So let us think of the story not in terms of what Viktor should have done, but rather in terms of what we should be doing and thinking about and feeling, as we face the introduction of novel creatures and ways of being in biology, bioengineering, and beyond. I am thinking here not only of the creators of such creatures, but also of the rest of us as patients, as critics, and, ultimately, as citizens.
Another important anniversary is on the horizon: Masahiro Mori’s notion of the ‘uncanny valley’ turns 50 in 2020. With its roots in robotics, the uncanny valley captures the sense of discomfort, even repulsion, when an entity that is not “natural” behaves or appears to behave as if it is. A special uncanniness comes with human-approximation: the more aesthetically human a robot is, for instance, the more discomforting. But fully organic creatures can be uncanny, too, especially when approximating humans: “unnatural naturals” such as human-pig chimeras or synthetic human embryos are, or may often be, uncanny and so discomforting.
As it happens, at least for biomedical research purposes, the closer the creatures are to humans, the better off we are, scientifically. Humanized mice or pigs can yield insights into human biology without the need for human research participation; synthetic human embryos can potentially alleviate the need for embryo-destructive research in the quest to understand human embryonic development. But the closer an engineered creature is to human – in appearance, function, and/or behavior – the more discomforting the creature, and often the more vehement the response to its creation in the first place or to its treatment once created.
Some will object to perceived violations of the sanctity of human nature being infested by the bestial; some will worry instead that if a creature (such as a chimeric mouse created by the transfer of human cells into an early mouse embryo) is 99.9% human, then we are obliged to treat it as if it were human and not as some dispensable tool for research. Either of these responses has considerable hold over many of us. The former response engenders the kind of reaction Viktor (and others) had to the creature: shun and run. But another reaction is possible, and it’s compatible as well with the latter response: love.
Consider briefly the work of sculptor Patricia Piccinini, work which is simultaneously discomforting and uncanny and yet full of love. Her 2003 exhibit, We Are Family, generated significant shock, fear, and awe when unveiled in Venice. One sculpture in particular, The Young Family, is especially striking.