Human-animal hybrid literature review

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If "science fiction is the dress rehearsal for social change" (Vint 181), what this genre has to say about human-animal hybridity will not only allow us as individual readers to examine our views on genetic hybrids and chimeras, but it will also become an important foundation for the ethical and moral discussions of society as a whole. The time for these discussions is ripe; the last decade has seen increasing research in the creation of chimeras (a product of two species in which the genes do not combine) and hybrids (each cell contains genetic material from both parents).

These conversations are taking place within bioethical and philosophical journals, but they are also playing out between literary scholars. The five articles I analyzed talk about what it means to be on the cusp of creating beings that occupy the space between human and animal, each calling on literature to ground their arguments in our culture.

In "Primate Tales," Aline Ferreira considers three fictional texts that portray human-primate hybrids. She argues that our view of fixed species boundaries is as much cultural as biological, and that scientific definitions of species vary. However, we still "rely on the notion of fixed species identities in the way we live our lives and treat other creatures" (Ferreira 223). That, according to Ferreira, is where fictional texts come in. The fuzzy boundaries between human and animal explored in these works challenge our certainty in species hierarchies and condense the margin between "us and them." Teresa Heffernan picks up on this, pointing out that genetic hybrids break the linear reproductive model, leaving no "unity of ancestor" (Heffernan 118). She also examines xenotransplantation as a loss of identity: how many parts from other beings can we incorporate into our body before fundamentally changing who we are?

Ferreira examines not only the product (the hybrids themselves) but also the creation. In her view, the intention behind the creation has bearing on the moral rightness of the act. She is also asserts that much depends on the position of the woman in these scenarios. In cases like that dramatized in Charis Cussins's story "Confessions of a Bioterrorist," in which a woman chooses to become pregnant with a bonobo embryo, are these new possibilities empowering to women? If so, what are the race and class dimensions? Ferreira is well aware that our society has a history of treating low-income women and women of color as test subjects in reproductive medicine. Sherryl Vint adds more dimensions to this discussion. She analyzes a Bruce McAllister story ("The Girl Who Loved Animals") in which an abused woman with an IQ of 84 agrees to become the surrogate mother of a mountain gorilla. This character can be contrasted with the character in Cussins's story, who is an upper-class white scientist creating this opportunity for herself.

Susan Squier situates her discussion of race and gender within the seventeenth and eighteenth century beliefs in a "chain of being" which arranged not only species, but human races within a hierarchy. She compares the "colonial desire" concept from racial theory ("a covert but insistent obsession with transgressive, inter-racial sex, hybridity and miscegenation") with "xenogenic desire" between species. Discussing literature's usefulness in understanding this concept, she writes, "literature is one of the most powerful sites of the articulation of desire, precisely because - functioning like Freud's concept of 'negation' - literature can give expression to desire while simultaneously deauthorizing it as 'only fiction'" (Squier 365). Following Freud's theory, she argues that the very act of drawing boundaries between species using taxonomy gives rise to the desire to transgress these boundaries.

This leads to an interesting contrast between these five articles: whether the authors chose to focus on the desire of xenogenetics or the horror. Squier and Ferreira both mention the desire and the possibility of empowerment in transgression, whereas the other authors stay away from this territory. Part of the reason for this is the literature they choose for context. Squier and Ferreira both step deliberately into postmodern fiction, while the others focus their analysis largely within modern fiction. Squier, Clayton, Heffernan, and Ferreira all invoke two well-known modern novels: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as a point of origin for literature's discussion of this scientific impulse to create hybrids and H. G. Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau as touch point for the narrative of surgical xenogenesis gone wrong. However, from these horror-laden beginnings, Squier and Ferreira shift their focus to postmodern literature where, Squier points out, an important change has taken place. In works such as Gor Saga, the hybrid character is actually given a voice and a narrative role. Whereas Frankenstein's monster and Dr. Moreau's Beast People are objects in their modernist narratives, characters like Gor get to take part in telling their own story. Squier describes this as a shift "from modernist fear of hybrids to postmodern fascination" (Squier 370). Heffernan does not focus on the modern/postmodern signifiers, and sees more similarity between Shelley's time and ours, asserting that it was written in a time that, like ours, was "witnessing a revolution in the understanding of what it is to be human" (Heffernan 121).

Jay Clayton agrees with the rest of these authors that literature is a good way to examine society's dilemmas, including current arguments about interspecies genetic experiments. However, he takes this belief further than the others. He advocates for scholars of literature and other humanities to be key players in making policy decisions about such ethical gray areas as creating hybrids and chimeras. His argument is that "public perceptions of science play a large role in the policy-making process" and that the absence of humanities scholars from these discussions "skews the resulting image of culture" (Clayton 570). He cites guidelines rendered by the Institute of Medicine that the creation of human-animal hybrids and chimeras should be forbidden. Their decision, Clayton points out, was based on "two concerns, both of which Wells anticipated in The Island of Dr. Moreau - the possibility that chimeras might breed and the risk of enhancing nonhuman intelligence" (570).

Although four of these authors invoke the ubiquitous Donna Haraway and her theoretical work on cyborgs (as do most scholars in this field), Vint is the only one who discusses science fiction moving away from cyborg identity theory to focus more on our kinship with animals. Vint asserts that science fiction literature that creates new roles for animals (human-animal hybrids being just one example) will force us more and more to examine our treatment of animals, from pharmaceutical testing to factory farms. She writes that interspecies concourse like xenotransplantation "requires that we hold the contradictory beliefs that animals are sufficiently like humans to provide useful biological matter, yet sufficiently unlike us that their slaughter in these pursuits in not an ethical issue" (Vint 178, emphasis in original). Heffernan also speaks to this dissonance when writing about how our attempts to merge with animals genetically can make us feel more separate from them morally. She calls it "domination through assimilation" and writes that "in the process of the assimilation of the 'non-human,' the hierarchical divide between it and humanity is sustained" (Heffernan 128). Vint invokes sci-fi's talent for fostering our "sympathetic imagination" and sees it as a necessary accompaniment to the scientific and philosophical discussions surrounding human-animal hybrids.

These five authors offer vital insight into current research on hybrids and chimeras, and they all situate speculative literature at the leading edge of our discussions of the space between human and animal. Whether new options for interspecies reproduction will be an opportunity for women to subvert dominant culture (as in Cussins's "Confessions of a Bioterrorist"), for humanity to reinforce its domination over nature (as in Gor Saga, Frankenstein, and Dr. Moreau), or for humans to express their connections to animals (as in "The Girl Who Loved Animals"), we can be sure that science fiction will have a deep impact on how our culture reacts. As Nancy Kress put it, "In the world's laboratories, science rehearses advances in theory and application. In fiction, SF writers rehearse the human implications of those advances" (qtd. in Vint 181).

  • Clayton, Jay. "Victorian Chimeras, or, What Literature Can Contribute to Genetics Policy Today." New Literary History 38 (2007): 569-591.
  • Ferreira, Aline. "Primate Tales: Interspecies Pregnancy and Chimerical Beings." Science Fiction Studies 35 (2008): 223-237.
  • Hefferman, Teresa. "Bovine Anxieties, Virgin Births, and the Secret of Life." Cultural Critique 53 (2003): 116-133.
  • Squier, Susan. "Interspecies Reproduction: Xenogenic Desire and the Feminist Implications of Hybrids." Cultural Studies 12.1 (1998): 360-381.
  • Vint, Sherryl. "'The Animals in That Country': Science Fiction and Animal Studies." Science Fiction Studies 35 (2008): 177-188.

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