Lines in the sand: Coming to terms with Patricia Piccinini


Elizabeth Finkel, former biochemist, and Editor-in-Chief of Cosmos Magazine, a science magazine that she co-founded in 2005, comes to terms with Patricia Piccinini. This is an extract from ‘Lines in the sand: A science writer comes to terms with Patricia Piccinini’ from the exhibition publication supporting ‘Patricia Piccinini: Curious Affection‘.

I’m interested in telling stories about the world we live in. That is one of the reasons I’m interested in science. Science explains how the world works, and also becomes the expression for how we want the world to be — or how we fear it might end up. When we end up talking about how the world might be, that is a wonderful place for an artist to explore.
Patricia Piccinini

I first encountered Patricia Piccinini in 2003. She had shot to global fame representing Australia at that year’s Venice Biennale. I was in the process of writing a book, Stem Cells: Conflict at the Frontiers of Science. One of her key pieces in the Biennale was The Young Family 2002, a shockingly realistic sculpture of a human-like mother with her babies. Her pink fleshy body is pig-like, but her face and expression is human. Three of her babies are suckling; a fourth gurgles on its back, clutching its foot just like a human baby. I was dismayed by the piece — it seemed to embody even more of the dystopian reaction to stem cell science that I was trying to battle with my book.

Patricia Piccinini, Australia b.1965 / The Young Family (and detail) 2002 / Silicone, fibreglass, leather, plywood, human hair; ed. 1/3 / 80 x 150 x 110cm / RHS Abbott Bequest Fund 2003 / Collection: Bendigo Art Gallery, Vic. / © The artist

Patricia and I were both responding to a scientific revolution. In 1998, researchers in Australia and the United States finally cracked the problem of how to cultivate stem cells from human embryos. Like the embryo, these cells had primordial power — they could multiply and give rise to any organ. But unlike a human embryo, which rapidly relinquishes that power as it morphs into a body, stem cells keep their power forever. The potential was obvious. Like Prometheus stealing fire from the heavens, embryonic stem cells captured the stuff of human life. Any number of human illnesses and injuries might be cured — a new pancreas for a child with juvenile diabetes, new spinal nerves to restore movement in a paralysed person, or new brain tissue to replace the loss caused by Parkinson’s disease.

Dystopian narratives abounded as the Australian government, like others around the world, debated how to capture this biological fire without being burnt. In my view, those narratives were not useful. There were also several ethical arguments mounted against stem cell science. One that seemed to gain the most traction was that it was unethical because it required the destruction of human embryos — strange given that these five-day-old embryos did not have a single nerve cell, were ‘surplus’ and, hence, destined to be thrown out. Furthermore, even with fully mature human beings, we harvest their organs when they die to save the lives of others.

Another argument proposed that even if the initial uses of stem cells were acceptable, the ‘slippery slope’ of technology would seduce society into going places it shouldn’t. One of the key dystopian tropes involved human–animal chimeras, just the sort of idea Piccinini had given physical form to with her ‘young family’. Piccinini’s work catches you unprepared — it’s the slippery slope in action.

In my book, I argued that there’s no such thing as the slippery slope. Technology is not in the driver’s seat. There are checks and balances. At each point along the road, we decide whether or not to continue on our journey. For me, an important example of the robustness of those checks and balances was the genetic modification of human embryos. The technology has existed since the 1970s; it’s the same technology that has created goats with spider silk in their milk or fast-growing pigs.1 Yet, decades on, people were not being genetically engineered.

We had drawn a moral line in the sand — for good reasons. One was the unforeseen biological consequences; after all, our gene pool is the result of millions of years of natural selection. The diversity and imperfection we see in the human population reflects an optimised set of genes that allow us as a species to survive plagues and changing climates, and to adapt to new food sources. And that has led to genetic trade-offs. For instance, to make the haemoglobin that carries oxygen through the bloodstream, you need a beta globin gene. If you inherit a ‘sickle cell’ form of the gene, you are at risk of anaemia and blocked blood vessels. On the other hand, you are protected against dying from malaria. But what of the other genetic tradeoffs we don’t know about? For the sake of future generations and the plagues and cataclysms they must face, it was considered too risky to tamper with a genetic legacy we don’t entirely understand.

Patricia Piccinini, Australia b.1965 / Psychotourism (from ‘The Mutant Genome Project’ series) 1996 / Type C photograph (Digiprint), ed. of 6 / 120.7 x 258.6cm / Purchased 1998. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

Another argument against the genetic engineering of embryos was the concern over creating a genetic upper caste. As bioethicist Laurie Zoloth warned:

Our knowledge of unforeseen consequences is too poor; our capacity for greed and narcissism too strong; our society already too unjust to begin to design babies to a spec sheet.

According to Zoloth, who served on the US Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee, ‘It [genetic engineering of human embryos] has been rejected by every political, religious and ethical body that has considered it’.2

So, in 2015, it was a shock when Chinese scientists announced they had crossed that moral line. They had genetically modified human embryos to correct a defect that causes beta thalassemia, another type of anaemia.3 The modified embryos were not capable of becoming babies; they were faulty embryos, rejected from an IVF clinic because they had been fertilised by two sperm. Nevertheless, the experiment heralded the beginning of another revolution.

This modifying of human embryos had been enabled by a new technology. CRISPR was a form of genetic engineering so precise, it had been renamed ‘genetic editing’.4 Traditional genetic engineering was clumsy — to successfully engineer a single embryo required attempts on hundreds or thousands of embryos. This degree of waste was deemed acceptable with animal embryos, but not with the ten or so embryos a woman typically produces during an IVF cycle.

Like many others, I was amazed — there was no moral line in the sand after all, and technology was driving us to a place we had not intended to go. Francis Collins, the director of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), proclaimed his agency would not fund research viewed ‘almost universally as a line that should not be crossed’, although others like the National Academy of Sciences took a different view.5 They argued the risk of mistakes was too high to allow a genetically modified embryo to develop into a baby. However, they believed that research to refine the embryo editing technique should continue. And it has.

In 2016, a second Chinese team edited embryos to make them resistant to HIV by modifying a gene called CCR5; then, a third Chinese team corrected faulty genes that cause beta thalassemia and favism.6 Those experiments were all marred by errors — while one part of the DNA was correctly edited, errors were introduced in others. And, importantly, not every cell in the embryo was fixed. However, in 2017, a US group achieved error-free editing of a human embryo. In this case, they repaired a mistake in a gene (MYBPC3) that causes sudden cardiac arrest in one in every 500 people, without introducing errors elsewhere.7

Another moral line in the sand was crossed in 2017, this time concerning chimeras — creatures that are a mix of more than one animal. The name is drawn from Greek mythology, and refers to a fire-breathing beast with the head of a lion, a goat’s body and a serpent for a tail. In January 2017, I was taken aback by a paper reporting something almost as startling: a human–pig chimera.8

It was not exactly as Piccinini imagined: the chimera was a foetus that was destroyed four weeks into its development. Most of its tissue was derived from pig cells, but about one in 100 000 cells was human. None of the human cells contributed to the foetus’ brain function, as far as the researchers could tell.This was an important point of clarification because of an even stranger paper published in 2013. Researchers had grafted human brain cells (‘glial progenitors’) into mouse embryos, and, according to those researchers, the mice ended up smarter.10 (This finding was a surprise given these types of cells don’t actually relay signals; rather, like a maintenance crew, they help neurons stay in tiptop condition.)

Patricia Piccinini, Australia b.1965 / Subset – red portrait 1997 / Type C colour photograph / 79.7 x 80cm / Purchased with Funds from the Moët & Chandon Australian Art Foundation / Collection: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra / © The artist

Why would anyone want to make these chimeras? The answer is to grow spare parts for people. Scientists have already grown a replacement pancreas for a mouse in this way. Mouse stem cells were introduced into a rat embryo whose DNA had been ‘edited’ so it could no longer make a pancreas. The mouse stem cells filled in for the missing organ. The rat-grown mouse pancreas then ‘fixed’ the diabetes of a sick mouse for 370 days.11

Researchers have been trying for years to coax human embryonic stem cells into making organs in culture dishes; however, these ‘organoids’ are not particularly functional. Imagine a builder trying to construct a freestanding functional bathroom. Without the surrounding walls and plumbing, it won’t work. Biologists seem to be facing a similar problem with freestanding organoids, and building them within the framework of a developing embryo seems to be the answer, for now.

So the potential exists to generate a human organ for someone in a pig using their own stem cells, but there is also an ethical risk. Researchers are concerned that human cells will contribute to the development of a pig brain. Could they inadvertently produce a pig with a human-like consciousness? What if human stem cells ended up as human eggs or sperm? If chimeras mated, could a human be born? In August 2016, the US NIH announced it would lift its moratorium on the creation of such chimeras for research purposes.12 In 2018, some 15 years after she created it, Piccinini’s ‘young family’ has even greater resonance. Her humanlike pig mother captures an ethicist’s worst nightmares.

I understand now that Piccinini did not intend her ‘young family’ as a dystopian trope, as she told me when we met in her studio:

I take science as a given. My art is about opening up a space where things don’t become
black and white, they’re not good or bad, they’re related to how we feel about things and
that could change, it’s not static. And I think that’s the strength of art; it’s part of the
dialogue around how we shape our society.13

I now see The Young Family as a deeply informed work that addresses profound issues: one is the roller-coaster relationship we have with modern medicine. We look to medical expertise with great hope when we or our loved ones fall ill, but sometimes we are bitterly disappointed. Piccinini experienced that roller-coaster as a teenager watching her mother battle cancer, and she was subsequently drawn to pathology museums to sketch grotesque specimens in formalin bottles. It is easy to see how she forged her idiom — her language of human flesh.

Patricia Piccinini, Australia b.1965 / Graham 2016 / Silicone, fibreglass, human hair, clothing, concrete / 140 x 120 x 170cm / Courtesy: TAC (Transport Accident Commission) / © The artist

Ultimately, Piccinini’s body of work addresses the profound question of what it means to be human. It also explores the boundaries of humanness — and queries the otherness of animals, of cyber-forms, and of humans who don’t resemble ‘the norm’. As we enter the twenty-first century, a time where we can engineer flesh to create perfect human babies, or chimeras — and, soon enough, machines with human intelligence — the question of what it means to be a human being grows more poignant.

It certainly feels like we are on a slippery slope — and losing our balance. Technology has not just changed what is physically possible, it has also rocked the ethical landscape. Past moral certainties no longer apply. We must explore the benefits and risks of what has become newly possible.

Caught up in our frenetic lives and dizzied by the pace of change, Patricia Piccinini invites us to stop, momentarily, to examine what has been captured in the freeze frame and explore our responses as we enter this brave new world.

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1 Adam Rutherford, ‘Synthetic biology and the rise of the “spider-goats”’, Guardian, 15 January 2012, <>, viewed September 2017.
2 Laurie Zoloth, ‘Designer babies crawl closer’, Cosmos Magazine, issue 65, October–November 2015, p.36; see also: <>, viewed October 2017.
3 ‘Fact Sheet 34: Thalassaemias and Sickle Cell Disease’, Centre for Genetics Education (New South Wales Government), November 2012, < FS34KBS.pdf>, viewed September 2017.
4 Viviane Richter, ‘What is CRISPR and what does it mean for genetics?’, Cosmos Magazine, 18 April 2016, <>, viewed September 2017.
5 ‘On human gene editing: International Summit statement’, International Summit on Human Gene Editing, 3 December 2015, <>, viewed October 2017.
6 Beta thalassemia is a blood disorder that reduces the production of haemoglobin; haemoglobin carries oxygen to cells throughout the body. Favism is an allergic reaction to fava beans, causing a severe haemolytic anaemia.
7 Elizabeth Finkel, ‘Error-free editing of human embryos achieved by US researchers’, Cosmos Magazine, 3 August 2017, <>, viewed September 2017.
8 Jun Wu et al, ‘Interspecies chimerism with mammalian pluripotent stem cells’, Cell, vol.168, issue 3, pp.473–86.
9 Megan Molteni, ‘First human–pig chimera is a step toward custom organs’, Wired Magazine, 26 January 2017, <>, viewed September 2017.
10 Robin JM Franklin and Timothy J Bussey, ‘Do your glial cells make you clever?’, Cell Stem Cell, vol.12, issue 3, pp.265–6.
11 Tomoyuki Yamaguchi and Hideyuki Sato et al, ‘Interspecies organogenesis generates autologous functional islets’, Nature, vol.542, issue 7640, pp.191–6.
12 Jocelyn Kaiser, ‘NIH moves to lift moratorium on animal-human chimera research’, Science, 4 August 2016, <>, viewed September 2017.
13 Patricia Piccinini, interview

Dr Elizabeth Finkel is a former biochemist and co-founder of Cosmos Magazine. She is the author of Stem Cells: Controversy on the Frontiers of Science, which won a Queensland Premier’s Literary Award in 2005, and of The Genome Generation, published in 2012. Her work for Cosmos Magazine has been awarded four Publishers Australia Excellence Awards. In 2011, she was named the National Press Club’s Higher Education Journalist of the Year, and in 2013, her Cosmos Magazine story ‘Fields of Plenty’ won the Crawford Prize for agricultural journalism. In 2015, Elizabeth won the Department of Industry and Science Eureka Prize for Science Journalism for her article ‘A Statin a day’, the first print article to win the award in 11 years

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Exhibition publication

Installation view of The Couple 2018 in the artist’s studio, illustrated on the front cover of Patricia Piccinini: Curious Affection publication / Silicone, fibreglass, hair, cotton / ed. 1/3 + 1 AP / 42 x 168 x 65cm / © The artist / Photograph: Estelle Druskovich

film prograM

in conversation: JOIN Elizabeth Finkel and Patricia Piccinini

Opening Weekend / 1:30pm Saturday 24 March

Elizabeth Finkel is also speaking at the World Science Festival on Sunday 25 March at 1.00pm / Ticketed

HEAR THE ARTIST: Patricia Piccinini

Opening Weekend / 11:00am and 2.30pm Saturday 24 March

Feature image detail: Patricia Piccinini’s The Young Family