by Greg Hollin
On the 24th of January 2018, it was widely reported that two female, crab-eating macaques (Macaca fascicularis) named Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua had become the first primates born to cloning technologies like those used to create Dolly the Sheep. Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua are the first of many planned clones which will, in the future, have their genes edited so that their behaviour more closely matches humans with Parkinson’s disease who they are intended model. There is so much to be said about these animals; from their name (Zhonghua being a name for China) to the fact that the success of this experiment is ushering in a soon-to-be-formally-announced International Primate Research Centre in Shaghai which is intended to become ‘the CERN of primate biology’. Here, however, I’ll focus on just two topics of particular concern to feminist enquiry and gender scholarship: kinship and care.
I’ve spoken with the CIGS MA students about kinship a lot this year. We often think of kinship as being simply a matter of genetic relatedness (parents and children, brothers and sisters), but our discussions have suggested something more complicated. Much of this discussion has taken place in the context of Gayle Rubin’s foundational piece The Traffic in Women wherein Rubin states that ‘Kinship is organization, and organization gives power. But who is organized?’ (Rubin 1975: 174). Rubin concludes that it is women who are organized – trafficked – as objects in a ‘sex/gender system’ premised upon particular kinship relations. On this basis Rubin called for an overhaul of kinship relations as central to any project of emancipation.
It is probably not the overhaul that Rubin anticipated but anthropologist Sophia Roosth reminds us that animals like the macaques very obviously queer kinship categories for they ‘inaugurate new forms of relatedness…[and] do not fit neatly into trees of life based on descent, ancestry, or lineage’ (Roosth 2017: 75). These daughters are their own mothers and are brought into contact with ourselves and our kin who are suffering from neurodegenerative diseases. Meanwhile other kin (the surrogate mother, the genetically identical siblings that died shortly after birth) are sidelined or footnoted. As Donna Haraway said a full decade ago, these new kinship relations necessitate us to ask hard and important questions about kinship:
‘Who are my kin in this odd world of promising monsters, vampires, surrogates, living tools, and aliens? How are natural kinds identified in the realms of late-twentieth-century technoscience? What kinds of crosses and offspring count as legitimate and illegitimate, to whom and at what cost? Who are my familiars, my siblings, and what kind of liveable world are we trying to build?’ (Haraway 1997: 53, emphasis added)
In attempting to address Haraway’s questions, I think it is worth at least dwelling on the observation of Hugh Raffles who, in the context of a different animals, notes a kinship paradox at the heart of these experiments, the fact that these animals:
‘…can be so like us that it seems natural to think of it as our biological surrogate and simultaneously can be so entirely unlike us that it seems equally natural to subject it, without remorse or even concern, to unconstrained destruction.’ (Raffles 2010: 120)
Alongside questions of kinship, these macaques tie into topics I’m discussing with undergraduates in our school as part of a course on ‘gender, technology, and the body’ which concern matters of care and domestic practice. The currently narrated story is one of technological innovation and the power of science that is evidently open to the long-standing critique that domestic and care work, almost invariably undertaken by women, is ignored and deemed irrelevant. In the case of animal experimentation this care work often revolves around everyday activities such as cleaning housing and preparing food. Carrie Friese has conducted extensive research in another biotechnical arena of relevance to this matter; de-extinction wherein extinct species are brought back into the world in a story reminiscent of Jurassic Park. As part of this story Friese tells us about attempts to bring back the gaur, a type of Indian bison. Friese notes that these attempts to bring gaur back from the dead failed not because technological inadequacy but, rather because of husbandry problems: ‘people involved simply did not know how to hand rear a guar’ (Friese & Marris 2014: 2). At the very least we are reminded here that ‘questions regarding animal care need to be understood as a crucial part of de-extinction experimentation, rather than downstream concerns’ (Friese & Marris 2014: 2). The challenges for those working with Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua will be different to those working with gaur (if wikipedia’s figures are to be believed, something in the region of 41,000 macaques will be used in animal experiments in the United States this year, which suggests a lack of knowledge will not be a problem) but care and domestic work will remain central to these endeavours. Taking account of this unacknowledged work – and asking, again, for whom and at what cost – is something that feminist and gender studies scholars and particularly accustomed to. That expertise and the questioning and understanding kinship and care remains as relevant today as it was to Rubin writing half a century ago.
Friese, C. & Marris, C., 2014. Making De-Extinction Mundane? PLoS Biology, 12(3), pp.12–14.
Haraway, D.J., 1997. Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouseTM: feminism and technoscience, New York: Routledge.
Raffles, H., 2010. Insectopedia, New York: Random House.
Roosth, S., 2017. Synthetic: How Life Got Made, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Rubin, G., 1975. The traffic in women: Notes on the “political economy” of sex. In R. Reiter, ed. Toward an Anthropology of Women. New York: Monthly Review Press, pp. 157–210.