Identity Essay: Are We Not Men? (Fine Art Year Two. April 2010)


Towards the hybrid future: animal-human identity in the transgenic world.

With this essay, I intend to examine the animal-human interface as it relates to our identity as human beings. I will argue that the supposed difference between human and animal has become vanishingly small, that this divide was largely artificial and has been eroded through increased human understanding, from Darwin’s theory of evolution to biotechnology today. I will be drawing on legal and scientific source material, as well as works of art and art theory, as I believe that -while artists are posing and responding to questions in this area- it is the scientific research and legal definitions that will ultimately decide how these changes affect us in our day-to-day lives. Within these wider contexts, I will be looking at changing human attitudes towards our own animality, the idea of becoming-animal put forward by Deleuze and Guattari, human anxiety over the animal-human interface and also the so-called mouse-with-a-human-ear, which I believe represents a powerful symbol of the issues surrounding animal-human identity in the transgenic world of biotechnology.

Christopher Cox notes that ‘we are fond of our species and the rung on the ladder we still imagine ourselves to inhabit’ (Cox 2005: 24). The rung he is referring to is, of course, the top one. Whether we believe that this position is the result of God’s will or having ‘won’ the evolutionary contest, we still place ourselves at the peak of an Aristotelian scale where perfection is found in the human male (Cox: 19). Mark Dion’s 1994 work, Scala Natura, represents this traditional hierarchical view. Interestingly, the bust on the top step of the installation could be interpreted as representing only the idea of man or human, rather than the sex or the species itself, and its material gives it more in common with the man-made objects at the bottom of the scale than the representations of the living things between. There has always been a marked androcentrism in this hierarchy, man as master, man as driver of our evolutionary development (see Elaine Morgan’s book The Descent of Woman for an alternative view), though at least woman is no longer seen as a ‘deformed male’ as Aristotle had it (Cox: 21). If anything, our understanding of embryonic development suggests that the male is the deformed one.

In 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species through Natural Selection and the discourse surrounding the place of humanity in God’s creation was altered forever. What people often forget, particularly as we still find it difficult not to see our species as the completion of the evolutionary project, is that ‘not only did Darwin eliminate the boundaries between the species; he also flattened the ancient hierarchy’ (Cox: 20) -he kicked down Aristotle’s scala natura, which is why Mark Dion’s has a symbol at the top. The theory of evolution put humanity back among the beasts of the field and, as Nietzsche has it, transformed all our supposedly unique gifts -the things that made so obviously different and superior to animals- into the mere ‘means by which weaker, less robust individuals preserve themselves -since they have been denied the chance to wage the battle for existence with horns or with… sharp teeth’ (Cox: 18). Even though Darwin’s theory has been used to justify the superiority of humanity over the animals and even of sections of humanity over the rest of it, the living outcomes around us are not a drive towards greater complexity or representative of a steady advancement, they are merely the response of species to the static and changing environment around them (Simmons 2006: 49).

Human and animal identity has been intimately entangled for as long as there has been a concept such as ‘identity’. Humans, however, are in the apparently unique position of being able to discuss the various constructions of identity, including that of ‘every dumb creature’ as the Californian legal definition of animals would have it (Vining 2008: 53). In considering the Genesis creation story from the Bible, the historian Erica Fudge, argues that ‘it is as if the animals had no identity… without Adam… [through] their inability to name themselves’ (Fudge 2002: 13). For Adam, we can read human. In examining animal identity, whether one is a scientist, an artist or a lawyer, it is important to remember that it is humans who have created this identity. Artists who work with the animal as their subject are ‘aware that the animal itself can never be portrayed, only our notion of what it is’ (Schneider 2004: 5).

For most of the time, for most of us, a simple dichotomy is enough: we generally accept that there is a clear line between what is a human and what is an animal. However, humans are aware that we share many characteristics with the animals, particularly mammals and even more particularly the primates, enough to recognise that ‘we are surely a kind of animal’, although throughout history we ‘have spent an enormous amount of time and intellectual energy convincing ourselves that we are something different’ (Cox: 18). The philosopher Giorgio Agamben ‘outlines how central the definition of “non-human animals” is to our own existence. In short, what make us human is simply that we are not animals’ (Thompson, J. 2005: 9). It is perhaps significant that animal studies now has a greater presence in the mainstream humanities than it did in the 1990s (Baker 1993, 2001: ix), suggesting that human-animal relationships (of all types) are taken more seriously outside of a scientific context than previously.

Philosophically, a very important concept when looking at the human-animal identity interface is that of ‘becoming-animal’, developed by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, first in their book, Kafka (1975), and then at greater length in 1980’s A Thousand Plateaus. Steve Baker describes ‘becoming-animal’ as ‘a particularly complex example of philosophical thought about the relation of humans and animals’ (Baker 2000: 102). To try and explain it in simple -even crude- terms, ‘becoming-animal’ is not a literal transformation but rather taking on a similarity of action or sensation, ‘[destabilising] the strict boundaries modernity established between humanity and the animal kingdom’ (Thompson, N. 2005: 8). Deleuze and Guattari saw becoming as being useful for politically subversive purposes, using it to question and resist established authorities (Baker 2000: 104), effectively becoming a minority. This is an interesting thought in the light of Peter Singer’s idea, from his book Animal Liberation (1975) that our treatment of animals, on the basis of a perceived difference that only we can define, might be a form of racism (Thompson, N. 2005: 11), and taken to a logical conclusion by Joseph Beuys who maintained that he was trying to speak up for the animals, on the grounds that they could not speak up themselves (Adams 1992: 30).

Becoming is an alternative way of looking at things and of experiencing the world, intended to open up new possibilities. This is not confined to the philosophical or artistic realms, but has found its way into discussions on the legal rights and position of animals, where it obviously has implications for the relative positions of humans and animals.

Joseph Vining, in his talk at the University of Michigan entitled Human Identity: The Question Presented by Human-Animal Hybridization, is clearly in the same territory as Deleuze and Guattari (even if he is neither directly referencing their work, nor even aware of their conceptualisations) when he suggests that legal frameworks should ‘move away from the basic human/ animal dichotomy, and… begin thinking and talking in other, more evocative terms… Hierarchy might be tilted even if it is never reversed, perhaps it would not be such a bad thing to be more like elephants or dolphins’. This legalistic becoming-animal, while altering the parameters of lawful and acceptable treatment of animals, might also lead to ‘their [the animals] opening to us… new perceptions and new realities’ (Vining: 56-57). An interesting perspective, and one that ties in with Deleuze and Guattari’s declaration that the alternatives offered by becoming-animal are ‘somehow proposed by the animal‘ (his emphasis) (Baker 2000: 102).

Becoming-animal offers an immediate, non-biological hybridity by breaking down the barriers between static category types. By allowing movement and exchange in either direction, it effectively erases the separation between all things and makes them interconnected. While this is meant to be liberating, it is at the same time frightening (Thompson, N: 8). The process works both ways and means that once-reliable category types are no longer stable; there is cause for anxiety. While Deleuze and Guattari are not proposing that becoming-animal will lead to the appearance of Moreau’s Beast Folk, the boundary at the interface of human-animal identity has been eroded by scientific discovery, even before the advent of gene manipulation and other forms of biotechnology: metaphorical has the potential to become actual.

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the history of Darwin’s theory of evolution will be aware of what upset it caused at the time, or the passions on both sides during the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial. The controversy surrounding evolutionary theory is not relegated to the past, either, with theories of ‘creation science’ and ‘intelligent design’ being put forward as serious scientific views in schools and even universities. In this case, the anxiety is as much that we are no longer so close to the divine as it is that we are closer to the animals, that we are naked apes (or hairy porpoises, as Elaine Morgan and others might argue).

Fundamentalist religious objections to evolution aside (sadly, only the single most well known of the array of scientific areas objected to), it is clear that ‘the latest scientific findings seem to be blurring the division between animals and humans’. While it might not be surprising that our genetic make up is 98% the same as bonobo apes and chimpanzees -it seems we can accept a certain amount of animal proximity (Schneider: 2), we may find it less comfortable that ‘the human genome is only a few strands away from that of a flea’ (Thompson, N: 8). In 1996 molecular biologists at Tel Aviv University concluded that the rabbits and hares were most closely related to the primates than to the carnivorans, the hoofed mammals or the rodents as they had variously and previously been believed to be (Shuker 1998: 40). What are we to do if our grandfather is an ape and our second cousin a rabbit? ‘How will people think of themselves, and their relation to others once such boundaries… have been eroded?’ (Tomasula 2002: 138).

There is also an anxiety concerning the possible commodification of the human being and our rights over our biological self. With Genetic Code Certificate, the artist Larry Miller claimed copyright of his own genetic code (and has since made it possible for others to do likewise). The point of departure was obviously the commercial aspects of biotechnology. This art work should certainly be considered in the light of the fact that John Moore had his own cells patented by the University of California and two of its researchers following cancer treatment. In the end it did not matter that he was originally unaware of this, nor gave his consent, as the California Supreme Court ruled that he had ‘no property rights over the tissues of his body’ (Tomasula: 142). Much like an animal. As a side note, animals themselves are patentable under United States law following a Supreme Court ruling over an oil-eating bacterium (Vining: 52), so legally it would seem the divide between the human and the animal is coming down and not necessarily for the better.

As we draw new lines and split thinner hairs with regard to our biological and legal relationship with animals, ‘one cannot escape a very definite sense that we are simultaneously telling ourselves what makes us human’ (Vining: 53). With regard to Lucy Gunning’s The Horse Impressionists (1994), Kate Bush refers to ‘our fears of regressing to bestiality’ and our ‘deep-seated anxieties about our own success at ‘being’ human’ (Bush 1995). I suppose that the fear and anxiety is related as much to whatever cultural and psychological factors lead to the imagining of Moreau’s Beast Folk, Edward Hyde, Brundlefly, werewolves, of ‘trans-animals as predators stalking the night’ (Thompson, N: 9) as it is to the terrors of helplessness in the face of exploitation (something else we share with animals).

The Brazilian artist, Eduardo Kac, uses scientific techniques, particularly biotechnology, to create art while at the same time examining and commenting on the implications of the processes he uses. He may well be best known for creating Alba, a rabbit containing jellyfish protein which means that it glows under a particular type of light (Tomasula: 137). This has been widely reported as a rabbit that glows or glows in the dark, which certainly sounds more radical and disturbing.

Kac’s creation of Alba suggests that it is now possible to produce a living being that is a literal work of art, as opposed to the metaphorical living work of art or the performance artist. This now allows us to look at the headless frogs created at Bath University (with the ultimate aim of producing headless human organ donors) (Tomasula, p. 139) and also the Vacanti mouse as potential living works of art.

Named after the director of the research team (Dr. Charles Vacanti) that produced it at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, the Vacanti mouse is a laboratory mouse (itself of a type bred by humans specifically for experimentation), on which human ear and cartilage cells were used to construct a fleshy growth that superficially resembles a human ear (Fudge: 110-111).

It is important to remember that, despite the Vacanti mouse being widely called the mouse-with-a-human-ear, it is not that at all. It effectively has a benign, though alien, growth and will survive its removal; its offspring will not have ears on their backs. Unless, of course, someone decides to grow them there. However, due to this confusion, this immediate acceptance of the mouse-human hybrid, I see the Vacanti mouse as a powerful symbol of the transgenic world to come. In it we can invest hopes and fears, because it is no longer a thing, it is an idea; it is the bust on top of Mark Dion’s Scala Natura.

The influence of this symbol can be seen through its inclusion in at least two works of art. First, the image of the mouse features heavily in Protein Lattice, a 1997 work by Patricia Piccinini, an artist who explores the issues surrounding biotechnology today (Lauritzen 2005: 30). Secondly, in the form of a frog with ears on its back, it appears in Rompers, a 2003 video work by Motohiko Odani, in which it by its presence it reinforces the possibility of the human-hybrid figure in the video.

The paradigm upset caused by Darwin’s theory of evolution has still not been fully assimilated, even today. Historically, the human reaction to the erosion of the animal-human division has been one of anxiety and it is still difficult, particularly for those who feel this affronts their relationship with the divine, to overcome this ancient, ingrained fear (which may, paradoxically, turn out to actually have some evolutionary benefit. Advances in scientific knowledge, from better to classification to gene splicing and other biotechnology, have opened our eyes to possibilities once considered impossible, imaginary. Philosophically, when there is not anxiety, there is excitement at these possibilities, even a desire to try them, and this is reflected in the shifts in legal status between human and animal. Artists continue to respond to these developments and produce work that depicts or takes the living form of transgenic animals -hybrids, monsters, even- though they ‘take particular care… [that the viewer] feels sympathy and even empathy for the subjects’ (Powell 2004: 333).

It is almost as if they are trying to prepare us, for the time when the ‘hybrid might say, “When do I?”- become human enough to escape… treatment as an animal?’ (Vining: 56).


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  • Vining, J. (2008) Human Identity: The Question Presented by Human-Animal Hybridization. Stanford Journal of Animal Law and Policy. Vol. 1 2008, p. 50-68.


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