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Why create human-animal hybrids and chimeras?

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I imagine the most common question in discussions of creating animal-human hybrids is "why do it?" Julian Savulescu wrote an article for the American Journal of Bioethics addressing this question. He assents that there may be questionable motives - "commercial exploitation of 'freaks'; artistic motivation...or curiosity, just to see what it is like" (22). But he also discusses reasons that are more difficult to dismiss.

Medical purposes: Studying oncogenesis, as source of stem cells, or combining our genes with those of a species resistant to certain diseases

Delay aging or prolong human life: Could we incorporate turtle genetic sequences into our own to reduce telomere degradation?

Enhance human capabilities: Incorporate an elephant's memory genes, an owl's night vision, or a bat's ability to navigate in the dark.

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.

Quick hit: the indifference engine

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science fiction museumMcLeod, Ken. “The indifference engine: how science fiction contributes to the public understanding of science, and how it doesn’t.” Extrapolation 51.1 (Spring 2010): 170.

In this article, McLeod examines why written science fiction (sf) is expected to contribute to public understanding of science. After all, he argues, “[w]e don't ask of westerns that they contribute to the public understanding of American history.” His answer, drawn partly from the work of Gary Westfahl and Hugo Gernsback, is that sf as a genre contains, by definition, scientific fact—it's one of three elements: charming romance/thrilling adventure, scientific fact, and prophetic vision.

Another important aspect that “makes written sf distinctive as a genre is its relationship to its subject matter and to its core readership.” Fans of written sf expect real science and are able to identify scientific errors. McLeod believes this does not hold true for fans of “media sf”: films, TV, and games. These fans tend to be much less bothered by, and indeed less knowledgeable about, scientific errors.

McLeod concludes thus:

“the very minimum that written sf does is to popularize the rhetoric of science, and make the language of science familiar to the reader. It valorizes and validates interest in science, and stimulates thought about the consequences of discoveries and of new applications of science. But I would go further than that, and claim that science fiction is the only form of literature that takes seriously, and communicates in a popular form, the greatest scientific discovery of all: that the universe we inhabit is vast, ancient, and indifferent.”

A noble distinction, to be sure.



Photo of the Science Fiction Museum via Flickr user adactio, creative commons.

Lit review: The Cinematic Life of the Gene: Chapter 1

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CLG-cover.jpg

Stacey, Jackie. The Cinematic Life of the Gene. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

Chapter 1: The Hell of the Same: Cloning, Baudrillard, and the Queering of Biology

This chapter is a close reading of Jean Baudrillard's writing on cloning, largely pulling from his 2002 work Screened Out. Using what Stacey calls his "discursive excess" (20), Baudrillard argues that the specter of cloning threatens to reverse evolution and annihilate that which makes our species successful: sexual difference. He positions cloning as a yearning to revert back to our "primitive" beginnings as self-replicating, undifferentiated single-celled organisms, erasing "the greatest revolution in the history of living beings," sexual reproduction (25).

Baudrillard describes this evolutionary step as the real sexual revolution. Further, he argues that the "sexual liberation"—that of birth control, feminism, and queer theory— is completely opposed to the evolutionary sexual revolution. Through its embrace of sameness, "[s]exual liberation, the so-called crowning achievement of the evolution of sexed forms of life, marks, in its full consequences, the end of the sexual revolution" (33). Stacey writes that Baudrillard "elevates heterosexuality to the foundational cornerstone of civilization" (30) and believes "[f]eminism and genetic engineering are united in their mission to undo the basic foundations of nature and culture and to dislodge sexual difference as the cornerstone of civilization" (33). Baudrillard's writing and the larger "genetic imaginary" show a "profound anxiety about the destabilization of sexual difference as the cornerstone of culture and about the introduction of unnatural forms which separate sexuality, reproduction, procreation, and kinship" (33).

Lit review: The Politics of Science Fiction

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saab.jpgRowley, Christina. "The Politics of Science Fiction." International Feminist Journal of Politics 7:2, June 2005, 319-327.

Another article in support of more scholarship on the interaction between popular culture and politics. In reviewing recent scholarly collections analyzing science fiction/fantasy television and film, Rowley notes the slow but steady legitimization of pop culture objects in many areas of academia as scholars acknowledge that "the popular is political" (320). Fiction can help develop critical thinking skills and create new discursive spaces. Rowley quotes Henry Giroux as saying, "art can contribute to constructing public spaces that expand the possibilities for...political agency, democratic relations and social justice" (320).

Rowley writes that the collections she reviewed "reject the notion that popular culture merely reflects society. As [Jutta] Weldes argues, 'SF is not just a "window" onto an already pre-existing world. Rather, SF texts are part of the processes themselves'" (325).

Lit review: The Cinematic Life of the Gene: Introduction

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CLG-cover.jpgAs I work through secondary sources, I'll post short summaries or key points as a way to share how they are informing my research.

Stacey, Jackie. The Cinematic Life of the Gene. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

In the Introduction, Stacey argues that the cinema has proven especially adept at exploring the fears and possibilities surrounding genetic engineering, in part because they are "both technologies of imitation" that "seek to imitate life" (7). Cinema is an art form that can visualize the invisible and create images to analyze the unseeable processes of genetics.

Stacey sees three main areas of cultural anxiety around genetic engineering, mirrored by the three complementary desires leading us to pursue them (10-11):

Desires:

  1. "To imitate life"
  2. "To secure identity as legible through screening technologies"
  3. "To anchor embodied difference by making it stable, predictable, and visible"

Anxieties:

  1. "The separation of sexuality from reproduction;" "the detraditionalization of heterosexual reproduction and the queering of biological processes;" the loss of autonomy/individuality
  2. "Identity theft and genetic impersonation;" the repositioning of kinship
  3. "The destabilization of traditional markers of difference and privilege" (e.g., race, ability)

In their own way, all of the films Stacey analyzes in the book are "preoccupied with this paradox: the impossibility of seeing someone's genes despite the ubiquitous presence of genetic discourse" (11).