Those Who Dream by Night

The title and inspiration for this collection of short stories comes from the breathtakingly beautiful and bizarre works of one of my favorite artists, Patricia Piccinini.  She is best known for her hyperrealistic sculptures of human/animal hybrids and the results are nothing short of disturbing and gorgeous.  What is most unusual about her approach is her ambivalence to biotechnology.  Her work does not preach a point of view nor does it horrify by being overly grotesque.  She asks viewers difficult questions about our relationships with such advances by often placing her hybrid sculptures with figures of children, usually content or interested.  Her soft approach achieves an intellectual depth that other artists’ tend to lack because their point of view is so strident in their works and that leaves little room for discussion about how we may come to rely on or love such creatures.

As a biochemist I have long struggled with questions about the ethics of animal testing.  I have come to believe that testing on a limited number of simpler mammals, such as mice and rats, as well as lower organisms, such as insects and worms, is acceptable as long as it’s done with care and respect. One of the arguments in favor of such testing is that these creatures lack the ability to suffer due to their simplicity, which to a certain extent I agree with.  Suffering, in this context, as explained to me by my ethics professor, was not only the capacity to experience pain, but the ability to anticipate future pain, and thus be in constant distress over that anticipation.  Experimentation on higher order mammals, such as cats, dogs, and primates, I have never agreed with or ever endorsed.

However, what troubles me is the increasing number of experiments that seek to recreate aspects of human intelligence in animals like mice.  Ostensibly, our capacity for suffering comes from our vastly more complex brain structure, complexity that lower order mammals lack.  By striving to increase this complexity are we not then also increasing the potential capacity for suffering in these animals, causing an ethical paradox?

A 2007 paper in the American Journal of Bioethics [Greely et al., 2007 May; 7(5):27 – 40] discusses a proposed experiment that would seek to create a human neuron/mouse glial hybrid brain in a particular strain of mice (it was never implemented for technical, not ethical, reasons).  While discussing the ethical implications they laid out endpoints for the experiment which include:

“[d]isquieting or disturbing results at one stage should lead to discontinuance of the experiments pending further review of the ethical implications of those results. Such results could include the infliction of pain on the mice receiving the transplants, the formation of human-like structures in the mouse brains, or odd and possibly human-like behaviors by the mice.”

In other words, the mice would be terminated if they displayed “human-like behaviors”.  Although, to be fair, the mice were always going to be sacrificed in order to explore the results of the human neuron and mouse glial hybrid.  (For an explanation of the roles of neurons click here.  For an explanation of the roles of glial cells click here.)

In an article published by the Brookings Institute by James Boyle, the scientist contemplating this experiment was quoted as saying “if they [the mice] developed a mouse brain architecture, they would be used for research, but if they developed a human brain architecture or any hint of humanness, they would be killed.” [Boyle, James, 2011: The Future of the Constitution Series: No. 10 of 14]

What disturbs me most is not even the idea of the experiment but the casual disregard for potential sentient life and how that disregard ultimately reflects our regard for humanity.  Recent experiments have seen the introduction of human glial cells into mice and their subsequent increase in intelligence (you can read the full story at npr.org by clicking here).  What worries me is not that the area we are broaching is a slippery slope but rather, it is a sheer precipice, that once crossed we will find it impossible to climb back over.

What worries me most is the creation of a third class citizenry that will contain the capacity for human suffering but be covered only by the protections afforded animals under our current legal system.  I have no doubts that they will, at some point, be granted further legal protections but in between now and then I foresee them languishing, subjected to many indignities and unintentional cruelty.  And I worry what the impact will be on us, as their creators, users, potential abusers, and saviors.

What intrigues me about Ms. Piccinini’s work is how it motivated me to further explore my own thoughts and feelings about biotechnology and the beauty and horror that might come from it.    I’ve set most of my stories in the not too terribly distant future and will add them as I finish them.

You can visit Patricia Piccinini’s website by either going to my links page or by clicking here.

Mother’s Little Helpers, Inc.

This story was sparked by Patricia Piccinini’s sculpture titled Big Mother.  The creature is a baboon/human hybrid that is nursing a human baby.  It is stunning in its contrasts of strength, enormity, and alienness that somehow also incorporates gentleness and sadness.  I began to wonder if such a creature existed what would her life be like?  And how would she affect the humans who brought her into their home to care for their infant?  Try to imagine this creature in your own home, taking care of your children.  Disturbing, no?  Now try to imagine this creature intensely bonded to and caring about your children.  Imagine its complete dependence on you for its food, comfort, and care.  Disturbing in a completely different way.

You can read Patricia Piccinini’s explanation behind this work by clicking here.

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