animalised human. And yet policymaking has arguably had a poor track in getting to grips with and understanding trans-species innovation. Trans-species biologies present acute difficulties especially in terms of regulation because they confuse and traverse regulatory institutional boundaries.
In the UK, as elsewhere, regulatory agencies have tended to regulate humans on the one hand, and animals on the other, with little consideration for what might lie between. The tendency has been to deal with all things animal through the Home Office and its Animal Procedures Inspectorate, and to deal with all things human through the Department of Health. There are good and disturbing grounds for suspecting this division has become increasingly naive and meaningless, as the biosciences enter their trans-species future.