Nature Medicine | Spoonful of Medicine

Chimeras: bloodthirsty myth or genetic revolution?

NEW YORK — Chimeras, part one species and part another, have a long and violent history in the world of art and religion. But the way society views the mythical creatures is changing, thanks in part to the advent of genetic engineering.

“If you look back at depictions of chimeras, it is clear that there have been changes in our relationship with the animal within us, whether we fear it or try to harness its power,” Robert Klitzman, a psychiatrist and bioethicist at Columbia University in New York, told Nature Medicine.

At a lecture here this week at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Klitzman argued that art reflects our changing attitudes toward the differences between humans and animals, a line which is increasingly being blurred by genetic technologies such as the creation of chimeric mice and monkeys for research.

Klitzman’s survey of artistic representations of chimeras began in ancient Egypt, when the duality of the gods was their most terrifying trait. For example, Anubis, god of the afterlife, had the head of a conniving jackal and the body of a man, and Sekhmet, the warrior goddess who carried out heavenly punishments on earth bore the head of a lion. By the time of the Greeks, the most famous chimera, the murderous sphinx, had evolved to have the haunches of a lion, the wings of an eagle, the tail of a serpent and the head of a woman.

But attitudes have changed, Klitzman said, and “modern artists like Magritte, Picasso, and Dali saw animalistic traits as integral and powerful parts of their identities.” Their paintings reflected this, featuring powerfully self-aware chimeras that appeared to gain strength and poise from their animal traits rather than becoming blood-thirsty beings, banished like their predecessors in art and myth. In this way, early twentieth-century art signaled the beginning of a greater modern acceptance of the line between human and animal, a feeling which has only grown with the advent of modern genome manipulation.

“To some extent, we still fear chimeras,” said Klitzman, author of the new book Am I My Genes?: Confronting Fate and Family Secrets in the Age of Genetic Testing. “But it’s also becoming clear that there is a lot to be gained—longer, healthier, more productive lives—from genetic engineering.” How we decide to adjust our beliefs and morals as a society faced with new biological possibilities, he noted, could ultimately determine how future generations view chimeras and where they draw the line between man and beast.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock


 

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