Turning Humans into Machines: The Scary and/or Beneficial Aspects of Genetic Engineering
A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. —Donna Haraway
One of the defining parameters of postmodernism is the concept of multiculturalism, and the idea that gender, race, ethnicity, and diverse religious and sexual identities should all be placed “under the same tent” (Davis, Bending Over Backwards 13). In the last few decades, disability rights activists have fought to include disability as a part of multiculturalism; and they did it rightfully so. Even though it is a fairly new discipline, which—as Davis indicates, did not come into prominence before the 1980s—disability studies, re-examines and challenges the ways we classify our identities, and position our bodies in relation to gender, race, sexual orientation, and physical and social performance. As Davis notes, “Disability, as the most recent identity group on the block, offers us the one that is perhaps least resistant to change or changing thoughts about identity. And most importantly, disability may turn out to be the identity that links other identities” (Davis 13-14). I find it very interesting that Davis points to eugenics, and the fact that the actual scientific study of human beings started around the second half of the nineteenth century. If we keep in mind that eugenics worked on the prinicple of getting rid of the “feeble-minded”, people with physical or cognitive disabilities, homosexuals, people of colour, and the proletariat—and all of these were looked upon as a type of disability—then disability has been a part of racial, sexual, and social identities longer than we had thought.
Unfortunately, not much has changed in this respect. To this day, many nations, including some Western or westernized nations, are ostracizing people of colour and the LGBT community through passive, but very effective and harmless-looking means. For example, while in some countries, LGBT people and people of colour are legally protected from verbal or physical assaults, they are still denied the right to complete equality and integration. Just take into account the fact that people of colour still earn less money than the white people, even in the countries that pride themselves on freedom, equality and tolerance. Also, what about the fact that most countries will grant “domestic partnerships” for same-sex couples, but will not legalize gay marriage? Or what about the fact that in almost every country women earn less money than men? Davis points to the fact that we do not live either in modernism or postmodernism, but that we are trapped in an age he terms as dismodernism. We are trapped in the age where the human need to destroy and suppress any possibility for the development of a defect is greater than before. What really stood out to me in this article is Davis’ identification of eugenics with genetics: “We now openly repudiate eugenics, mainly because of the Nazis’ use of negative eugenics, that is, the direct elimination of defectives from the human race… But organizations in the United States and England have simply morphed their names into ones that use the term genetics, preserving the Latin linguistic root in both eugenic and genetic. Now eugenics (or genetics) is carried out through two avenues—prenatal screening, which works some of the time, and genetic engineering, which has not worked on humans so far” (Davis 20). Davis makes a really good point here, because if we think about genetics and genetic engineering more closely, they are no different than eugenics—both eugenics and genetics are working towards improving “the human stock” (20) and removing “genetic defects” (Davis 20). The science now offers limitless possibilities, such as choosing a sex for a child before it is even born, choosing a level of intelligence for human beings while they are still in the womb, developing babies in tubes, ending a pregnancy if a mother is told that a child will be born with a certain disability, but the latest accomplishment doctors and scientists are trying to achieve is the elimination of genes for breast cancer, high blood pressure, or certain illnesses. Having this in mind completely changes the way human bodies are created, and the ways we are starting to distinguish between ability and disability.
Why do we have a need to recreate bodies and change its original (natural) functions? What are we afraid of? Can forming a body through a means of genetic engineering really prevent one from developing an “impairment” at some point in their life? Of course not, because in order to prevent such things, the human race would first need to get rid of the various modes of transportation, factories and all the technology, which are the main causes of physical disabilities for the postmodern human. Davis also points to the Human Genome Project, which is defective in itself, primarily because we cannot claim with full certainty that sexual orientation, intelligence, our physiognomy, or the way we speak are defined by a single gene. Science now claims that there is such a thing as a “gay gene”, which determines someone’s sexual identity; however, in the age of “dissolving boundaries, sexual orientation has become strangely unhinged, especially with the advent of transgender politics. When a male-to-female transsexual marries a person who defines herself as a woman, should that relationship be called lesbian? If an intersex person chooses a person of either gender, or another intersexual, how do we define the relationship? In such cases, sexual orientation becomes the only option that does not define the person in all ways as fitting into a discrete category” (Davis 17).
Science has advanced to such an extent that we are unable to tell if someone lives in a body created in a natural way, or in a body crafted by machines. A great example of genetic engineering and the ways science can define one’s sexual identity is the movie The Skin I Live In, one of the most striking movies I have seen in the past few years. Directed by a well-known Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, the movie shows how bodies can literally become transformed from one form to another. The movie depicts a plastic surgeon who kidnaps a twenty-something guy, performs a sex-change surgery on him, and creates a new skin on the body—softer and lighter skin— and new bone structure by using the skin and blood of a pig and other domestic animals. In addition, the doctor even performs a surgery on the patient’s vocal chords, completely changing his masculine voice into a feminine one. Whether or not we have reached a point where science can actually do things like this, I am not sure. After watching the movie, my mind has been filled with the following questions:
- Why do we have to fix that which makes us human? Why do we have to fix our flaws and the limitations of the body?
- How do you perform a gender (since, according to Butler, gender is all about performativity) if that gender is forced upon you, as in The Skin I Live In?