I’m not going to lie: this blog will rarely concern iself with Pressing Science Ethics Issues. This sort of thing — the morality of Stem Cell Research, “Is Cloning O.K”? — should remain where it rightly lives, which is to say, “town hall” style discussions on public television. This is not to dub these issues irrelevant. They are, of course, more relevant than anything I will bring up in this forum. However, they are also instant boresville. No one needs an in-depth analysis to realize immediately that people opposed to mild levels of stem-cell research are either conservative wack-jobs or afraid of a cooler, more “future,” society. I’m not interested in hearing luddites bluster about cloning. I’d rather think about and dwell on the “What the Hell is Going On” side of the science fence.
Which brings me to the issue of Chimeric research. The term “Chimera,” appropriately, is mythological: the Chimera was a Greek fire-breathing monster dude, a composite of several creatures. “Chimera” is now being similarly used by geneticists to refer to a creature composed of two or more species, minus the fire-breathing part. Although there has been much fussbudgeting along the animal-human line throughout the years — pig valves in human heart operations are the norm, for example, and human genes have been routinely used in agriculture for years now — scientists have recently been making broad and unsure steps forward in this domain. In 2003, human cells in rabbit eggs proved to be the first true animal-human hybrid. Mice with at least 1% human brains have already been bred, and it’s technically possible to go all the way to 100%. There’s talk of cultivating human embryos in laboratory mice, creating the potential for people with mice parents.
Don’t get PETA on me: the issue here is not about animal rights, or even particularly the truly confounding ethical issues Chimera raise. These hybrids are not animals, nor are they humans. They are both, and neither. They’re zombies. There are no laws yet set in place to deal with them.
Plenty of parallels could precociously be drawn between the postmodern fetishism for hybridity, you know, “thirdness,” and this kind of work: human-brain mice being concrete and fluffly examples of the righteousness of late 80’s academia, here to gnaw and lord over the world of scientific research, who, Frankenstein-style, has only figured out too late the inherent dichotomy-destroying nature of such work, its collapsing effect on the very dualistic structures of our hegemonic society.
Jacques Derrida, even though I hate the chump, wrote that things which have properties of both states of a supposed binary also have neither, and hence belong to a new order of things (he uses zombies, but here chimera seem relevant). These “Undecidables,” he aptly pointed out, are threatening. They destroy for us the comforting sense that we inhabit a world governed by decidable categories. My point, albeit vague, is that the Science Ethics Issues which will inevitably come all pitchfork and spade out of the woodwork in the next years will all be born, it seems to me, from this fear of the Undecidable.