Saturday, 29 May 2010

Human animal chimeras: can the subaltern speak?

Reading an interview with director Vincenzo Natali about his upcoming sci fi/horror (or should I say "weird fiction"?) film Splice, I was interested, to be sure, in his plans to adapt Neuromancer and Ballard's High Rise to the big screen. What particularly intrigued me though were the following remarks:

I understand that your point of inspiration was the Vacanti mouse experiment.

The Vacanti mouse was such a shocking image because it was basically a naked mouse with what appeared to be a human ear growing out of its back. It wasn’t a real ear. In fact, it wasn’t even a genetic experiment, but it was such a powerful image, and I think part of its power came from how vulnerable the mouse looked. I immediately identified with it. I really felt for it. It was speaking to some pretty strange avenues that are now opening up to us with the advent of this new technology, so I really think from its very earliest stages, Splice always put the emphasis, the emotional connection, on the creature. We were always going to be suspect and dubious of the humans and, in fact, in the making of this creature, we discover the monster lurking within the humans. In other words, I never thought this should be a story of a monster going on the loose and wreaking havoc and killing people. That was just not the story I wanted to tell. I was much more interested in how the people would end up smothering their own creation. It becomes kind of a hostage story. That’s the road we followed. So the mouse was a very influential mouse.

I read that George Charames, your technical consultant on genetics, actually said that this type of experimentation is occurring clandestinely around the world, that these human-hybrid chimeras were being created. Do you think that’s true?
Well, they are. They absolutely are. Not like what we have in the film, but in the UK they legalized the creation of human-animal chimeras for medical research. They destroy them after, I don’t know, a few days or a week or something, so they never go beyond the embryo stage. That’s what Clive and Elsa at the start of the film plan to do: destroy it before it grows. But it grows a little bit quickly and once it’s born, they don’t have the heart to kill it, so you can easily see how life often trumps the best-laid plans and how things can go horribly, horribly wrong.

What is left unspecified in the second question, but is strongly implied, is that the clandestine research, "around the world", is taking place in parts of Asia. The implication of Frankenstein type experiments is tacitly presented as inherently shocking to Western sensibilities. I believe, along with people such as Steve Fuller, that a range of genetic experiments should be conducted, provided appropriate regulation/accountability mechanisms are in place. However, things get even trickier once you consider the possible greater receptiveness to chimeras in countries such as India, where a long cultural tradition enshrines them as part of everyday reality up to and including the present day. I understand what Fuller means then when he acknowledges running the risk of committing "the dreaded sin of Eurocentrism", by sounding a warning against an emerging alliance between religion and science, which he refers to as "karmic darwinism". I believe Fuller's argument could prove applicable to those wishing to construe the science of human animal chimeras as proof of how "the human condition" can and should be downsized:

"I argue that the 21st century will be marked by a realignment of science and religion, which I call the “anthropic” versus the “karmic” perspectives. The former is aligned with the major Western religions and was secularized in the 19th century as positivism, with its identification of social science with the religion of humanity. The latter is aligned with the major Eastern religions, but also Epicureanism in the West. It was secularized as the Neo-Darwinian synthesis in the 20th century, since when it has made major inroads in wider precincts of normative thought. In this context, I focus specifically on the work of E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, and Peter Singer - all of whom, in somewhat different ways, argue on naturalistic grounds for the removal of humanity’s normative privilege. Moreover, this sensibility enjoys somewhat surprising support from postmodern quarters, where anti-humanism tends to be strong. These emerging trends, even when articulated by scientists, have also been associated with a decline in scientific meliorism. Against all this, I argue for a reassertion of the anthropic perspective, mainly by suggesting how monotheists and positivists may join to reinstate the collective project of humanity. A crucial part of the strategy is to regard participation in science as a civic obligation, if not (à la Comte) a religious service".

I am sympathetic to Fuller's objectives, but from what I can tell, they are likely to be dismissed as impractical by an emerging research consortia that consciously arrays itself against [what they regard as] "conservative western attitudes", for fear that they will slow down the vaccine development which is the objective of chimera research. These scientists are basically arguing that heuristics will trump "dialogue between those holding differing views". It's not too difficult to understand [even if you disagree] why they would instead codify a minimal specification of "humane" treatment of the chimeras as central to their ethical framework, rather than a more expansive definition of humanity as a collective project. Afterall, the latter may be perceived by some as merely the latest form of neocolonialism.

Heuristics would therefore dictate that whatever is conducive to the fastest uptake of the research in other countries should be encouraged, not only to quell objections from those science watchers in the general public, but to encourage the participation of as many local scientists as possible. An appeal to cultural tradition may be just the ticket they're looking for. It is this strategy that threatens to legitimate karmic darwinism in a more general sense. So, to be clear, neither Fuller (as I understand him), or myself, are opposed to the science itself tout court, just one particular way of framing it (in such a way that it benefits devious elites to the exclusion of their fellow humans).

Of course, any inherent karmic darwinian sensibilities could be moderated as an incentive for participation or public consent to the research, given awareness that it could potentially have a beneficial global impact. This would certainly come much closer to satisfying Fuller's criteria of participation as a civic obligation. By the same token though, such a global impact could [unintentionally] make it easier for karmic darwinism to subsequently gain wider purchase. This compelling question remains unanswered:

"even though the creation of human-animal chimeras in research makes some people uncomfortable in the West, the benefits of creating such chimeras to accelerate vaccine development for disease that kill many more people in the developing world will likely be seen to be greater than the potential risks. If the attitudes in the West harden further, might the developing world itself supply a solution?"

Indeed, and will Western cultural products such as Splice contribute to the hardening of attitudes towards human animal chimeras, as appears to be its intention? When Natali speaks of things going "horribly, horribly wrong", I obviously can't cast too many aspersions (the film is awaiting release). But what is left unsaid may assume greater significance over time....

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