Dazzled by the science
Biologists who dress up hi-tech eugenics as a new art form are dangerously deluded
Recently, J Craig Venter, the gene scientist whose company, Celera Genomics,
led the race to map the human genome, announced a plan to create the first
artificial life form in a laboratory dish. Venter, who has teamed up with
the Nobel laureate biologist Hamilton Smith, says he hopes to use a $3m US
government grant to create partially man-made organisms that could produce
hydrogen for fuel or break down carbon dioxide from power plant emissions.
Other scientists worry that Venter's creation could wreak havoc on natural
ecosystems or be used to create new kinds of biological weapons.
Venter is among a new genre of biologists who see themselves less as
engineers and more as creative artists - designers and architects of what
they envision as a "second genesis" - this one inspired not by divine
guidance or by the forces of evolution, but by the human imagination.
Ironically, this subtle shift in the focus of the biological sciences from
"engineering" to "art" is being mirrored in the art community, raising the
question of whether a new social gestalt is being readied to make acceptable
this radical new manipulation of nature.
All of a sudden, artists around the world have discovered DNA and are
feverishly at play in their studios using the cutting-edge tools of
biotechnology. An American artist, Eduardo Kac, commissioned a team of
geneticists in France to create a transgenic rabbit named Alba with a
fluorescent gene from a jellyfish in its biological code. The rabbit, which
glows, is considered a living piece of genetic artistry. Currently, an
exhibit entitled Genesis is touring the US with much fanfare. Like Kac's
illuminated rabbit, many of the works on display use the tools of genetic
science to create living representations just as their predecessors used
paintbrushes to create their representations. A group calling itself the
Critical Art Ensemble engages in a performance piece called GenTerra, in
which it releases transgenic bacteria into the audience. Christiane Paul, the
curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art says: "We are witnessing the
emergence of a new type of artist, the artist/scientist/researcher."
The new biotech artists say that such exhibits will help the public wrestle
with the scientific, ethical and legal issues surrounding the new genomic
science. Many of the artists hope that their work, which includes digitally
produced portrait photographs of hybrid cat people and tubes of real DNA
suspended from the ceiling, will provoke an emotional response from the
audience and force people to think about the many implications of the new
But it's far more likely that the real consequence of such art exhibits will
be to legitimise the idea of a new "artful" eugenics movement. The melding
together of genetic science and artistic expression could help ease the way
to a popular acceptance of Venter's new microbe, as well as cloned,
transgenic and chimeric animals and designer babies. More than 30 years ago,
Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg wrote expectantly of the possibility of
designing "a useful protein from first premises, replacing evolution by
art". Recombinant DNA techniques are increasingly being viewed as the
"artist's" tools of the postmodern era. With the new technologies, human
beings assume the role of creative artists, continually transforming
evolution into works of art.
Already in laboratories around the world researchers are creating new hybrid
creatures that have never before existed. Scientists have fused together the
embryos of a sheep and goat, two totally unrelated species, and given birth
to a new creature called a Geep, a chimeric animal with the head of a sheep
and the body of a goat. The anti-freeze gene in a flounder fish has been
inserted into the genetic code of a tomato plant, to make it resistant to
freezes. Human growth hormone genes, the human immune system and even human
brain tissue have been inserted into the genetic blueprint of mice embryos.
The mature mice express these human genes in their bodies. The mice with the
human growth hormone genes grew twice as big as ordinary mice. Scientists
have even grown human skin, pancreases and breasts in laboratory jars.
Other scientists have inserted the nucleus of a human cell into a cow egg
whose own nucleus was removed in a partially successful effort to create a
quasi-human embryo. Spider genes have been inserted into goat embryos and
the mature goats produce spider silk in their milk. And Japanese scientists
have just announced that they are planning to use tissue from the legs and
testicles of a dead mammoth to clone the extinct creature and "display" it
at an ice age wildlife park in Siberia. Are these "beings" works of
engineering, or works of art?
In their near limitless possibilities to reconstruct and reinvent the body,
move DNA across species boundaries, erase the genetic past and pre-program
the genetic future, the new geneticists bring the biology of life squarely
in line with the new protean spirit. Life, long thought of as God's
handiwork, and more recently viewed as a random process guided by the
"invisible hand" of natural selection, is now reimagined as an artistic
medium. Freeman Dyson writes: "It is impossible to set any limit to the
variety of physical forms that life may assume. It is conceivable that in
another 1,010 years, life could evolve away from flesh and blood and become
embodied in an interstellar black cloud ... or in a sentient computer.
A growing number of people already see themselves - their very corporeal
being - as the ultimate work of art, a continually metamorphosing "project",
taking on new shapes, forms and attributes. The widespread popularity of
cosmetic surgery, psychotropic mood-enhancement drugs and personal therapies
of all kinds are a reflection of the new sense of self as an unfinished work
By masquerading as artistic tools, genetic engineering technologies create
the illusion that the new era somehow represents a creative renaissance of
sorts. Rather, the new technologies threaten to smother the artistic
sensibility altogether. Art historian Lewis Mumford reminds us, "is
essentially an expression of love, in all of its many forms ... in contrast
to technics, which is mainly concerned with the enlargement of human power".
Genetic engineering represents the ultimate enlargement of human power.
Making decisions over what genes to insert, recombine or delete in an effort
to alter, transform and redesign oneself is less an artistic expression
then, and more a technological prescription. It is not art, but artifice.
Now that we can begin re-engineering ourselves, we mistakenly think of the
new technological manipulation as a creative act, when in reality it is
merely a set of choices created in a laboratory and purchased in the
marketplace. The biotech revolution is the ultimate consumer playground,
offering us the freedom to recast our own biological endowment and the rest
of nature to suit whatever whim might move us. More importantly, the new
genetic technologies grant us a godlike power to select the biological
futures of the many beings who come after us. This is a new and dangerous
form of hi-tech eugenics whose cold engineering edge has been softened by
the guise of artful expression. Beware of Venter's new creations. They may
be less a harbinger of a second renaissance and more a reflection of the
"brave new world" that Aldous Huxley warned of more than 70 years ago.
Jeremy Rifkin is the author of The Biotech Century (Victor Gollancz, 1998)