Scientific Advance, Art, and Horsing Around With Humanity
Back in August, Wired ran a fascinating albeit disturbing article about Marion Laval-Jeantet, a French performance artist who injected herself with horse blood plasma as part of a project exploring “trans-species relationships”. The project, titled May the Horse Live in Me, involved Laval-Jeantet preparing her body over the course of several months to accept the horse plasma. Once the plasma had been injected — and she showed no signs of shock — Laval-Jeantet donned a pair of stilts with hooves and performed a “communication ritual” with the horse before having a sample of her horse-human hybrid blood removed and freeze-dried.
Laval-Jeantet described her hybridization experience in an interview with a French newspaper:
I had the feeling of being extra-human… I was not in my usual body. I was hyper-powerful, hyper-sensitive, hyper-nervous and very diffident. The emotionalism of an herbivore. I could not sleep. I probably felt a bit like a horse.
May the Horse Live in Me raises yet again the age-old discussion of what, exactly, art is supposed to be and do. Several commenters on the Wired article called out Laval-Jeantet for engaging less in art and more in a publicity stunt, and for being provocative and shocking for their own sake. Certainly, Laval-Jeantet’s piece flies in the face of more traditional understandings of art — e.g., art ought to promote and convey a sense of meaning, purpose, and even beauty — and is the latest in a long string of works to do so.
However, I’m not so certain that we should be surprised by the existence of May the Horse Live in Me. Disturbed perhaps, due to the ethical concerns that it raises, but not necessarily surprised. Several years ago, I attended a L’Abri conference where the theme was modern society’s rapidly changing concept of what, exactly, distinguishes humanity. In various panels and workshops, we discussed the interesting challenges that recent scientific, medical, and engineering advances have presented to traditional notions of human uniqueness.
The traditional Christian belief that human beings are somehow unique and set apart from the rest of Creation (because we’ve been created in image of God) and have been set in a position of governance and stewardship over Creation has been called into question by these numerous advances. If we’re able to develop robots and computers that are increasingly capable of artifical intelligence, what does that do to notions of our own reasoning capabilities? As we become increasingly capable of improving and enhancing the body via cybernetics, genetic engineering, and other such “upgrades”, how does that shape our view of the human body, which we believe to be a temple meant to honor God? (This doesn’t even take into account our increasing knowledge of the many other species that fill this planet, knowledge that reveals these species can seem incredibly “human” when it comes to communication and language, empathy, social structure, and even art.)
In the past, such questions were primarily the domain of science-fiction novels. Not so much anymore, as science and technology have given us increasing amounts of control over our world and our own bodies. And whereas Laval-Jeantet’s art project may at one time have seemed plausible only in the pages of The Island of Doctor Moreau, I doubt we’ll see the last of such projects. Put simply, these issues and questions surrounding the nature of humanity are not going away any time soon, especially as numerous individuals seek to embrace and promote them (see the transhumanist movement for an extreme example of this sort of advocacy). This presents yet another challenge for Christians who affirm the aforementioned view of humanity.
There are several things that we must keep in mind when considering this issue. First, we must not brush them off as trivial or fanciful issues that only have relevance within a specific niche (such as scientists or performance artists). As I said before, these are no longer limited to the realm of science-fiction. They are happening right now, and they will have dramatic effects, for good or for ill, on our species in the very near future. So let us educate ourselves so that we can enter into the dialog and conversation surrounding these issues in good faith, and not look like blithering idiots who know nothing of which we speak.
Second, we must enter into those conversations with a spirit of grace. As I’ve delved into these issues via articles, journals, and blogs, I’ve run into a wide range of perspectives and opinions, ranging from ardent environmentalists and animal rights activists intent on doing away with humanity’s “speciesism” to transhumanists intent on pushing humanity to the extremes of development. In my experience, a good number of these people are secularists who are, at best, indifferent to Christianity’s claims, particularly Christianity’s claims concerning humanity’s status and role in creation. More often than not, they are fairly hostile to such views, viewing them as antiquated and limiting. So let us respond charitably, seasoning our conversation with grace and conviction, not to mention nuance even as we (strongly) disagree.
Finally, if we must stand up and condemn and criticize, let us be incredibly wise and careful in doing so. It may be tempting, for example, to rail against geneticists who are seeking to manipulate and work with the very building blocks of life itself. However, genetic engineering and research in and of itself is not an evil thing. Certainly, it can (and has) been used to support horrific evils. But as R.C. Sproul puts it:
…genetic engineering also involves serious researchers doing everything in their power by examining the genetic code to see if there are ways in which serious illnesses, diseases, and distortions can be therapeutically treated through genetic means. Now, here you’re talking about science’s legitimate task of having dominion over the earth and exercising mercy and compassion toward the ill and finding cures for horrible deformities and diseases.
It’s a safe bet that you, or someone you know, will benefit greatly from the advances being made in such an area (if you haven’t already). As Christians, we ought to celebrate such advances even as we may cast a wary eye on the greyer, more ethically challenging aspects of the research that gave birth to them.
We live in a very exciting point in history. Technology that was a dream even ten years ago is now ubiquitous, and the next ten, twenty, and thirty years promise even greater things. But make no mistake: as we inevitably move forward as a species, our humanity — whatever it is that makes us us — will undergo significant re-evaluation. There are many who see humanity as nothing special, as nothing more than yet another animal roaming the Earth or as raw material to manipulate and build upon as we see fit. As Christians, we should give serious thought as to what a Biblically shaped view of humanity might look like, and how we can best respond to the challenging, even disturbing questions that lay before us — whether they come from an engineer developing increasingly intelligent computers, a reseacher working with the very stuff of life, an ethicist reflecting on our position in the world, or an artist trying to make herself something other than human.
Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne.
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