The Downward Spiral: The Chimera Manifesto
This month, Dean discusses the embryonic monkey-human chimeras created by geneticists in California. It’s time to think again of what else we could be.
A couple weeks ago, El País reported that Juan Carlos Izpisúa Belmonte, of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Southern California, has been growing monkey-human embryos somewhere in China in collaboration with scientists from Murcia Catholic University, Spain. Crossing a monkey with a person doesn’t sound so Catholic to me, although Saint Peter Damian did often speak, in the 11th century, about an Italian lady who’d allegedly had a child with an ape, and may well have discussed the matter with Pope Alexander II.
Going back further, Classical Roman and Greek poetry and art was full of stories of people transforming into animals, often with unfortunate results, but sometimes wonderful ones. In mythology, a chimera is a monster made of two or more different animals. In science, it’s a biological anomaly in which a person (or any organism) contains two or more people within themselves, in the sense that they contain two or more sets of DNA capable of forming different individuals. Recently however scientists have discovered how to engineer such chimeras by collaging human stem cells into animal embryos, successfully constructing pig-human embryos at the Salk Institute in 2017, sheep-human embryos at the University of California in 2018, and now monkey-human embryos. In the late 1940s and 50s, when we were dreaming of exploring the universe and understanding all its mysteries, we sent monkeys into space. Today, when we’re more interested in ourselves, we send pieces of monkeys down into our genetic code.
In 2016, I interviewed artist Thomas Thwaites in his live-work loft space full of goat skeletons by London’s Borough Market. That summer, he’d tried to experience how it would feel to turn oneself into a goat by constructing an artificial rumen (the first ̑ of a goat’s four stomachs) for digesting grass, using transcranial magnetic stimulation to momentarily disrupt the part of his brain related to speech production, and building a prosthetic body and living with a Swiss goatherd in the Alps, which did sound rather blissful, for a few days. For him, becoming an animal was supposed to offer a respite from the existential terror of life. Only, as things turned out, Thwaites could not escape the prison of the human mind any better than the rest of us. “It was cold and wet and terrifying, going down steep Alpine slopes with loads of excited goats”, he said. “I don’t think I really had a moment of, ‘Ah, yes, freedom.’”
What happens if the stem cells escape and form human neurons in the brain of the animal? Would it have consciousness?
Though he never became a goat, he did become something more like a satyr, those half-goat, half-man woodland spirits and companions of Dionysus from classical mythology. They were, contrary to popular portrayal, sad country clowns, wise but miserable fellows that only drank and danced and pleasured themselves continuously as ways of leaving their reason and consciousness behind. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche (who happens to be, along with Schopenhauer, Belmonte the geneticist’s favourite philosopher) tells a story from a fragment of Aristotle’s lost text Eudemus, as recounted by Plutarch, about King Midas hunting a satyr named Silenus in the woods. When he finally caught him, Midas asked him what men should most desire and, after much cajoling, was told, “Oh, wretched ephemeral race, children of chance and misery, why do ye compel me to tell you what it were most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all is beyond your reach forever: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you – is quickly to die.” Needless to say, we haven’t listened to Silenus. We’re not growing chimeras because we’d like to die sooner, but rather because we wish to live forever. The professed goal of Belmonte and co.’s experiments is to grow human organs and tissue inside of animals for use in transplants; new hearts for when our own explode.
Chimeras are a transhumanist fantasy, and such fantasies are increasingly popular among the wealthy and tightly woven into Silicon Valley ideology. Through technological and scientific innovation, the story goes, we can give ourselves the powers of gods: not only to be creators of new lifeforms, but also to live forever ourselves. These modern chimeras are a vault towards the posthuman that also reaches back to ancient mythology; like so much of contemporary culture, they’re caught in a limbo that mixes old folklore with the latest technology. They’re magical beings brought to life by science. Now governments in the United States, Spain, China, Japan and elsewhere are funding research into their production on a grand scale: for his first set of chimera experiments, Belmonte was given a Spanish farm of 9,000 pigs and spent four years injecting stem cells into around 2,000 embryos before he was successful.
For thousands of years, the appearance of a chimera has been an omen for disaster. The new kind was first made in America in 2017, a year of disasters. They could well become disasters themselves. “The spectre of an intelligent mouse stuck in a laboratory somewhere screaming ‘I want to get out,’” ethicist David Resnik warned the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences back in 2015, “would be very troubling to people”. Likewise, John De Vos, director of the Department of Cell and Tissue Engineering at Montpellier University Hospital and Medical School in France, has cautioned that, “It would be horrible to imagine a form of human consciousness locked in the body of an animal”, and I guess he’s probably right, but it’s also something I dreamed of as a child. And aren’t so many of the best children’s stories, movies and video games about a form of human consciousness locked in the body of an animal? Couldn’t that also be what our dreams of flying are about? Myself, I’ve often thought that I’d have a more interesting life if I was the same person only in the body of a falcon, or perhaps a jaguar, living somewhere like the Bois de Vincennes or Central Park.
To build a chimera on laboratory-farm in the Chinese countryside is to take our evolution into our own hands. So far, although it’s already legal to do so in some of the countries where this research is taking place, no chimeric embryos have been brought to term, but this will surely change, and their story will really become interesting when they’re released from their bardo to grow up and surprise us. The next stages of their lives are completely uncharted. Nobody knows what will happen, and these experiments are hard to control because it’s hard to restrict cell growth to just one particular organ of interest. “What happens”, Doctor Ángel Raya, director of Barcelona’s Center of Regenerative Medicine, has asked, “if the stem cells escape and form human neurons in the brain of the animal? Would it have consciousness? And what happens if these stem cells turn into sperm cells?” which are not only ethical dilemmas but would also make a fantastic concept for an anime film. These experiments aren’t just about healthcare, but also about the philosophical concept of being human. What is a person anyway? If you place 1,000 monkeys in a room with 1,000 Crispr kits, will they eventually re-enact Ovid’s Metamorphoses? Will they design a Body without Objects?
There are many reasons to want to become an animal. Proclaiming, in 1929, the importance of embracing anger rather than succumbing to intellectual despair, Georges Bataille wrote that, “Against the half-measures, the evasions, the ravings, which betray great poetic powerlessness, one can oppose nothing but a black rage and an unspeakable bestiality. There is no other way to act than like a pig, guzzling in the dung and the mud, rooting with its snout, its repugnant voracity unstoppable.” Acting like a pig could be a form of protest, but also, as he suggested elsewhere, a path towards experiencing greater sexual pleasure by allowing our thoughts to intermingle with more bestial sensations: another of his hypotheses was that during sex the mouth should be lowered to the level of the arsehole, because a spiritual axis connects the eyes to the mouth, and a biological axis the mouth to the anus, and only, he wrote, when those axes are closely aligned might words and bestial sounds intermingle harmoniously and become one. I’m sure that people were wearing cat’s ears and the like and roleplaying as animals in the bedroom in Bataille’s day, but now we have a fully developed furry subculture that’s motivated not only by a desire for sexual gratification, but also, like so much else today, by a desire to express oneself. Many of us enjoy shapeshifting into animals through augmented-reality apps on our phones. Soon we’ll be able to take the next step and really change what we are: entwining our genetic code with animals will allow for all kinds of new kinks, radical cosmetic surgery procedures and whole new chimeric identities.
Towards the end of his life, in 1955, Bataille observed that very few human beings appear in cave art, and those that do are often shown with animal heads. The first painters, he wrote, “effaced the aspects of the world of which their face is the sign”. We arrived in a world full of animals and imagined ourselves mixed into them. In the hundreds of thousands of years since, reality has been destabilised and the boundaries between things blurred. It’s time, once again, to think of what else we could be. If you wish to live free with the goats in Arcadian bliss, you might just have to splice yourself with a goat. If you’re disgusted by summer in the city, why not become a snorting pig that adores hot heaps of trash? If you really love your dog, or your cat, take them to La Jolla and have your blood mixed with their embryos, start a family together, become one with them. The next Joseph Beuys might be half-coyote, howling under the Blue Moon, or a snow crane flapping over the Siberian plains. When we go dancing our butts should flash green like fireflies in the woods. We’re combining ourselves with animals and the possibilities are both nightmarish and dreamlike. We could become mythical beings ourselves. We could live like the old pagan animal gods, or the monkey king. The human body might just be a revolting larva waiting to become a butterfly. Don’t you wonder what that would feel like?
DEAN KISSICK is a writer based in New York and a contributing editor for Spike. A new installment of The Downward Spiral will be published online every second Wednesday a month. Last time he went to Norway and wrote about Wittgenstein.