Originally published in Asimov's Science Fiction, December 2001. <http://www.asimovs.com/_issue_0112/phosphorescent.html>
The Case of the Phosphorescent Rabbit
Thirty-odd years ago, in a novel called To Live Again, I wrote a scene set in
an amusement park of the fairly near future where patrons of a shooting
gallery get a chance to take potshots at living creatures specially created for
the purpose by means of genetic engineering. If I may quote myself a bit:
A flamboyant sign declared: WELCOME TO THE HOUSE OF
"Whats this?" she asked. "More radioactive games?"
"I have no idea. Shall we go in?"
They entered. A fee of a dollar fissionable was extracted from
each of them. Swiftly they discovered that the House of
Half-Life, despite its name, did not traffic in neutrons and
alpha particles; the half-life offered here was biological, hybrid
creatures raised from fused cell nuclei. Behind an electrified
barrier stunted beings shuffled around, while a pre-programmed
speaker recited their identities. "Here we have mouse and cat,
folks, one of the most popular hybrids. And this is dog and
tiger, believe it if you can! Next you see snake and frog."
The hybrid animals bore little resemblance to any of their
supposed ancestors. They tended to be neutral, unspecialized in
form, evolutionary prototypes lacking in clear characteristics. Most
were less than two feet in length, moving about on small
uncertain legs. The dog-tiger had patches of gray fur. The
snake-frog was squat and glistening, with pulsating pouches of
flesh. "Man and mouse, ladies and gentlemen, man and mouse!"
came the disembodied voice. . . . "Infect them with the Sendai
virus, blend the nuclei in a centrifuge, toss in a dash of
nucleic acid, yes, yes, man and mouse!" A dozen distorted
things, neither mouse nor man, moved into the arena. Their
eyes were pink and beady, their hands were claws, they could
not walk erect. Elena stared in rigid attention.
A shill sidled up to them, proffering a handful of explosive
darts. He said silkily, "You look like expensive folk out for a
nights fun. Would you like to kill some of the hybrids? A
hundred bucks a dart."
"Sorry," Noyes said. "No, thanks."
So much for science fiction, written back in the typewriter age and the
presidency of Richard M. Nixon. Now we turn to science fact, a genuine
twenty-first-century news story involving a thirty-eight-year-old Brazilian-born
Chicago artist named Eduardo Kac, who is pioneering something that he calls
"transgenic art." As Kacs transgenic manifesto declares, "It is a new era, and
we need a new kind of art. It makes no sense to paint as we painted in the
Instead of paint and canvas, Kac wants to work with genetically engineered
animals as his medium. He has already enlisted the aid of a group of French
geneticists who have combined rabbit DNA with that of a phosphorescent
jellyfish to produce an apparently normal-looking bunny that just happens to
give off an eerie green glow from every cell in her body when illuminated with
The rabbits name is Alba. She is healthy. She eats, she breathes, she hops
around; she is said to have a "particularly mellow and sweet disposition." But
when the ultraviolet light is switched on, that science-fictiony green glow
emanates from her paws and whiskers andwith particular intensityfrom her
eyes. Kac intended to use her in a performance-art piece in which she hops
around a living room. That seems to be the totality of the "art" herea glowing
rabbit hopping around a room. This may or may not seem like art to you; but
I dont want to get involved with questions of esthetics here. (His original idea
was to create a phosphorescent dog, which would live with his family and
which people could play with as one plays with any pooch, except that this one
would glow green. But he switched to using a rabbit when the scientists told
him that they had already been doing research using rabbit DNA and would
be able to produce a modified bunny for him much more quickly than they
could a dog.)
Kac hasnt been able to launch his new art form upon the world, though. His
first announcement of his plans touched off such an uproar among scientists
and animal-rights activists that the French government has impounded Alba at
the National Institute of Agronomic Research, where she was developed, and
refuses to release her to the artist. A custody battle is now under way.
What are the issues here?
The animal-rights people point out that Alba may very well be suffering.
Maybe so, but I tend to doubt that. Giving off a green glow under black light,
it seems to me, is not likely to cause pain, physical or even emotional. If I were
a rabbit, I suspect Id find it no more agonizing to glow green than I would to
be pulled out of a hat, and I havent heard the SPCA folks objecting to that.
Some of the more imaginative anti-science activists also worry that Alba might
escape and start breeding a population of phosphorescent rabbits in the wild.
Aside from the fact that this is, to me, not a particularly terrifying prospect, it
is, I think, a relatively low-risk possibility. We dont as yet know whether
Albas phosphorescent genes are dominant or recessive, or whether male
rabbits, somehow aware of her special genetic makeup, would simply steer
clear of her in the first place. Even if she did get loose and spawn a horde of
glowing bunnies, the potential for environmental harm seems fairly trivial.
The objections that scientists are raising appear to center on the point that
employing genetic engineering for the purpose of creating a new art form is a
misuse of biotechnology, and one misuse might lead to another, bringing us
eventually to just the sort of horrifying freak show that I described in my 1969
novel. "It kind of turns the searchlights back on scientists," says Stuart A.
Newman, professor of cell biology and anatomy at New York Medical College,
who is already using glowing proteins to track the development of limbs in
animal fetuses. "There are some pretty awfully deformed animals in transgenic
research, and scientists have sometimes done these things with no good theory
Possibly so. Id certainly not applaud the creation of the sort of dog-tigers and
snake-frogs I depicted in my book. But designing a rabbit that glows green
strikes me as a far less malign notion, and I see no necessary and inevitable line
of causation that runs straight from Alba to more appalling constructs. To call
the project a misuse of biotechnology sounds awfully like that old
horror-movie line about Things Man Was Not Meant To Do. The techniques
for creating artificial mutants through gene-splicing are already in place;
whatever you may think of Kacs artistic notions, this seems a wholly
innocuous way to make use of them.
We have, after all, been practicing genetic modification for thousands of years,
not by splicing genes but by selective breeding. That was how we turned wild
dogs that must not have been very different from wolves into poodles, basset
hounds, Yorkshire terriers, dachshunds, and chihua-huas.
Was it a misuse of animal breeding, or a waste of human ingenuity, to
transform wolves into dachshunds and chihuahuas? And was it a bad thing for
the animals so transformed? One might argue that theres a fairness issue here:
a chihuahua is a handicapped animal, not nearly as good at seizing and
devouring its prey as a wolf. Have we not done a great disservice to such
creatures? Why are the activists not up in arms over that? As for the scientists
argument that using biogenetic techniques to create Alba is simply silly, is
breeding a phosphorescent rabbit any sillier than breeding a dachshund or a
I share Eduardo Kacs amazement at the hostility of his critics. Of course, we
need to know where to draw the line in genetic modification, and perhaps
thats what the present debate is really about. My science-fictional amusement
park would plainly be beyond the pale. But what about creating a six-legged
cat? A centaur? Cerberus, the three-headed dog of Hell? Frivolous, maybe.
But is a little genetic frivolity such a terrible thing?
Probably well see many such grotesqueries emerging from laboratories in the
years ahead, perhaps offered to us in the name of experimental science, or as
art, or for the sake of sheer debased amusement. We have the power to create
such things now, or soon will, and its hard to keep such power, once attained,
from being used.
Indeed we are, it must be said, rapidly becoming like gods. But godsespecially
young godsfool around a lot; they make mistakes now and then; they are
under no compulsion, internal or external, to explain themselves to their
creations. And, in our bungling young-god-like way, we are likely to commit
all sorts of creative acts that will embarrass us later on.
Still, the strange uproar over Kacs glowing bunny bothers me. We are passing
through an odd period of Puritanism mixed with hedonism these days, full of
contradictions. We see the official prissiness of political correctness coupled
with a private coarseness of speech and unfetteredness of deed rarely
matched in history, for example. And also we see a public fear of "science"
and a desire to place limitations on its freedom of action, coupled with a
private desire that "science" do something, right now, to cure breast
cancer/AIDS/ astigmatism/cellulite/baldness/arteriosclerosis/whatever. But telling
"science" what it can or cannot do at any particular moment is a fools game.
The cure for breast cancer may, for all we know, lurk in the very technology
that produces phosphorescent rabbits. The squabble over Eduardo Kacs
provocative bit of "transgenic art" lays bare big areas of intellectual
conflictedness and confusion in our society.
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