DE RERUM NATURA by Maria Isabel Garcia
As my feet dangled from the arched seats by the bay, pointing to sailing ships, my fellow ship-watcher sitting close to me, remarked: "The face of Helen not only launched a thousand ships but made them come back." Of course, he was referring to the 10-year Trojan War fought over Helen. I nodded in total agreement: Yes, now that is a face.
I find it quite serendipitous that in the same thought-pod that I relish my sweetest encounters, there too I find the most deliciously bizarre and intellectually daring. Lately, I have come across thought-dares that tell me that this quest to be alive in more ways than one, through biotechnology, in terms of cloning, and designing a human for other times and "spaces" in the solar system, is deeply rooted, at least partly, in a gnawing desire, to understand, well, "Helen."
Thomas Edison (1847-1931), one of the great thinkers and doers in the history of science and inventor of the phonograph, electric light and "movie" camera and a thousand other patented items, had a consummate desire for automation. We all know this but what most of us dont know is this was apparently driven by his desire to conjure to perfection his idea of "woman," his own "Eve." At least, that is according to Edisons Eve, a recent book on the history of automation by Gaby Wood (Alfred A Knopf, New York, 2002). In Woods book, she extensively makes use of the fictionalized account by a guy named Villiers de Isle-Adam, of Edisons Frankenstein-esque journey to create his own Eve. Entitled "The Eve of the Future," it was fiction that curiously coincided and resonated with a lot of Edisons actual projects and ideas from his own diaries. In Villiers account, Edison creates "Hadaly" (believed to mean "ideal" in Persian), a "magneto electric (female) possibility" for a close friend, Lord Celian Ewald who fell in love with the face of a real woman but was quite repulsed by her soul. So "Hadaly" was supposed to be given life by Ewalds "desperation and desire" true to a Pygmalion tale. Edison, in real life, had an unrelenting belief in the redemptive power of electricity in a womans life that in his diaries, he wrote that "electricity will develop woman to that point where she can think straight" because "direct thought is not at present an attribute of femininity." Apparently on a roll, he went on to say that he could only picture a woman literally surrounding herself with leather-bound books since she has to attend to her singularly domestic nature. If Edison were still alive today, he may just drop dead, mouth open, to find out that in the actual process of cloning, it is man in his "sperm" artillery, who is actually replaced by an electrical impulse to jolt the newly inserted mature nucleus (containing the DNA to be cloned) in the host cell, to jumpstart the development of the embryo. Yes folks, cloning eliminates the need for a biological father. So pursuing along this reasoned line, we can say that in a quest to understand Helen, men "lose" Helen. And so without her, gentlemen, I wonder, where would your "ships" go?
Year 1997, we had Dolly, the cloned sheep. Dolly (as in Dolly Parton) because the gene to be cloned was taken from the mammary gland tissues of a "donor" sheep, inserted into another egg cell and placed within another surrogate sheep that carried Dolly till she was born. Now, now, these Scottish men of science. At this point, I cannot resist noting that the first words ever spoken by the first of Edisons "real Eves" (talking dolls) were "Mary had a little lamb." A lot of ethical questions arise from that which we may have a shot at trying to understand in later De Rerums but for now let us pursue Helen in her many life forms.
Year 2000, we had Alba. She is still female but she is a bunny, a bunny that glows. Christopher Dickey, in an article published in "Wired" (2001), tracked down Eduardo Kac, an artist who Alba Alba (a.k.a. as Rabbit # 5256 to Frances Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique, the lab that "made" glowing Alba for Kac), a rabbit within whose genes was inserted a green fluorescent protein from a Pacific jellyfish called Aequorea victoria. That is how she glows. It is called transgenics, "the transfer of a specific gene from one organism to another" and in this case the specific green fluorescent protein has been spliced into this bunny, only one among many bunnies for various biochemical research purposes. Kac, a digital artist whose works permanently grace the Museum of Modern Art in New York as well as the Modern Art in Rio, also teaches at the Art Institute of Chicago. This gentleman who knows his art, claims that he "commissioned" the creation of Alba, and should thus be entitled to bring her "home." The custody battle ensues, albeit trailing in favor of the lab, as of this writing.
I suggest that if science ever gets to bio-engineer a woman who can probe other niches in the solar system with her much-improved genetic make-up, that she be named Solaris Eve. Presumably, this solarly (as opposed to earthly) woman, Solaris Eve would already be capable of "direct thought," as Edison wished, science having eliminated the errors of mutation, after an expected mind-blowing number of errors, which by the way sexual reproduction sort of already have a handle on, after a good million years of evolution. Of course, it would also help that she will be free from the unavailing distractions of these reproductively "unnecessary" fellows called "men."
I reserve future De Rerums for the exploration of a multitude of perspectives on biotechnology, from cloning to transgenics to enable human space travel. For now, I sit by the bay, dangling my feet, imagining and predicting the looming, boisterous, cave-echoed objections from Edison and his fellow Adams.
They still dont get it, Helen.
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