Chimeras and Das Unheimliche

What bothers people so much about chimeras?  Nature doesn’t recognize categories of “natural” and “unnatural.”  There are only organisms which either survive or don’t.  Their genesis and genetic makeup are important only insofar as it increases or reduces their level of fitness.  An animal does not look at a chimera and get the shivers as humans do.  As a category, chimeras only bother humans; humans are indeed the only ones capable of creating categories such as “chimera.”

But what exactly is so disturbing in man-made hybrids?  To pick up a Freudian term, I would say that it is the uncanny.  Das Unheimliche literally translates as “un-home-like.”  It is the strange and the familiar incorporated into one body.  We see something we recognize, but it does not match perfectly to our internal image of the category it’s supposed to fit.  A sphinx in real life would be uncanny because we can recognize the individual elements of the human, lion, and eagle, yet the juxtaposition is “unnatural” and does not match clean categories.  Essentially the blurring of distinct and well-defined categories produces the uncanny.

This is likely in part what drives Jimmy’s feeling of discomfort around the Crakers.  He sees the human form, even complete with a language he understands.  Yet there are important differences, most notably eye color and mating habits.  He feels that humans have been mixed with animals, and the mixture has produced something that is not completely recognizable as either, it is not cleanly categorizable.

Thus humans have an aversion to hybridity.  This is likely due to notions of kinship systems which have attended human civilization since before we became Homo sapiens.  Despite the strong power of the incest taboo which kinship systems have engendered, only a certain amount of exogamy is tolerable. Members of social groups must remain endogamous to a certain extent.  It is a delicate balance where breeding partners must maintain a certain kinship difference between each other.  There is a zone that is acceptable, but you must not stray closer or further from your bloodlines than social mores dictate.  Human hybridity with an animal is the ultimate exogamy, transgression of the definition of humanity and the acceptable.  It is the absolute excess of exogamy, past all borders and distinctions.  This is quickly interpreted as a threat to the integrity of identity which every sentient being holds sacred.  We reject human chimeras because we sense them as a threat to our humanity.  They are the possibility that there is in fact no border between us and animals.  The uncanniness we experience is the rejection of that which poses a threat to our identity.

But perhaps it might be important to realize that there is no true border between us and any other given thing.  The abstract concept of “humanity” is one which we have invented.  It is a distinction which nature does not recognize.  The ultimate horror of the chimera is that nature doesn’t care if it transgresses boundaries because nature does not acknowledge boundaries.  Holding on to the integrity of humanity might seem very important, but it places us forever in a defensive position, protecting ourselves from attacks by the outside.  It leads inevitably to a reactionary stance on things like genetics research, medicine, and biotechnology.  If we don’t want to retard the growth of science and research we will need to need to learn to swallow our sense of the uncanny and move on despite what we view to be a transgression.

-Wade Wheatley

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~ by wadewheatley on May 1, 2010.

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