Human-Animal Hybrids In 'Lucy,' A Look To The Future?

Science-fiction novels have often foreshadowed very real scientific debates. Laurence Gonzales' new novel Lucy, about the trials of a human-animal hybrid, may be one of these books. The author speaks with host Scott Simon about his new thriller and the real-life scientific discoveries that inspired it.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The new novel "Lucy" opens as an American primatologist named Jenny Lowe flees from a marauding group of Congolese rebels, comes upon the camp of a British primate researcher. Rebels have gotten there first. She finds the primatologist's young daughter in the ashes of her camp, shuddering on the body of a dead bonobo.

Jenny Lowe is touched. She takes the girl into her arms, whisks her back to her home in Chicago. She finds that the girl who'd been raised in the jungle by her scientist father is bright, lively and sensitive. She speaks French and Dutch. She quotes Kipling and Shakespeare. She can smell the rain from a long ways off.

One night, Jenny Lowe returns home and finds the young girl that she's taken into her life racked by fever and asleep in the limbs of a tree. You see, there's something else about beautiful and gifted young Lucy. She's part homo sapien, part bonobo chimp.

"Lucy" is the first novel that Laurence Gonzales, probably best-known for his book "Deep Survival," has written in 25 years. And it's being acclaimed as a Crichton-like thriller. He joins us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Thanks so much for being with us.

LAURENCE GONZALES (Author, "Lucy"): Thanks for asking me.

SIMON: First thing I've got to ask, is this remotely scientifically possible?

Mr. GONZALES: Yes. Arizona just passed a law, which goes into effect on July 29th, that makes it illegal to make Lucy in real life, because the science has gotten to the point where you could actually do it. And so they passed a law in Arizona that says it's a felony to create a human-animal hybrid.

SIMON: Mercy. Now, bonobo, we should explain, these are the chimps that are, what, I guess chromosomally closest to homo sapiens.

Mr. GONZALES: Bonobos look very much like chimpanzees if you're not used to making the distinction. They're smaller. They used to be called pygmy chimpanzees but are now recognized as a separate species. Some people refer to them as the hippie chimps, make love not war, because they use sex to settle social disputes and things like that, whereas chimpanzees tend to fight a lot more.

SIMON: We should explain that the dead bonobo in the encampment was Lucy's mother.

Mr. GONZALES: Correct.

SIMON: Jenny Lowe begins to read the notebooks of Lucy's father.

Mr. GONZALES: Yes.

SIMON: And that's how she finds out that this charming and borderline brilliant young girl she's taken into her life - how she began life.

Mr. GONZALES: Yes.

SIMON: Why would somebody try an experiment like what you outline?

Mr. GONZALES: Well, you'd have to be a bit of a mad scientist to start with. But this guy, in particular, explains himself. He was in love with the bonobos and they're going extinct just as fast as people can arrange it. And he wanted to save some part of them.

And in addition, he looked at the world around him, as any of us can do by watching the news, and decided that people needed a change as a species. And by infusing people with a hint of bonobo genes he would create a new species that would, you know, be better than people, be somehow less likely to wipe themselves out off the face of the Earth.

SIMON: And there have been experiments along these lines in the past, I gather, from reading your book.

Mr. GONZALES: Yes. There actually are - in the book I detail some of the experiments that were tried. Specifically in the early 1900s, the Russians were trying to breed people with chimpanzees. And they were - everybody seemed to think it was okay to try this somehow. The French were supporting them. They had a site in Africa where they had chimpanzees. And they went there with scientists and tried it and it didn't work. But, of course, that was before genetic engineering.

SIMON: You know, you put down the book and among the many questions that you're left with in your mind is, should bonobos be in cages anywhere?

Mr. GONZALES: No. They shouldn't. It's a terrible problem. See, the bonobos in the jungle in Congo right now are being killed off. There's a war going on there. And there are bushmeat hunters that kill them to eat them. And their habitat is being rapidly destroyed by various kinds of industries - logging and so forth. So they are really endangered in the wild.

The ones that are in captivity, you know, once a bonobo is in captivity they can't readapt to the jungle. So you can't just go let them go. So it's a very, very difficult and kind of heartbreaking problem. And the only thing that I can - I've talked to the people who, you know, keep them in zoos and stuff - the only thing that I know of that can be done is to expand their captive habitat to the point that it's as comfortable as you can make it.

SIMON: That deprives them of something, too, doesn't it?

Mr. GONZALES: Yes. Yes, it does. And you have to remember, these creatures are extremely smart. They're extremely smart. They're really almost human. And so you have to remember that because of their social nature, I mean, you just put a bunch of random bonobos in the same habitat together, that doesn't make any evolutionary sense. They don't know each other. They don't like each other. You know, it's very difficult.

SIMON: It does make you wonder though, is there always a neat and clear chromosomal distinction as to what is human?

Mr. GONZALES: Well, that point is raised in the book. There is a point at which a senator gets a bill passed that essentially makes - defines Lucy as an animal and therefore having no human rights. It defines being human as having the genome that was decoded, you know, when the genome was decoded for humans. And so, by definition she has no human rights.

But it's interesting because this very point was raised by the congressman who passed that bill in Arizona making it illegal to create a hybrid human. She said, well, you know, we can't be doing this because then who will decide whether this creature has rights or not? So, these issues are being raised in real life right now.

I mean, obviously, one of the things I took into consideration when writing it is I think we're so close to this technology, the ability to do things like this, that's it's useful for people to become aware of this - whatever their beliefs, whatever their political position or moral position, to become aware that this is real or could be real. And, of course, I do this in the form of an entertaining novel, but it can certainly spark conversations that I think need to go on before we get there.

SIMON: Does the name Lucy mean what a lot of people will think it does, referring to what's often identified as the first human Lucy?

Mr. GONZALES: Yeah. Actually, recently there was an older - 4.4 million, I believe, year-old skeleton found. So, Lucy's been kicked off her throne. But the answer is twofold. One is in the book Lucy's father says, I didn't name you for that. I named you because Lucy means light. And so, that's his reason.

My reason for choosing the name, however, is the Australopithecine that you're referring to.

SIMON: Laurence Gonzales, thanks so much.

Mr. GONZALES: Thank you for having me on.

SIMON: The new novel, "Lucy."

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