Playing God or the promise of mouse biotechnology

0 Posted by - November 1, 2007 - English, proefschrift

Chapter 3

And Pilate saith unto them, Behold the man![1]

                                                                                                                     John 19:5

In Simone de Beauvoir’s existentialist novel All Men Are Mortal, two creatures attain immortality: a man who intends to be an enlightened ruler and a circling mouse. Clearly, this was a mutant mouse — perhaps a descendant of the Chinese waltzing mice that were first described several thousand years ago. De Beauvoir’s would-be king chose the mouse as his companion for eternity for the same reason that we are pursuing mouse mutants today: the mouse provides us with an effective model of ourselves, be it for testing potions of immortality or for understanding human disease and development[2].


William L. Stanford, Jason B. Cohn, and Sabine P. Cordes



Ecce homo: the Passion of the Oncomouse

In 2000, a photograph of Ecce Homo, a sculpture by Bryan Crockett of a giant oncomouse, appeared in the New York Times (see Figure 4). Two years later, another photograph of Ecce Homo appeared in Nature Genetics as an illustration to an article by Dorothy Nelkin and Susanne Anker about the influence of genetics on art (Nelkin and Anker 2002). Ecce Homo is a dramatic interpretation of the transgenic oncomouse. Standing on its hind legs, the mouse is portrayed as a humanlike animal on a human scale. But perhaps the most shocking part of the sculpture is the title, Ecce Homo (Behold the Man!) (John 19:5). Bryan Crockett portrays the mouse as Jesus Christ. Crockett deliberately chose a realistic style for representing his oncomouse in order to evoke a sense of living. ‘Almost six feet tall he is nude (as is the Oncomouse[3]) and his flesh is a very convincing pale skin tone. Upon further inspection, however, one realizes the mouse/man is actually sculpted in flesh-colored marble. The lifelike sculpture and skin texture makes the sculpture oscillate between a living creature and a strong likeness, evoking the Pygmalion myth’ (Crockett 2001a).

In the catalogue of Paradise Now, the exhibition where Ecce Homo was first presented, Crockett explains his motivations for presenting a laboratory mouse as a religious icon. He is rather explicit about his understanding of the God-playing activities of scientists. ’Science has taken over the authority that religion once held. In this body of work, I am exploring the sacredness of the flesh and soul in a time when we have acquired the knowledge and tools to play God’ (Crockett 2001b). Crockett sees the practice of genetics as an analogy to the worlds of allegory and mythology: ‘Like the Satyr or Minotaur, the Oncomouse is the literalisation of a cliché man/mouse’. But more striking is the explicit reference he makes to the Christ figure. ‘That is why I have chosen to reinterpret the ultimate figure of salvation, Christ, through the ultimate actor of contemporary science, the Oncomouse. This sculpture is intended to be a monument to the test object of modern science, human kind’s symbolic and literal stand-in personified. This human-scale, fleshy mouse, sculpted with the pathos of classical sculpture, stands in a gesture reminiscent of Christ revealing his wounds’ (Crockett 2001a/b).

Now what is it that Bryan Crockett wishes to say with this sculpture? There is long tradition of presenting Ecce Homo in Christian iconography. But a comparison with other traditional Ecce Homos shows that Crockett’s Ecce Homo, apart from being a mouse and not a human figure, is not an Ecce Homo in the traditional sense. Crockett’s mouse is not sacrificing itself. The mouse has neither choice nor inner calling, and no free will is involved. The mouse is not willingly taking the burden of sin on his shoulders; it is playing the burden of sin back to his audience, so to say. There is a new iconography involved. It seems we have to conclude that Crockett is presenting us a new – modern secular version – of Jesus Christ! By presenting the mouse as a Jesus figure Crockett is not only suggesting that scientists are playing God, he is also suggesting (or at least invoking the suggestion) that mouse biotechnology leads to salvation. Where does such an idea come from?

The meaning of the playing God metaphor

‘Playing God’ is a phrase often heard in the biotechnology debate. Also the salvation to be expected from science is a familiar theme. In this chapter I want to go into two sets of questions. First, in what way is biotechnology related to religion? How can the variety of references to God and religion in the debate about biotechnology (‘playing God’, ‘salvation’, etc.) and particularly about mouse biotechnology be explained? Second, what feelings and concerns are expressed by the playing God metaphor? Are these primarily moral concerns about messing with His creation, or does ‘God talk’ also reveal other more complex issues of moral concern?

In the following, I address these questions by examining the playing God metaphor and other forms of God talk in relation to the genetic engineering of mice. In my inquiry into the ‘religious aspects’ of the genetically engineered mice I will use a variety of sources: research papers by scientists and philosophical discussions, but also art works by visual artists and their own comments on these works. I will begin with a number of observations made by Dorothy Nelkin, who did extensive research on gene metaphors in science and popular culture, including that of the ‘sacred gene’. After discussing some of her examples of God talk in the life sciences, I will briefly reflect on the complex relationship between religion and science. To some, the two are in a state of war; to others, science can be understood as a religious pursuit, with the salvation of mankind as its ultimate goal. In order to illustrate how these different perceptions of science and religion influence the moral attitudes towards animal biotechnology, I will subsequently discuss three philosophical positions that can be found in the playing God debate. Two extreme positions are taken by David Noble (who argues that we have to take science as salvation literally) and Ronald Dworkin (who takes the playing God metaphor to be nothing but the expression of a distinction we make between what is made by us and what is given by nature). An intermediate position is taken by Mary Midgley (who challenges us to take the myths we live by seriously and to search for the meaning that lies behind them). I will argue that, regardless of whether we take science as salvation literally or metaphorically, in both cases it reveals that biotechnology has a character of promise. Biotechnology is a technology of hope. It is here that another dimension of God talk emerges. This dimension is a bio-political one. In order to explain the bio-political dimension of mouse biotechnology, I introduce the work of Nikolas Rose and Eugene Thacker, who both write about bio-politics. Using their theories on the futuristic dimension, that is the future-orientedness of biotechnology, I discuss the role of the mouse in what Rose refers to as a ‘political economy of hope’. Subsequently, by presenting another work of art representing a transgenic mouse that has also been published in Nature: namely, Mann und Maus by Katerina Fritsch, I will introduce the genetically engineered mouse as the flesh and blood promise of biotechnology. I will use both Ecce Homo and Mann und Maus to illustrate how scientists like to present our dependence on the mouse in our current quest to find cures for life-threatening diseases. Although the messages conveyed by these works of art differ, they are both powerful visualisations of the promise of the biotechnologically engineered mouse. And both invite us to look upon the moral and social aspects of mouse technology in a critical way.

Part One: Biotech and religion

God talk in the life sciences

‘God talk is in vogue’, writes Dorothy Nelkin in her posthumous essay on the confusion between science and religion. In this paper Nelkin discusses the motives of scientists engaged in biotechnology for using religious metaphors. ‘Geneticists call the genome the Bible, the book of life, or the Holy Grail. DNA is not just a biological entity in the rhetoric of science; it is a so-called sacred text, the core of essential humanity or the master code’ (Nelkin 2004:140). In this respect, according to Bill Clinton: ‘Today we are learning the language in which God created life. We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, and the wonder of God’s most divine and sacred gift.’ These words, spoken during the famous White House press conference announcing the completion of the first draft version of the sequence of the human genome, have since become famous (Collins 2006). Similar examples of God talk can be found in various publications by Francis Collins, Director of the Human Genome Project[4]. ‘When you have for the first time in front of you this 3.1 billion-letter instruction book [the sequence of the humane genome] that conveys all kinds of information and all kinds of mystery about humankind, you can’t survey that going through page after page without a certain sense of awe. I can’t help but look at those pages and have a vague sense that this is giving me a glimpse of God’s mind’ (Swinford 2006). How sincere these feelings are can be concluded from the title of his autobiographical book about the cracking of the human genome, The language of God (Collins 2006).

One possible answer to the question why God talk is in vogue might be that both biology and religion address issues involved in the origin and future of (human) life. Thus, scientists involved in the life sciences may see themselves as engaged in a pursuit that is similar (to some extent) to religious enterprises of the past. Nelkin also gives another explanation. She takes it to be the response of scientists to tensions between science and religion. ‘By drawing on powerful images of Christianity, scientists are seeking to attract converts – to convince the public and many sceptics of the power of their ideas’ (Nelkin 2004: 150). This is an interesting hypothesis, because usually it is the critics of modern biotechnology who refer to God and the Bible, expressing moral doubts about ‘tinkering’ with genes, rather than the scientists themselves. Experiments in genetic engineering such as the creation of transgenic organisms have evoked objections from people who are convinced that scientists are playing God and are ‘tampering’ with God’s creation (Nelkin 2004: 142). In other words, we are faced with the interesting situation that both advocates and opponents of biotechnology have recourse to God talk or religious language, either to stress the importance and legitimacy of their scientific work, or to articulate moral arguments against scientific practices such as genetic engineering. There appears to be a thin line between ‘doing God’s work’ and ‘playing God’. Regardless of whether we value this as positive or negative, God talk conveys the general feeling that something important – boundary breaking – is happening within the life sciences.

Science as salvation

There is an ambiguous relationship between religion and science. Paul Fayter of the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) explains this in the CCC booklet on the OncoMouse patent case as follows: ‘The most common view held of how ”Science” relates to “Religion” can be called the conflict thesis or the warfare model. In this view – an ideological invention of late nineteenth century anticlerical scientists – religion and science represent two independent autonomous and inevitably opposing domains: ‘Science stands for the progressive light of reason; religion, for the dark ignorance of superstition. The church […] has done little more than to oppress and persecute scientists throughout history’ (Fayter 2003: 10). This model of conflict is also described by Mary Midgley. According to her, the idea of a conflict arose at the end of the 19th century when science was regarded, not merely as a depository of scientific facts, but rather as a kind of world-view, ‘a philosophical conception of the world and the forces within it, directly related to the meaning of human life’ […] ‘People like T.H. Huxley meant by science a vast interpretative scheme which could shape the spiritual life, a faith by which people might live’, she explains. ‘This [scientific] faith was a competitor with existing religious faiths, not a way of having no faith at all’ (Midgley 1992: 52). But the idea that the battle between science and religion is won by science – that science in some sense has disproven religion and reigns instead of it – Midgley finds extremely odd. It would suggest that the two are competing for the same job. When discussing the spiritual and intellectual ambitions of modern scientists, Midgley deliberately talks about salvation and not about the value of science. The point of using the dramatic word, ‘salvation’ is ‘to show how much the whole thing matters and especially to draw attention to the high ambitions underlying the strong claims about the value [of science]’ (Midgley 1992: 51). It is to bring out the vital importance to all of these various faiths on which we all depend, faiths without which we would be lost. The cry for salvation is a response to confusion, confusion about the fact why we are here and how to make sense of it all (Midgley 1992). To Midgley the faith in, and the very idea of, salvation through science is about myths and metaphors, visions or categories that help us to understand the physical world. So when ‘scientific facts clash with beliefs formerly held significant it is not to declare war, nor to bend the facts. It is to rethink the significance, to look much deeper into what underlies the symbols’ (Midgley 1992: 54).

Another critique on the warfare interpretation is that it ignores the fact the modern sciences are deeply rooted in Christian belief. According to Midgley, the idea that we can reach salvation through science is ancient and powerful (1992:1). In the 17th century, when modern science first arose, it was an entirely natural thought. The great thinkers of that time took it for granted, it was central to their endeavour. Nature was God’s creation, and to study it was simply one of the many ways to celebrate His glory (Midgley (1992:1). This point is also made by Fayter who claims that ‘foundational for the new views of nature in the seventeenth century were theistic assumptions. [ ] These assumptions included the intelligibility of the physical world; the reliability of human reason; the orderliness of nature; and the universal uniformity of natural law’ (Fayter 2003: 1).

A rather radical elaboration of this latter point of view can be found in The Religion of technology: The divinity of man and the sprit of invention by the historian David Noble (Noble 1997). Noble does not regard the cry for salvation as a metaphor or myth as Midgley does, he takes it literally. In the first half of his book, Noble describes how the roots of modern technology reach back to the 9th century when the useful arts first became implicated in the Christian project of redemption. Going through history he illustrates his arguments with examples of influential Millenarian[5] thinkers. The book starts with the, in those days radical, thoughts of the 9th century Carolingian philosopher John Scottus Eriugena, who was the first to identify the arts as vehicles of redemption (Noble 1997: 17) Subsequently, in the mechanics-minded world of the 12th century, the spiritualisation of the arts was undertaken by Benedictine monks (Noble 1997: 18) It was at this time that the ‘development of technology gave some assurance that mankind was on the road to recovery [from the Fall]’ (Noble 1997:21). The Franciscans carried the Millenarian message though the 13th and 14th century into the modern age, where it is reflected in the mentality of, for example, Columbus (Noble 1997: 31-34). According to Noble the discovery of the New World brought new life into the promise of mankind’s redemption through science: ‘After Columbus, paradise became more than just a vision, it became a place’ (Noble 1997: 38). In the chapter Heavenly virtuosi, Noble describes how 17th century scientists like Boyle and Newton were also deeply inspired by Millenarian prophecies. The notion of a ‘heavenly virtuosi’ refers to scientists who were involved in projects aimed at the recovery of prelapsarian Adamic perfection: a return to the state of innocence before the Fall. To illustrate his point, Noble quotes Boyle, who believed that scientists had a privileged relationship with God and that the scientific virtuosi (in the new Millennium) will have a greater knowledge of God’s wonderful universe than Adam ever had (Noble 1997, pp. 62-67). By studying nature, these modern scientists would come closer to God.

The eighth day of creation

In the second half of his book Noble focuses on contemporary technologies. Biotechnology is one of these technologies. In the chapter Powers of perfection; genetic engineering, Noble discusses the development of molecular biology, referred to by Horace Judson (and many others inspired by him) as the ‘the eighth day of creation’, and the Human Genome Project (HGP). In brief, Noble argues that genetic engineering allows us to become a co-creator and to free humans from the deficiencies of the human condition after the Fall. As such the HGP and the development of mammalian genetic engineering technologies (now predominantly developed in mice but, in theory, also applicable in man) can be seen as radical attempts to transcend the limitations of fallen creation. In the words of Noble: ‘If the new technology endowed bioengineers with Adamic dominion and God-like powers over nature, enabling them to ‘improve’ upon presumably lesser living organisms according to their own lights, and interests, it also, and perhaps most important, enlarged the prospect for their own, human perfection. (Noble 1997: 184) According to Noble, the HGP is not about humble science devoted to incrementally advancing knowledge of human genetics or to incrementally improving the human condition. Rather, it has a profile reminiscent of Millenarian prophecies. In the eyes of its director, Francis Collins, it is nothing less than ‘the most important and the most significant project that humankind has ever mounted’. Other prominent scientists involved in the HGP are also openly religious and do not hesitate to reveal their Millenarian motives. Noble quotes, for example, Warren Weaver and Arthur Paecocke, who write and speak about their divine mandates, but also Robert Sisnheimer who in 1994, years before the completion of the sequence of the human genome, had already written that: ‘Today we might say that we have discovered the language in which God created life…. After three billion years, in our time we have come to this understanding, and all the future will be different (Noble 1997: 190 quoting Sinsheimer 1994). As Noble summarises, ‘most genetic engineers [] act as if their physical enterprise was indeed a project of perfection, as if their accumulated knowledge and techniques might ultimately restore mankind to its pristine condition, freed from its myriad deliberating defects inherited from the Fall’ ( Noble 1997: 200).

It is unlikely, however, that those participants in the biotechnology debate that adhere to religious convictions will share these grand schemes. They will rather feel uneasy about such a project, whose scientific results may entail profound social problems and threaten cherished values and beliefs, in particular those about God the creator and His sacred creation: nature. On various occasions (Galileo, Darwin, etc.), science has challenged Christian views on creation and the nature of God. But in response to scientific progress, our understanding of God and His relationship with creation has also changed. In his Religion in the age of science, Ian Barbour describes eight different models of God’s role in Nature, ranging from the omnipotent classical ruler to an interpretation of God as a process leader, a wise teacher who desires his students to choose for themselves and interact harmoniously (Barbour 1990). Two of these models are of particular importance to the understanding of the relationship between science and religion; the classical model and the mechanical model. The classical model describes God as divine omnipotence, a God who governs and rules the world, who is himself eternal, unchanging and impassible, unaffected by the world. This monarchical model is challenged by the scientific evidence of evolution and the discovery of continuous change in nature. In addition, there is no place for human freedom in this model. The growth of science in the 17th century led to a mechanical model of God as a clockmaker, the designer of a mechanical nature. But this view of God as the inactive God of deism who started the mechanism and then let it run leaves little place for continuous creation, personal encounters, or the biblical view of God as acting in history. Other models of God can be understood as intermediary positions between these two extremes.

These models do not only reflect the different ways we can view God in his relationship with nature, they also reflect different visions of nature as such. James Procter distinguishes five different visions of nature: evolutionary nature; emergent nature; nature as sacred; malleable nature; and nature as culture (Procter 2004). Is nature sacred and therefore not to be disrupted by men? Do we have to interpret nature as finished, or do we have to view nature as the result of an ongoing evolutionary process? If nature is changing, is it also malleable by us? These questions lie at the heart of the biotechnology debate. In contrast to classical biology, biotechnology is not about simply understanding the secret (or sacred) laws governing the living world. By changing the genetic code biotechnologists can change the essence of living beings. Biotechnology almost by definition presupposes a vision of nature as malleable, malleable by man. When we change ‘nature’s essence’, DNA, we become co-creator.

Playing God versus doing God’s work

The vision of malleable nature implies that we distance ourselves from the view that creation is in principle finished, as well as from the idea that God bypasses human beings in arranging everything. In this view, the history of God’s creation is one in which humans have co-responsibility (Drees 2004). Concerns about human interference in life or nature are often articulated in terms of ‘playing God’. These concerns are not always religious in a strict sense. They can often be understood as metaphorical ways of expressing moral concerns for which a proper (secular) ethical vocabulary does not readily exist. It is not necessary to be a religious person to understand the symbolic or moral meaning of the statement that scientists involved in genetic engineering are playing God. In her book about the myths we live by, Midgley illustrates how the language in which some scientist express themselves seems to reveal that: ‘The mystics of the genetic revolution see themselves as experts engaged in completing nature’s work and especially in the business of ultimately perfecting humanity’ (Midgley 2003: 110). Furthermore, she points out that a powerful image lurks behind the use of the verb ‘engineering’: the simple analogy with machines. ‘Those who use the analogy [of engineering] seem to be claiming that we have a similar understanding of plants and animals as we have of machines and industrial plants into which we might put new components. But we did not design these plants and animals. This is perhaps an importance difference’ (Midgley 2003: 114).

Ronald Dworkin takes a different position in the playing God debate. He explains the use of the playing God metaphor as the expression of a distinction we make between that which is given and that which lies within our hands (Dworkin 2000)[6]. Everybody intuitively feels there is a dividing line between, on the one hand, what we are or nature is (regardless of whether this is the work of God or a blind process) and, on the other hand, what we create when we change what is given by nature. This distinction, argues Dworkin, is the backbone of our morality. Biotechnology, like no other technology, challenges this distinction. The biotechnologists who ‘play God’ are involved in matters that go beyond the way we traditionally understand concepts like nature, the unity of life, or species barriers. To play God is to play with fire. But is this a reason to put a hold on biotechnology? According to Dworkin, the answer should be No. To play with fire is what we mortals have done ever since Prometheus. We play with fire and accept the consequences, because the alternative is an irresponsible cowardice in the face of the unknown (Dworkin 2000).

This provides me with an answer to the first set of questions about the way biotechnology is related to religion and how the variety of references to God and religion in the debate about biotechnology can be explained. In summary, I believe God talk reveals that there is an important relationship between religion and biotechnology, either in a metaphorical sense or in a literal sense. This explains why moral or social concerns about biotechnology are often expressed in religious language. Biotechnology is about changing creation, changing the essential code of life, the sacred script. These terms already convey a more or less religious world-view, even if they are used metaphorically. With biotechnology we cross the Rubicon, so to speak. Yet, instead of simply accepting what is given, by God, nature or life itself, we may also see ourselves as co-creators of life or nature. Behind the playing God metaphor (or the playing God accusation) lies a complex history of interaction between science and religion and the quest for salvation, either literally in the sense of returning to a state of original perfection, or metaphorically in the sense of leading towards a better life. With respect to the point I wish to make, it does not matter whether biotechnologist are metaphorically speaking about doing God’s work (the positive interpretation) or playing God (a phrase that usually carries a negative connotation). What does matter to my argument is the assumption that seems to underlie all biotechnology: the promise that man can in fact improve life, the work of God or Nature. In the following, I will elaborate the argument that scientists claim to do so, in the first place, by manipulating the mouse genome.

Part Two: The healing powers of genetically engineered mice

The promise of mouse biotechnology

Improving the conditions of human life is the driving force behind medicine and biomedical research. All over the world, scientists are studying human biology and diseases in biomedical laboratories. In their search for ‘salvation’ – knowledge of the genome that will lead to longer, healthier and happier lives – scientists are ‘assisted’ by an army of perhaps 25 million mice (Clarke 2002). Many of these lab mice are genetically modified. Transgenic mice, also known as ‘mouse models’, are created in order to study human diseases. Mouse genes analogous to human genes are knocked out, and certain genes that possibly predispose for human diseases are knocked in. And, according to Kenneth Paigan, who was the Director of Jackson Laboratories in 1995: ‘There is every reason to believe that these efforts will have great impact; that over time they will lead to new strategies, new therapies, new means of alleviating ills, and new methods of preventing disease’ (Paigen 1995: 215). Also some patients’ groups praise the healing powers of genetically engineered mice. For example, the Patients’ Voice for Medical Advance, the national voluntary patients’ group that supports the humane use of animals and the ethical use of biotechnology in medical research in the UK, explicitly promotes mouse biotechnology on their website, in the first place as a response to animal activism[7]. ‘Transgenic mouse models enable researchers to study the complex interactions, at every stage of life, within a whole living environment. It is remarkable that, during the last 20 years or so, the genes responsible for nearly all the relatively common inherited diseases have been located and isolated. For example, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, haemophilia, neurofibromatosis, Huntingdon’s disease, infantile spinal muscular atrophy, and many others. Genetic research, using mostly mice, is set to revolutionise our medical understanding and give hope of finding cures where previously hope could hardly be offered’ (Patients’ Voice website accessed on 1 May 2007). For many diseases these mice are the only hope patients have.

A beautiful visual image of the promise and hope for the genetically engineered mouse can be found in Joseph L. Goldstein’s ‘reading’ of Mann und Maus [Man and Mouse], a sculpture by Katerina Frisch: ‘The rise of the mouse to such exalted status in biomedical research is symbolized aptly by Katharina Fritsch in her large polyester sculpture Mann und Maus. Here, a gigantic mouse (in black) sits enthroned on top of a male figure in bed (see cover image). The rigid division of the sculpture into black and white emphasises the obvious importance of the dominant animal model for human biology. Despite being dominated by the gigantic mouse, the man seems completely relaxed as he dreams of the many new advances in basic research and clinical medicine that will emerge from the new mouse technology. Curling its long tail like a question mark over the end of the duvet, the mouse wonders how long it will take for these new basic advances to be translated into clinical practice’ (Goldstein 2001: 1079)[8].

What is striking about this interpretation of Fritsch’s mouse sculpture is the complete confidence Goldstein seems to have in the fact that the promise of mouse biotechnology will become true. Sooner or later, basic advances in mouse biotechnology will be translated into clinical practice. It is a clear example of Eugene Thacker’s statement that ‘a certain type of futurological, forward thinking is a key component to the continued development of the biotech industry and its future applications in medicine and health care’ (Thacker 2001: 156). Thacker predicts a ‘future biotechnology in which medicine is both curative and preventive, in large part due to advances in both molecular sciences and information technology’ (Thacker 2001: 155). Nikolas Rose also speaks of a future-oriented technology when discussing biotechnology. ‘The key feature of [the] new technologies of life is their forward vision: they seek to optimize the vital future by action in the vital presence’ (Rose 2007: 8). Rose discusses two of these future-oriented technologies: those of (genetic) susceptibility and those of (genetic) enhancement. ‘Technologies of susceptibility aim to identify and treat persons in the present for ills from which they are predicted to suffer in the future’ (Rose 2007: 8). Technologies of enhancement, Rose argues, are likewise future-oriented: ‘Almost any capacity of human beings – strength, endurance, attention, intelligence and lifespan itself – seems potentially open to improvement by technological intervention’ (Rose 2007: 9-10)[9]. Both Thacker and Rose present a vision of biotechnology that is in line with the idea of salvation through science. Biotechnology is about faith and hope. A key characteristic of biotechnology, in particular mouse biotechnology, is its high degree of science fiction. It is a science of promises and hope, a science well visualised by Mann und Maus, but also one that deserves some critical evaluation. ‘The “science fiction” in technoscience does strategically utilise extrapolation and speculation. It does create visions of future worlds in which advanced science and medicine have developed new relations to diseases and to the body, and in doing so it does make a comment on the ways in which future biotechnology is largely dependent upon technological development to achieve this future vision’ (Thacker 2001:157).

Bio-economy or the ‘other’ promise of the genetically engineered mouse

The genetically engineered mice do not only promise better health, they also promise profit. That there are commercial interests involved in transgenic mice became clear on 12 April 1988 when, after a four-year process, for the first time in history a patent was granted on a higher form of life. In the years that followed, Harvard/OncoMouse™, the mouse involved, has beyond doubt become the best-known transgenic mouse. This mouse, expressing the MMTV myc oncogene, was developed in the laboratory of Harvard professor and geneticist Phil Leder in the early 1980s. The patent for the transgenic Harvard mouse was granted to Phil Leder and the company DuPont that donated 6 million dollars to the research (Blaugh et al. 2004). It concerned all transgenic mice carrying a gene construct for the development of spontaneous mamma tumours. The patent was related not only to the use of the mouse created by Leder but to all mammals (with the exception of human beings) that carry foreign tumour genes. DuPont’s commercial idea was to sell these mice for $50 each (Andrews 1989). Harvard researchers would be exempted from these costs (Schneider 1988a, 1988b). The patent created a stir in academia and industry. To the scientific community, it meant a threat to research because the patent included all non-human transgenic organisms that express a cancer-causing transgene. With this patent, DuPont got a tight grip on all research involving oncomice, including the mice that were created by the researchers themselves. It took more than ten years to come to a workable agreement between DuPont and academia on the free use of oncomice (Marshall 2000, 2002; Smaglik, 2000; Blaugh et al. 2004). To the industry it indicated that the transgenic mouse technologies can offer interesting business opportunities.

OncoMouse™ also created a stir in society. The public was more upset about the fact that this mouse was supposedly a human invention than about DuPont’s aggressive licensing policies. The trade mark was taken to be the ultimate sign of human arrogance towards the creation of God or Nature. This was even more upsetting than the fact that species barriers had been crossed or humans had interfered in the mouse genome. In 1995, representatives from virtually every major religion in the US started a campaign against the patenting practices of genetic engineering (Andrews 1995; Stone 1995). In interviews they claimed not to be opposed to the practice of biotechnology as such. It was the patenting of human genes or organisms to which they were opposed. Their major criticism on patenting was that it would reduce the ‘blueprint of evolution’ to a marketable commodity (Andrews 1995). OncoMouse™ became the topic of wide public moral and religious debate, but also a source of inspiration for artists and philosophers. In the process, OncoMouse™ became the cultural icon of the transgenic lab mouse. Interestingly, playing God as such was not necessarily the problem but the doing it for profit was.

At the very moment Harvard and DuPont were granted their oncomouse patent, 21 patents filed for other animal biotechnology applications were pending. A year later in April 1989, the number was already up to 65 patents pending. They were filed by hospitals, universities and commercial companies (Andrews 1989). It took the Patent Office five years before they granted another patent on a transgenic mouse (Anonymous 1992; Andrews 1993). In December 1992, three patents were granted on transgenic mice intended for biomedical research. At that time, more than 180 applications were awaiting Government action for animal patents (Andrews 1993). While the research community and biotech entrepreneurs were anxiously awaiting the next patents on genetically modified animals, Harvard/OoncoMouse™ turned out to be a commercial failure for DuPont (Marshall 2000). Cancer researchers preferred to develop their own cancer mice and mutually exchange them rather than pay for the expensive licences. But the creation of new oncomice is also protected by the DuPont patent. Initially this caused no problems. But, in the mid-1990s, DuPont started to claim its rights and requested researchers to put a halt to their oncomice activities. Harold Varmus, Director of the NIH, negotiated with DuPont about this restrictive patent. And in 2000, they came to an agreement concerning the use of oncomice in non profit institutions (Marshall 2000)[10].

Transgenic mice did not only give rise to a battle over legal rights on technologies and animals between commercial companies and academic researchers, they also gave rise to legal battles between companies. As Marla Cone writes in the Chicago Sun-Times ‘by blurring the lines between people and animals, this latest explosion in genetic engineering is not only transforming medical and developmental biology, it is raising disturbing legal economic and moral quandaries. Everyone, it seems, is claming to invent, patent, and market a million dollar lab mouse, and at times the business has degenerated into furious mouse wars’[11] (Cone 1993) According to the New York Times reporter Lawrence Osborne: ‘The mouse industry is a lucrative fad, driven by money and by corporate greed’ (Osborne 2000). A big industry that, according to The Observer’s Mike Bygrave, is based on hope and promise, very powerful driving forces (Bygrave 2002). In 2006, more than 6000 patents had been granted on transgenic animals, mostly mice (Silver 2006a: 286). The knock-out mouse project, a coordinated project to systematically knock out all mouse genes, launched after a meeting of the world’s key mouse geneticists in 2003, can be seen as a response from the scientific community to the growing influence (or obstruction) of privately-owned commercial companies in mouse biotechnology. One of the aims of this project now in progress is to create a publicly-available databank resource for genetic and phenotypic data derived from knock-out mice (Austin et al. 2004). The first effort involved the acquisition of 251 knock-out strains, the most relevant mouse models, and the extensive phenotypic data from Deltagen and Lexicon Genetics, two commercial companies (Collins et al. 2007).

As this strategic activity around the mouse illustrates, in the past 20 years the promise of mouse biotechnology has become a complex dynamic network linking together many different actors. These can be ‘actual or potential sufferers [from disease hoping] for a cure, scientists and researchers seeking a breakthrough that will [allow them to] make their name and advance their career, doctors and health care professionals wanting a therapy that will help treat their patients, biotech companies aiming for products that generate profit, governments looking for industrial and commercial developments that will generate employment and stimulate economic activity and international competitiveness’ (Rose 2007: 14). In short, this is a network that exemplifies what Rose refers to as a ‘political economy of hope’.

A critical perspective on the political economy of hope

It is in the light of this political economy of hope that I wish to reinterpret Crockett’s Ecce Homo. His sculpture presents the genetically engineered mouse as a quasi-religious icon of hope. Crockett is suggesting that biotechnologists, by giving us OncoMouse, are promising some sort of salvation, just like God the Father did when he granted us Jesus, His Son. Crockett is not the first visual artist to compare OncoMouse with the Christ figure. As a response to the first draft of ‘Mice into Wormholes’ by Donna Haraway[12] in 1994, the artist Lynn Randolph painted a transspecific human mouse hybrid ‘The Laboratory, or the Passion of Oncomouse’. In this picture OncoMouse is portrayed as half-human half-mouse with clearly recognizable human breasts. In contrast to Crockett’s Ecce Homo this mouse is definitely a ‘she’. The reference to Christ is made by the crown of thorns she is carrying. In contrast to Crockett’s Ecce Homo this female/man/mouse is not visibly suffering. She seems to be obedient and awaiting her destiny in peace. Haraway describes Randolph’s picture as follows: ‘She is a Christ figure, and her story is that of the Passion. She is a figure in the sacred-secular dramas of technoscientific salvation history, with all of the disavowed links to Christian narrative that pervade US scientific discourse. The laboratory animal is sacrificed; her suffering promises to relieve our own; she is a scapegoat and a surrogate’ (Haraway 1997:47). Elsewhere, Haraway points out that ’although her promise is decidedly secular, she is a figure in the sense developed within Christian realism; S/he is our scapegoat; s/he bears our suffering; s/he signifies and enacts our mortality in a powerful historically specific way that promises a culturally privileged kind of salvation – a ‘cure for cancer’’ (Haraway 1997: 79). Haraway chooses to interpret her oncomouse within a feminist technoscience discourse. Her OncoMouse is a model for breast cancer that may in principle affect all women. ‘If not in my own body, then surely in those of my friends, I will some day owe to OncoMouse™ or her subsequently designed rodent kin a large debt. […] Whether I agree to her existence and use or not, s/he suffers, physically, repeatedly and profoundly that I and my sisters may live’ (Haraway 1997: 79). Crockett chooses a similar perspective on the transgenic oncomouse. ‘Because the lab mouse has been used to test almost every product, disease and other facet of human life, I have chosen to interpret this ultimate actor of modern science through the ultimate figure of salvation, Jesus Christ’ (Crockett 2001b). To Crockett the transgenic laboratory mice as scientific models represent modern science. These mice represent mankind in a deeply symbolic way. But, according to Crockett: ‘This all happens out of the public eye, invisible yet also somehow present’ (Rapaport 2006).

In addition to Ecce Homo Crockett made Pinkie, a marble sculpture of a baby mouse representing the Christ-child. The scale of Pinkie is that of a fleshy human baby, sculpted with the pathos of classical sculpture. Pinkie/Christ’s hand reaches upward in a gesture of blessing. What does Crockett want to tell/ show us with these monstrous mice? According to himself, he is not opposed to ‘genetic tampering’, but he believesthat it will force us to come to terms with the metaphysical meaning of science’ (Crockett 2001b).

In 2001 Crockett takes a step further in his artistic exploration of the man/mouse metaphor in his project Cultured. This group of marble sculptures, in the same style as Pinkie, represents seven newborn mice personifying the Seven Deadly Sins: lust, anger (wrath), gluttony, pride, sloth, greed and envy (see Figure 5 a-g). The figures are representatives of actual mice that are engineered to study human diseases. Gluttony was based on the ob-mouse, that is: the obese mouse engineered by Jackson Laboratory in Maine to study obesity and diabetes. Anger is pumped up on testosterone, and Lust is a mouse genetically altered to have an extremely sensitive skin. Pride refers to the vanity of cloning. Greed manifests the extra chromosome that predisposes to Down’s syndrome. Sloth has malformed legs as a result of arthritis and the effect of thalidomide. Envy, with its tiny human shaped ears, refers to the human ear that was grown on a laboratory mouse, as well as to the replication of a human immune system in mice (Johnson 2002; Rapaport 2006; Leffingwell 2002). With Cultured, Crocket sets a double agenda. He wants to make ‘these invisible little workers/prisoners more anthropomorphic or human’. But, by choosing the theme of the seven sins he also merges religious ideas with scientific ones (Rapaport 2006). Ecce Homo, Pinkie and Cultured refer to both technoscientific practices and to religion. Therefore, the work of Crockett can be placed in the tradition of Christian iconography, as well as in the public debate on biotechnology. It is an explicit religious interpretation of the scientific practice of biotechnology.

The message of Ecce Homo the OncoMouse

Someone who gets to meet real oncomice in a laboratory after having seen Crockett‘s mice, may well be disappointed. Compared with the grotesque and monstrous Ecce Homo, real oncomice are sweet little mice. There is nothing special about them. They are neither huge nor nude. They do not stand on their hind legs. They develop tumours and become visibly ill. But you cannot tell by simply looking at them that these mice carry human genes so that they may mimic human cancer. The trade mark is not imprinted on their fur. They look like normal lab mice and they behave like normal lab mice. The technology behind these mice is invisible to the naked eye. Not only are their genetic mutations invisible, the mice themselves, who live in laboratories specialised in the containment of hazardous material, remain (as Crockett also pointed out) invisible to the public eye.

When Ecce Homo and, subsequently, Pinkie and Cultured entered the public arena through their exhibition in art galleries and reviews in art magazines, newspapers and even Nature (Nelkin and Anker 2002), the transgenic mice on which they were modelled also became visible to broader audiences. But Crockett dramatically added meaning to the original oncomice. He gave his OncoMouse a human size and a human posture. Standing on its hind legs Ecce Homo, the mouse/man mouse model, literally resembles Man. Being at eye level, Ecce Homo can interact with his audience in a way that would not be possible for a mouse on a mouse-scale. The pathos of the sculpture reveals how transgenic mice like Ecce Homo are used by us humans; they are similar to us, but also victims of science.

How does Crockett help us to understand the moral meaning of animal biotechnology? Notwithstanding his pathos, Crockett refuses to take a position on animal biotechnology from a bioethics or animal rights point of view. In my opinion, this explains why his work is so powerful in pointing out the important issues at stake. Rather than entering the debate over the use of animals in laboratory experiments with a clear-cut moral message, Crockett’s sculptures visualise the time-old conflict between religious doctrine and scientific rationality. By explicitly referring to the Christ figure, Crockett seems to indicate we have chosen science as a substitute for faith in an era of dwindling spirituality, and he seems to be questioning this choice (Gladman 2002). This observation takes us to Crockett’s statement that man has to come to terms with the ‘metaphysical meaning of science’. Ecce Homo the OncoMouse can be interpreted as an icon of our overall optimistic faith in salvation by technoscience. But it also echoes the rhetoric of saving lives that is so stereotypically conveyed by moral justifications of (animal) biotechnology. Animal biotechnology is only permitted when experiments are useful and necessary. Whether an experiment is useful and necessary usually depends on how much it is expected to contribute in finding a cure for a life-threatening disease. It is about what we want to believe and what we are told.

If a secular equivalent of redemption can be found in the promise of biotechnology to save us from life-threatening diseases, what would be the equivalent of the Fall from Eden? By portraying his cultured transgenic mice as the Seven Deadly Sins, Crockett seems to explicitly reflect upon this question. The sculptures are not about sick mice, they are about us, humans. They urge us to have a closer look at the relationship between his transgenic mice and the human individuals they are actually modelling. These mice are mouse copies of obese people, people who want to regenerate some of their degenerating tissues, or children of mothers who took thalidomide while pregnant. Thalidomide was a widely used sedative to prevent morning sickness in pregnant women in the early 1960s. By the time it became clear what the effect of thalidomide actually had on embryonic development, more than ten thousand thalidomide-induced teratologies (short limbs) had been found (Leroi 2003: 118-121) The medical examples that the mice represent are carefully chosen by Crockett. These illnesses are the result either of ‘bad’ or ‘immoral’ (unhealthy or risky) human behaviour or of scientific mistakes. Also many forms of cancer, the raison d’être of OncoMouse™, are related to (unhealthy) lifestyles. There is a general consensus on the existence of a relationship between smoking and lung cancer, sunbathing and skin cancer, unhealthy diet and colon cancer. They all represent diseases that are caused by morally-questionable lifestyles. It seems that Crockett wants to argue that these mice designed to model these forms of cancer are literally sacrificed for our sins. With Cultured, in my opinion, Crockett adds a very critical note to the heroic statement that with transgenic mice scientists are finding cures to life-threatening diseases. Genetic diseases are the result of genes and behaviour. Transgenic mice will not change our behaviour.

But Ecco Homo the OncoMouse™ and Cultured are not only about human sins and faith in redemption by science and technology. They are also critical reflections on the commodification of life and the trade marks that the transgenic mice are carrying. OncoMouse™ is not just a transgenic mouse; it is the first patented animal. The sculpture of Ecce Homo does not only comment on the promises made by the scientists, it also comments upon the promises made by DuPont and all the other commercial companies involved in the worldwide transgenic mouse business. In advertising their commercially available OncoMouse™, DuPont promised ‘better things for better life’. It is hard to believe in the sincerity of this promise, given the problems that the patenting of OncoMouse™ and other biotechnologies entailed for the non-profit-scientific community.

Concluding remarks

Ecce Homo the OncoMouse can be interpreted as a modern icon of our optimistic faith in salvation through technoscience. To many people, religious or not, the idea that science can and will bring about a form of salvation, a longer, healthier and even happier life, is a tempting one. The whole biotech industry is based on this hope and promise. Nevertheless, I do not think I can subscribe to Nelkin’s statement that ‘by drawing on powerful images of Christianity, scientists are seeking to attract converts – to convince the public and many sceptics of the power of their ideas’. I do not see God talk simply as a matter of strategic rhetorics. Rather I am convinced that God talk illustrates how biotechnology itself has become a belief system, albeit a belief system that includes a number of varieties. To some, biotechnology means hope to find a cure for life-threatening diseases. To others, breakthroughs in mouse biotechnologies represent the promise that a healthy biotech industry will provide jobs for the people who work there and revenues for the shareholders. Lessons learned about the malleability of nature challenge long-held beliefs about creation. So, in this sense too, biotechnology is becoming a belief system, one that replaces traditional beliefs in God. To the extent that God has left the scene, he left behind a rather unsettling imaginative vacuum that is now being occupied by biotechnologists (Midgley 2004). According to Midgley, this has to do with the persistence of the idea of the world as machinery, but now in the absence of a designer: ‘Where there is no designer the whole idea of a mechanism begins to grow incoherent. Natural selection is supposed to fill the gap, but it is a thin idea, not very satisfying to the imagination’ (Midgley 2003: 118). We need something to believe in, something that will help us to coherently frame our imagination, something that entails a vision of nature.

This takes me to the answer to the second set of questions about the feelings and concerns that are expressed by the playing God metaphor. Are these primarily moral concerns about messing with His creation or nature, or does ‘God talk’ also reveal other more complex issues of moral concern? In summary, I believe God talk reveals much more than moral concerns about messing with His creation. It also expresses concerns about power, or to put it more specifically, about the distribution of power. Who is promising salvation through biotechnology? If this is really the first time ‘a living creature understands its origin and can undertake to design its future’, it is an important question which living creature it is that understands itself. Who is playing God? As Midgley points out, it cannot be human beings in general. Most people have no idea how to do it. This means that the biotech revolution is creating a new type of elite. These are the biotechnologists, the only people who are able to make the changes in the DNA of living organisms (Midgley 2004). This elite, with unprecedented knowledge concerning matters of life and death, can play a dominant role in a political economy of hope.

The danger of biotechnology turned into a belief system is that, by doing so, it may become less susceptible to critique. If one sincerely believes that mouse biotechnology will lead to some sort of salvation: for example, by saving lives that would otherwise be lost, every mouse and every amount of funding invested in mouse research becomes important and necessary – a belief which is almost impossible to question. Such a belief may stand in the way of a sound moral and political debate on what animal biotechnology is really about, the animal suffering involved, and the implications of biotechnology for our own human future and other bio-political issues. What is it exactly that mouse biotechnology is promising? For example, one of the critical points Crockett seems to be making is that biotechnology will encourage a hedonistic lifestyle. What effect will the genetically engineered mice have on our lifestyle if ‘sins’ related to the western way of living, such as the consumption of unhealthy food, smoking, stress and pollution, can be compensated with research on genetically engineered mice? If research on the mouse and the human genome is directed towards correcting or overcoming genetic errors, what will be the future standards of health and quality of life? Will ‘health’ simply mean to be free of life-threatening diseases such as cancer, or will it also come to imply freedom from ‘genetic errors’ involved in obesity or colour blindness? This is an important question because, as Rose observes, biotechnology implies a shift from technologies of health to technologies of life. ‘Contemporary medical technologies do not merely seek to cure diseases, but to control and manage vital processes of the body and mind’ (Rose 2007: 8). How will our perceptions of genetic diseases evolve when our understanding of the genome and of the complex interactions between genes (of both mouse and man) increases? What will we look like in the future when: ‘Interventions are demanded by customers making choices on the basis of desires shaped not by medical necessity but by the market and consumer culture’ (Rose 2007: 10). If scientists are playing God, what is their (or the market’s) Divine plan? Are genetically modified mice to be seen as monstrous anticipations of what we will become ourselves?

[1] The Holy Bible: King James Version (2000).

[2] William L. Stanford, Jason B. Cohn and Sabine P. Cordes (2001) ’Mouse Genomic Technologies; Gene-trap mutagenesis: past present and beyond’, Nature Reviews Genetics.

[3] Harvard/OncoMouse™ is not a nude mouse. The original Harvard/OncoMouse™ was a furry albino mouse (see Figure 6) Nude mice do exist in laboratories. They lack hair and an effective immune system. This last property makes nude mice, discovered in 1962, a very good candidate for cancer research because they do not reject human tumour transplants. However, this nude mouse is not genetically engineered.

[4] Francis Collins claims to be the ghost writer of Bill Clinton. He writes about this in his book: ‘Was I, a rigorously trained scientist, taken aback at such a blatantly religious reference by the leader of the free world at a moment such as this? Was I tempted to scowl or look at the floor in embarrassment? No, not at all. In fact I had worked closely with the president’s speechwriter in the frantic days just prior to this announcement, and had strongly endorsed the inclusion of this paragraph. When it came time for me to add a few words of my own, I echoed this sentiment: ‘It’s a happy day for the world. It is humbling for me, and awe-inspiring, to realize that we have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God’ (Collins 2006).

[5] Millenarism is, according to Noble, in essence the expectation that the end of the world is near, and that, accordingly, a new earthly paradise is at hand (Noble 1997: 23).

[6] A Dutch translation of the original paper that appeared in Prospectus Magazine is used.

[7] See <>. However, a quick search on the Internet reveals that most patients’ groups remain silent about the use of mouse biotechnology.

[8] Please note that this is Goldstein’s interpretation of the sculpture and not Katerina Fritsch’s. According to the artist, the sculpture is about the relation between men and women:’Insofern hat das ganze Bild naturlich mit den Beziehungen zwischen Mann uns Frau zu tun, mit gescheiterten Liebesbeziehungen’ (Blazwick 2002).


[9] In the next chapter, I will discuss the scientific arguments for these statements in more detail.

[10] Similar problems arose with a patent for Cre-Lox the system owned by DuPont, granted to DuPont in 1992. This patent was the beginning of another battle of many years fought between the research community led by Harold Varmus and DuPont (Marshall 1998). Problems started in 1995, when DuPont started to approach researchers who were using the Cre-Lox system to sign a contract that limited their activities. Jackson Lab negotiated this for about 2 years with DuPont, but was not able to reach an agreement. Varmus, however, succeeded after a year of negotiation. Since 19 August 1998, researchers who work for non-profit institutions are allowed to use the Cre-Lox system, but DuPont preserves the commercial rights (Marshall 1998).

[11] One of the three patents the US patent office granted in 1993 was related to a transgenic mouse designed with a human immune system. The patent was granted to Genpharm international, but the company Cell Gensys claimed that technology had been stolen from them (Coghlan 1994).

[12] Reprinted in revised form as Chapter 2: ‘FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™. Mice into Wormholes: A Technoscinece Fugue in Two parts, in Haraway D. (1997) Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium. FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™ New York London: Routledge.