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Monday, February 6, 2012

Bio-Art: The Young Family.

Blurring the boundaries between humans and other animals is one of my favorite things in the world. If, however, such a practice became common, it would not be the cute and fuzzy utopia that the furries would probably like. Mixing human and animal nonetheless remains a very popular theme in art and culture, as it has for thousands of years. Only recently, however, has that combination been so close we could almost look in its eyes.

The Young Family, a sculpture by Patricia Piccinini, pushes the Uncanny Valley so hard that it has been featured on those "real or fake" pop-up ads alongside the bully whippet. It features a transgenic creature - or, rather, a family of transgenic creatures. (The artist herself mentions pigs; I for one see more dog in them.) Piccinini claims to have an ambivalent stance regarding technology. The Young Family was made to spark discussion. No time to start that like the present.

First of all, allow me to praise the artist for her choice on adding canine traits (mostly the ears) to her hybrids. Dogs are the creatures that illicit the most sympathy from humans. We already dress dogs up in people clothes and buy them birthday cakes. Had she chosen a pig, frog, or rodent (which are more common model organisms than dogs), the sculpture probably would not have had the same effect. Props.

Regardless of the animal used, the sculpture touches upon a very real issue: Science will create hybrids like the dog-family above. This is not an "if." Science will create fertile human-animal hybrids because it can. We've already engineered bacteria to make insulin and mice to have human immune systems.It is only a matter of time before we make all-out parahumans.

If human-animal hybrids became a reality, organ transplants would become a lot easier. There could be many a medical advance made by harvesting bodily fluids, organs, and so forth from not-quite-human chimeras and hybrids. There is no way science will not do this. People who have relatives with diseases that can only be cured by human tissue replacement will do whatever they can to get that person cured.

Parahumans like The Young Family open a whole new can of worms. Modern culture has placed a special label on humanity. Once the human species starts getting blurred, what will legislation do to the hybrids in labs? A lot of people would say that it depends on if the resulting hybrids are self-aware or not, but no matter where you stand, this will evolve into a slippery slope. If we can give human-dog hybrids human rights, soon, people will insist that mice with human immune systems are human enough for rights.

Oh, by the way,  the U.S. in particular has a bad rap for not giving humans basic rights. Gay marriage comes to mind. This blog alone should be proof that I am not sub-human. Whether I should be on par with a dog-human hybrid or not is up to you.

As the artist herself put it, "These are not simple issues with easy answers: It is one thing to talk about an idea and another to be confronted by the emotional reality of a creature, and yet another to be in need of what that creature might provide." Seriously, discuss below.


  1. Now see, here's where we get into some...shall we say, tricky territory. With advances in science allowing us to do things "just because we can", moral ambiguity seems to be less and less of an issue with this kind of research; if it can serve such and such a purpose, the actual moral ramifications and implications are either ignored or outright scorned. Just look at stem cell research, for example; in order to justify what really is a morally complicated situation, the definition of what defines a life changes back and forth to simplify it for the sake of a utility of the process. Considering that these parahumans WOULD be useful for outright organ harvesting, how long do you think it would take to classify them as "not really alive" to get those organs to save people.

    And, as we've discussed, human societies are not terribly good at tolerating differences. Not just America, every country on Earth would have its share of detractors and opposition to such people, and it'd be like District 9 in a flat second. Until we can get past these two problems, the parahuman equation isn't one we need to solve JUST yet.

    1. No, we do not need to solve it yet...but soon. It would be nice to have legislation for something like this in place before it happens.

  2. It would be really great if someone would come up with a way to grow organs without enclosing them in an animal that would have to be sacrificed. But we'll still have to deal with the issue of human rights for transgenic creatures. I would not want to be the guy in the lab when that young one starts talking.

    1. Well, it is possible to grow things like ears on mice and meat on organic scaffolding. Organs can't be far behind, but they tend to have more requirements than simple tissues. You also have to worry about rejection, etc.

    2. Sounds like it may take at least a dozen different research teams to solve that one. Or more?