[Paleopsych] Dowd: What Rough Beasts?
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Sat May 7 10:46:53 UTC 2005
What Rough Beasts?
Liberties column by Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 5.5.7
I love chimeras.
I've seen just about every werewolf, Dracula and mermaid movie ever
made, I have a Medusa magnet on my refrigerator, and the Sphinx of
Greek mythology is a role model for her lethal brand of mystery.
So when chimeras reared up in science news, I grabbed my
disintegrating copy of Edith Hamilton's "Mythology" to refresh my
memory on the Chimera, the she-monster with a lion's head, a goat's
body and a serpent's tail: "A fearful creature, great and swift of
foot and strong/Whose breath was flame unquenchable."
Bellerophon, "a bold and beautiful young man" on flying Pegasus, shot
arrows down at the flaming monster and killed her.
Chimeras with "generally sinister powers," as Nicholas Wade wrote
in The Times, seemed to be a lesson in "the pre-Darwinian notion that
species are fixed and penalties are severe" for crossing boundaries.
Chimeras got attention again in the mid-80's, Sharon Begley of The
Wall Street Journal noted, when embryonic goat cells were merged with
embryonic sheep cells to produce a "geep," when a human-mouse chimera
was born and when "scientists took brain-to-be tissue from quail
embryos and transplanted it into chicken embryos. Once hatched, the
chicks made sounds like baby quails."
The U.S. Patent Office balked at an attempt last year to patent a
"humanzee," a human-chimp chimera. But as the Stanford University
bioethicist Henry Greely told Ms. Begley: "The centaur has left the
Knowing that mixing up species in a Circean blender conjures up
nightmarish images, the National Academy of Sciences addressed the
matter last month - stepping into the stem-cell vacuum left by the
government and issuing research guidelines.
While research on chimeras may be valuable, the guidelines, in a fit
of "Island of Dr. Moreau" queasiness, suggested bans on inserting
human embryonic stem cells into an early human embryo, apes or
The idea is to avoid animals with human sex cells or brain cells, Mr.
Wade wrote. "There is a remote possibility that an animal with eggs
made of human cells could mate with an animal bearing human sperm. To
avoid human conception in such circumstances, the academy says
chimeric animals should not be allowed to mate," he explained. Human
cells in an animal brain could also be a problem. As Janet Rowley, a
University of Chicago biologist, told a White House ethics panel: "All
of us are aware of the concern that we're going to have a human brain
in a mouse with a person saying, 'Let me out.' "
Mary Shelley was right. Playing Creator is tricky - even if you chase
down your accidents with torches.
President Bush's experiments in Afghanistan and Iraq created his own
chimeras, by injecting feudal and tribal societies with the cells of
democracy, and blending warring factions and sects. Some of the forces
unleashed are promising; others are frightening.
In a chilling classified report to Congress last week, Gen. Richard
Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, conceded that Iraq and
Afghanistan operations had restricted the Pentagon's ability to handle
That's an ominous admission in light of North Korea's rush toward
nukes, which was spurred on by the Iraq invasion and North Korea's
conviction that, in bargaining with Mr. Bush, real weapons trump
imaginary - or chimerical - ones.
The U.S. invasion also spawned a torture scandal, and its own chimeric
(alas, not chimerical) blend of former enemies - the Baathists and
foreign jihadists - with access to Iraqi weapons caches.
The Republican Party is now a chimera, too, a mutant of old guard
Republicans, who want government kept out of our lives, and
evangelical Christians, who want government to legislate religion into
But exploiting God for political ends has set off powerful, scary
forces in America: a retreat on teaching evolution, most recently in
Kansas; fights over sex education, even in the blue states and blue
suburbs of Maryland; a demonizing of gays; and a fear of stem cell
research, which could lead to more of a "culture of life" than keeping
one vegetative woman hooked up to a feeding tube.
Even as scientists issue rules on chimeras in labs, a spine-tingling
he-monster with the power to drag us back into the pre-Darwinian dark
ages is slouching around Washington. It's a fire-breathing creature
with the head of W., the body of Bill Frist and the serpent tail of
E-mail: liberties at nytimes.com
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