Originally published in The American Reporter, Vol. 6, No. 1430 - - September 29, 2000
A WHITE RABBIT THAT GLOWS IN THE DARK
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- When Ecclesiastes wrote, "There is no new thing under the sun," he didn't know about Alba, the
albino rabbit who glows in the dark.
Alba is the creation of a Chicago artist named Eduardo Kac and a team of French genetic researchers. She thrills and terrifies
me in ways that even Dolly, the cloned sheep, couldn't do.
This mutant bunny is a DNA cross between a rabbit and a phosphorescent jellyfish; she glows only under ultraviolet light, the
kind they use at dance raves.
In a way, she sounds lovely; newspaper accounts emphasize her brightly glowing paws, whiskers, and especially, her green,
This kind of cross-breeding has been going on for some time; researchers regularly insert fluorescence into the tumors of
laboratory rats or mice, so they can study them without surgery.
Kac wanted a dog but settled for a rabbit. And Alba herself is not the work of art.
Alba is only part of "GFP Bunny," a "transgenic artwork" that includes, Kac said, "the creation of a green fluorescent rabbit,
the public debate generated by the project, and the social integration of the rabbit (in this case, in the context of my family.)"
(For more on Kac and his project, check out his website at www.ekac.org)
For the time being, Kac is in Chicago, where he is a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Alba remains
in France, because of the outrage caused by her existence.
Some of the things people question:
Is Alba happy glowing in the dark, or is she suffering? And how would we know?
What effect would she have on the ecosystem if she escaped?
Does Alba signal a return to Eugenics?
Or will we start creating "designer children?" (In India, for example, they test fetuses for gender and abort the females; that
seems, at least to me, much closer to designer children than creating colored rabbits, but no one protests too much -- they
chalk it up to "cultural diversity.")
Will we soon be creating mutant life forms, such as headless bodies to harvest for organs?
Have we already gone too far with genetic engineering, creating a kind of corn that kills Monarch butterflies and makes people
who eat supermarket taco shells sick, and "terminator" seeds, which grow plants but don't generate new seeds?
--- How is Alba different from the centuries-old tradition of breeding dogs, cows, horses and cats and investing them with
whatever traits (friendliness, beauty, milk production, etc. ) people consider "desirable" at the time?
Then, of course, there's the whole "Frankenstein" idea of hubris, of playing God.
Kac acknowledges all this. "Responsibility is key," he said.
Speaking of "Frankenstein," people are lining up to play the parts of terrified villagers who form mobs and wave torches.
The Boston Globe on Sept. 24 called Kac's bunny "rogue science" and editorialized, "The end does not justify the means."
What are Kac's intended ends? First, he wants to create a character at once lovable and alien, which society must confront.
"The artist makes it evident for the general public that molecular biology is not a rarefied language spoken by experts beyond
the reach of ordinary citizens," Kac said. Through accessible visual means, the work of the artist assists the general public in
understanding how close the consequences of the biotech revolution are to the individual."
He also wants to show that science is nothing more than a cultural entity dominated by the social views of a given period.
"Art that appropriates the methods of science is useful in revealing that the place of science is culture, that science is one
among several social agents, and that there is no 'truth,' only functional models," he said.
We -- humanity -- need to enter a public discussion on metaphysics, morality, aesthetics, religion and spirituality -- all the
immensely important topics touched upon by genetics.
For most of us, the mapping of the human genome was an exciting but arcane project that seemed miles removed from our
Although we quickly grasped that genetic research about our private DNA could identify a predisposition to cancer,
Alzheimer's and a host of other illnesses, we also grasped that it could mean the denial of medical coverage when those
illnesses manifested themselves.
See how quickly the discussion boiled down to the mundane? At least Kac has looked to the skies. He calls Alba a Chimera,
an imaginary creature brought to life.
"In this ambiguity, the physical and the imaginary are reconciled in their ceaseless interplay," he said.
Perhaps, Kac suggests, we could create new life forms that would be able to live on Mars?
Perhaps, I suggest, we could create political leaders who are not liars, panderers and murderers?
By the way, the scientist who made Alba said she has a "particularly mellow and sweet disposition."
This is especially interesting news, and it comes hard on the heels of information that Dolly, the above-mentioned cloned
sheep, is a publicity fiend. I learned that from a New York Times Magazine (Sept. 24) story by Charles Siebert called "An
Audience With Dolly: What, exactly, were we afraid of?"
Siebert gets close -- much closer than The Boston Globe editorial -- to the important issues here.
1"Dolly reminds us that we alone have the gift -- or is it a curse? -- of being able to look upon our fellow creatures and name
and shepherd and now even subtly reshape them... We have gone from being fearful wonderers at seemingly otherwordly,
unknowable phenomena, to fearful creators of them."
Alba reminds me of another white rabbit, one in a Jefferson Airplane song back in the 1960s.
It was first played on the radio the day of my first LSD trip.
New worlds and new ways of seeing the one we live in were opened to me that day, and I looked forward to spending my life
eagerly exploring them.
But in a very short time the drugs were banned, the doors of perception were angrily slammed shut, and a long age of
repression and hypocrisy was begun -- the very same one we live in today.
Our society is afraid of new ideas, challenges, growth, and progress. Every bit of its power is devoted to maintaining the status
So even though Kac's work thrills me and makes me hopeful, how much can one Day-Glo bunny do?
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.
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