Cyborgs, DIY Neuroscience and Custom Puppies: Reflections on Engineering Animals

For something we all do, “being a living creature,” is something we all barely understand. We don’t know why we’re here,’ and we don’t know what life is; we don’t fully understand what it is that makes us and other living things be. All we know is that it is pretty awesome, and pretty unlikely, that we are.

A lot of people claim to understand life, but come on: we don’t get it. Yet we’ve taken it upon ourselves to mess with life, ‘playing God,’ so to speak, but not in the way Morgan Freeman did in Bruce Almighty. 

Emily Anthes, science journalist, covers developments in science ‘playing God’ in her book Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts. Anthes’ book discusses the myriad of ways that technology is intersecting with non-human biology: a dolphin whose lost tail was replaced by a robotic one (chronicled in a movie, starring Morgan Freeman, Dolphin Tale,) glow-in-the-dark cats, animals engineered for human-medicinal purposes (other than snugglin’ a cute puppy to help with your depression,) allergen-free pets and cyborg robot bugs, designed to be scary and perpetually crawl all over your face when you’re sleeping.

The future of Biotech has a lot of implications for us humans: being a cyborg would be pretty dope (technically anyone with a robotic prosthetic or pacemaker is already a cyborg). Custom-made pets would likely be a huge industry, and computer-controlled bugs could be helpful to military, police and rescue people.

Controlling bugs via computer is actually a lot easier than it sounds. We already have DIY Neuroscientists who… you know, do neuroscience themselves, treating the human brain like a the yogurt in a hipster’s fridge. The fella in the video below produces this little gadget that he claims a child could use.

The gadget, when hooked up to a grasshopper’s leg, uses electric signals to make the leg move. It’s pretty impressive.

All brain activity is electrical, so on a creature as simple as a grasshopper it’s easy to simulate brainwave stimulation. It’s interesting seeing brain activity broken down like this, and it reminds you that in the end (not just in the end, but from beginning TO end) all that your ‘you’ is–your mind, your consciousness–is a series of chemical and electric reactions. Probably.

Now the obvious ethical question that arises from messing with animals like this is: is it right to play God? And more importantly, is it okay to hurt animals in the name of science?

Before you go jumping after biotech and saying it’s wrong to engineer animals, remember: if you have any dog other than like, a wild wolf, you have an engineered animal, bred by generations of humans to be cute, or protective, or good at carrying barrels full of medicine around.

What’s the difference?

But just because we’ve been doing it for generations doesn’t mean it’s ethical: we’ve also been doing like, war and patriarchy for generations.

Anthes said: “There are philosophical concerns about, ‘Is this unnatural?’” with regards to biotech. Does something being unnatural make it automatically bad? And does anything ‘unnatural’ truly exist? Look here: humans and animals and plants all come from the same place, all have the same evolutionary roots.

So why is what a human does not natural?

Do you blame a beaver for the trees it cuts down for its dam? A lion for massacring a gazelle? The difference could be that we as humans are smart enough to understand that doing these things is ‘wrong,’ but if we’re so much smarter does that not entitle us to do whatever we want?

Another concern Anthes brings up (not her concern, she’s citing concerns she’s heard) is that engineered animals might get loose and wreak havoc, slowly destroying humanity and the world, which sounds bad, but come on: the world’s gonna end eventually, why can’t it be at the hands of glow-in-the-dark kitties?

I just asked a lot of questions and didn’t provide many answers; do you have any answers? Would you want an engineered pet? Is the fact that a brain can be simulated by a few electrical pulses depressing?  Chime in in the comments.