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From the Stain of Reproduction to the Chimaeracene II

Question 3: What to Reproduce?

On November 26, 2018, 34-year-old Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced to the world via YouTube that he had found a way to make humans innately immune to HIV from birth. By using gene-editing technology to modify gene CCR5 in the fertilized eggs of an HIV-infected couple, their twin daughters were born successfully. This was the “gene-edited baby” story that shocked the world. When the story broke, public opinion denounced it as a scientific scandal, and the British newspaper The Telegraph called He Jiankui “China’s Dr. Frankenstein.”

In his experiments, He Jiankui used one of the most impressive and cutting-edge technologies in gene editing: CRISPR-cas9, known as “genetic scissors.” Since its discovery by Spanish microbiologist Francisco Mojica through his research on archaea in 1993, and its naming in 2001, CRISPR has become the most revolutionary advancement in contemporary life sciences.1The full name of CRISPR is Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. CRISPR is a gene present in bacteria, and the genes of this class contains the gene fragments of viruses that attack bacteria. The bacteria use these gene fragments to detect and resist attacks from the same virus, and destroy its DNA. Such genomes are a key component of the bacterial immune system. (See the Chinese Wikipedia entry for CRISPR).​ Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna jointly developed CRISPR-cas9 gene-editing technology, for which they were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in October 2020.

CRISPR-cas9 makes the genome of an organism editable, like a text. It turns the evolution of life into the coding of life, making it possible to repair life. Clinical medicine is counting on the optimization and refinement of this miraculous technology to cure genetic diseases that were previously beyond its reach. He Jiankui’s transgression was not in his use of CRISPR-cas9 to edit human cells, nor in his use of this technology to treat AIDS, but in his presumptuous choice to directly edit human reproductive cells, pushing the prevention and treatment of AIDS directly back to the very source of life—reproduction. He Jiankui’s “gene-edited babies” will not only be born immune to AIDS, but through procreation they will reproduce a new species of human beings born immune to AIDS.

He Jiankui’s case has lifted the ethical veil that has covered CRISPR-cas9 since its inception: the technology used for medical genetic disease control can be further used for nonmedical genetic improvement. Gene repair might evolve into gene optimization, and a new eugenics might be born. The discrimination against natural genes in the science fiction movie Gattaca could become imminent reality. He Jiankui’s crossing of the line forces a sobering realization: that whether or not a consensus is eventually reached on the ethical controversy over human reproductive cell editing, the development of gene-editing technology will inevitably force its way into and eventually cross the red line of reproduction. Since the sequencing of the human genome was largely completed in 2003, and the DNA sequence nearly deciphered, the genes that carry the code of human life have ceased to be a naturally shared resource in the biological sense, and have become a kind of intellectual property that enjoys patent protection and has even taken on extraordinary strategic importance in transnational competitions. In his 2016 book The Gene: An Intimate History, biologist Siddhartha Mukherjee even claims that the drive to modify the human embryonic genome has evolved into an international “arms race.”2The Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee, translated by Ma Xiangtao. CITIC Press, 2018, p. 521.

The two baby girls born by the gene editor disappeared from the very beginning. No one knows where they went, or what their recent condition is. This seems to echo the ending of Frankenstein, wherein the monster disappears into the mist. Their creator, He Jiankui, was sentenced to three years in prison in December 2019 for "rashly applying gene-editing technology to human-assisted reproductive medicine, and disrupting medical treatment," constituting “illegal medical practice.” In 2018, Nature magazine included him in its Top 10 People in Science and Technology 2018, declaring that he “will leave a complex legacy in the field.”

The Chimaeracene

Throughout Mary Shelley’s life, reproduction was always accompanied by death. Her mother died of childbed fever 11 days after Mary was born; her first daughter, with her husband Percy Shelley, did not survive her premature birth; death claimed two more children in quick succession. The new technology of the 19th century, galvanism, made her see the possibility of both creation and resurrection. Her protagonist Frankenstein created a monster that was born and resurrected by galvanism—electrifying dead body parts into life.

In 2019, while Frankenstein’s home country of England was desperately trying to escape its European matronage, novelist Jeanette Winterson published her new novel Frankissstein. The novel tells the story of Ry Shelley, a transgender doctor (an incarnation of Mary Shelley), and Victor Stein, a professor (a riff on Frankenstein) as they fall in love. The two first meet at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a human cryonics institution in Phoenix, Arizona, where Victor suddenly asks Ry from behind, “Have you seen Damian Hirst’s pickled shark in a tank? What does he call it? The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.”3Frankissstein, by Jeanette Winterson. Jonathan Cape, 2019.​ Since the first frozen human body was loaded into a tank of liquid nitrogen in 1967, cryonics has been a phoenix flying humans toward immortality. On January 7 of this year, Yit released a short video of a visit to China’s first human cryopreservation center in Jinan, Shandong Province, in which Gui Junmin, the husband of China’s first cryonics patient, Zhan Wenlian, expresses his hope for his beloved’s resurrection: “As long as I live long enough, I will be able to see it happen, and it’s cryonics that keeps me going.”4“Uncovering China's First Human Cryonics Center: The Youngest Freezer is 13 Years Old,” Yit, WeChat, January 7, 2021, original link.​ Today, more than 200 years after Mary Shelley made her monster out of corpses, the dead no longer just wait to decay underground; in the future, monsters waking up from the liquid nitrogen tanks will walk in daylight together with newborns.

Winterson’s Victor is an admirer of Turing, obsessed with super-intelligent robotics, and secretly conducting an experiment to resurrect a human brain—not the body, but the brain. The idea of independent brain survival is not a novelty, as the American philosopher Hilary Putnam proposed the “brain in a vat” hypothesis in Reason, Truth, and History in 1981, where he envisioned putting the human brain into a vat filled with nutrient solution to maintain its physiological survival, and then using a supercomputer to transform brain input and output functions into path computing. In August 2020, Elon Musk’s company Neuralink implanted a microchip the size of a coin into the brain of a pig, and the information in the pig’s brain activity could be read in real time by an externally connected device, enabling a preliminary brain-machine interface. In addition, in April 2019, scientists at Yale University created a system called BrainEx that delivers nutrients and oxygen to brain cells to mimic blood flow, which successfully revived a pig brain after four hours of death, and sustained it for at least six hours.5Sara Reardon, “Pig Brains Kept Alive Outside Body For Hours After Death,” Nature, April 17, 2019, original link.

Are the thoughts in the human brain real, or are they programmed illusions? How does one define life or death? Is there a choice of transforming from a tangible and physical person, in the visible world, to ethereal consciousness, hidden text in an invisible world?

As early as 1991, Donna J. Haraway proclaimed in A Cyborg Manifesto that the late 20th century would be a mythic time in which all would be chimaeras. Realizing the need to bridge the dichotomy between organism and machine in the future, and to integrate and reshape biological reality into social reality, she proposed a hybrid creature that was both organism and machine: the cyborg. Haraway sees the cyborg as blasphemy in earnest—not as a betrayal, but as an ironic faith that is more faithful than seemingly reverent worship and proclamation. The cyborg is not attached to its creator, “Unlike the hopes of Frankenstein’s monster, the cyborg does not expect its father to save it through a restoration of the garden; that is, through the fabrication of a heterosexual mate...” The cyborg “would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust.” Instead, it imagines in blasphemy monstrous and illegitimate transgressive unities, the core of which is no longer a filiation based on reproductive blood ties, but a cross-species alliance based on affinity. “Far from signalling a walling off of people from other living beings, cyborgs signal disturbingly and pleasurably tight coupling.”6Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, by Donna J. Haraway. Routledge, 1990.

Thirty years after A Cyborg Manifesto, the “fetal movement” of hybrid monsters has further disturbed the human mind. In recent years, scientists have attempted to grow human organs by injecting special human stem cells into the embryonic environments of rats and pigs, aiming to provide a new source for the growing demand for human organ transplants. On April 15 of this year, the leading life sciences journal Cell published a paper claiming that the first human-monkey chimeric embryos, made from human cells embedded in monkey cells, had been grown in collaboration with Kunming University of Science and Technology in China and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in the United States. The scientists cultured crab-eating monkeys’ embryos in vitro and injected 25 human extended pluripotent stem cells into 132 monkey embryos by day six. Nearly 80% (103) embedded embryos continued to develop on the 10th day, and only by the 20th day were all the embryos dead; human cells embedded in the embryos showed enduring vitality. On one hand, it was an off-the-wall scientific breakthrough; on the other hand, the paper prompted comments from readers such as: “I cannot believe that this ‘research’ is even thought of, let alone approved by anyone with an ounce of morality. Disgusting.”7”Chimeric Contribution of Human Extended Pluripotent Stem Cells to Monkey Embryos Ex Vivo,” Cell, April 15, 2021, original link.​ Currently, human-animal embedded embryo experiments are not banned in either the United States or China, but require specific ethical approval.8”What Does a Human-Monkey Hybrid Embryo Mean?,” by Peng Danni and Li Mingzi, China News Weekly, WeChat, April 23, 2021, original link.

In addition to hybridization on Earth, astrobiology has long been probing the connection between the evolution of life on Earth and extraterrestrial life. At the beginning of this year, the Chinese translation of the Xenogenesis series by African American science fiction author Octavia E. Butler was published in its entirety. In February, NASA’s Perseverance rover successfully landed on Mars, and its landing site was named after Butler. In the first book of her trilogy, Lilith’s Child: Breaking Dawn, the author opens with a chapter entitled “The Womb,” which envisions a nuclear war that destroyed humanity and the planet it inhabited. A survivor named Lilith wakes up from a 250-year-long sleep to find herself rescued by an advanced alien species, the Oankali, in a womb-like spacecraft. She feels “curled up and helpless as a fetus.”9Lilith’s Children 1: Breaking Dawn, by Octavia E. Butler, translated by Hai Ji. Tiandi Publishing House, 2021.​ These Oankali want to trade genes with humans, crossbreeding with them to produce a hybrid offspring of the two civilizations. If humans accept, they will help them rebuild the Earth and continue their civilization; if they refuse, the Oankali will leave them destroyed.

When confronted with a higher civilization and species, after human civilization has been destroyed by human hands, the determination of humans as an existential subject is no longer about “I think” within the horizon of homo sapiens, but about a cross-species “I breed.” Will humans accept breeding with an alien species to create monsters, and are they willing to welcome the dawn of a hybrid monster civilization? In Butler’s end-of-species apocalyptic setting, reproduction becomes the ultimate metaphysical choice concerning the fate of human civilization.

Monsters are never clean; they are disgusting to humans from birth. Yet, the chimaeracene has arrived. The chimaeracene is the time of the hybrid: the hybridization of life and death, the hybridization of man and machine, the hybridization of man and beast, the hybridization of alien life and earth life—we will all become chimaera! The chimaeracene will be a time of metamorphosis. It is Zhuangzi dreaming of the butterfly, it is Ovid’s poem of anthropomorphism, it is Percy Shelley on his boat Ariel disappearing into the sea.

This is the second and last part of the essay. Translated from the Chinese by Matt Turner and Haiying Weng.

Asea Zhanglun Dai is a writer and curator currently based in Shanghai.

Matt Turner is a freelance writer and translator based in New York City. He is author of three collections of poetry, and translator of Lu Xun's Weeds. His essays and reviews can be found in Hyperallergic WeekendChaLARB China ChannelMusic & Literature, and other journals.

Haiying Weng is co-translator, with Matt Turner, of works by Yan Jun, Hu Jiujiu, Ou Ning, Wu Jinglian, and others. She is from Beijing, but lives in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, with her dog Xiao Chou (小臭). She works at the Tang Center for Early China, at Columbia University.

He Jiankui announcing his research while attending an international forum at the University of Hong Kong on November 28, 2018. Pictured is a screenshot from the global broadcast, where he is taking questions from the audience.

Liquid nitrogen tanks used for human cryopreservation. Photo credit: Alcor Life Extension Foundation

Graphic summary of the paper published in Cell, available from: https://www.cell.com/cell/fulltext/S0092-8674(21)00305-6

A blastocyst of the monkey–human chimaeras. Image credit: Weizhi Ji, Kunming University of Science and Technology

A photo of the NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover landing site, named after Octavia E. Butler. Photo credit: NASA

Published: 2021.09.23