November 20, 2018

A History of Monsters

“In 2003, a team of scientists in China managed to create embryos containing a mix of rabbit and human DNA. Most of the biological matter was human, while the rabbit DNA was present only in the mitochondria, the energy-generators of the cells. The aim was to try to find new ways of growing and harvesting the stem cells present in early human development, which were (and are) a promising avenue for medical study and treatment.

It wasn’t long, however, before controversy erupted over these so-called ‘chimeras’, as they were dubbed by some researchers. Were they human? What would happen if they were allowed to develop? Soon activists mobilised to restrict or quash the research. In 2005, the US outlawed patents on human embryos; in 2007, the Human-Animal Hybrid Prohibition Act was proposed in Congress (although ultimately it failed to pass into law). According to the bill, research into hybrids was said to compromise ‘human dignity and the integrity of the human species’. Pig heart transplants or the administration of animal-based insulin were acceptable, but the threat of potentially viable, cellular hybrids was too strong, despite the myriad social benefits it could yield.

These cells were very different in appearance to their mythological namesake, the chimeras of Greek mythology that possessed a lion’s head and body, a second goat’s head, and a serpent’s tail. Yet the rabbit-human embryos and the Ancient Greek image shared a deep similarity in the public imagination: they were both monsters.”

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