What Rough Beasts?

By MAUREEN DOWD

New York Times

May 7, 2005

WASHINGTON

I love chimeras.

I've seen just about every werewolf, Dracula and mermaid movie ever made, I have a Medusa magnet on my refrigerator, and the Sphinx of Greek mythology is a role model for her lethal brand of mystery.

So when chimeras reared up in science news, I grabbed my disintegrating copy of Edith Hamilton's "Mythology" to refresh my memory on the Chimera, the she-monster with a lion's head, a goat's body and a serpent's tail: "A fearful creature, great and swift of foot and strong/Whose breath was flame unquenchable."

Bellerophon, "a bold and beautiful young man" on flying Pegasus, shot arrows down at the flaming monster and killed her.

Chimeras with "generally sinister powers," as Nicholas Wade wrote in The Times, seemed to be a lesson in "the pre-Darwinian notion that species are fixed and penalties are severe" for crossing boundaries.

Chimeras got attention again in the mid-80's, Sharon Begley of The Wall Street Journal noted, when embryonic goat cells were merged with embryonic sheep cells to produce a "geep," when a human-mouse chimera was born and when "scientists took brain-to-be tissue from quail embryos and transplanted it into chicken embryos. Once hatched, the chicks made sounds like baby quails."

The U.S. Patent Office balked at an attempt last year to patent a "humanzee," a human-chimp chimera. But as the Stanford University bioethicist Henry Greely told Ms. Begley: "The centaur has left the barn."

Knowing that mixing up species in a Circean blender conjures up nightmarish images, the National Academy of Sciences addressed the matter last month - stepping into the stem-cell vacuum left by the government and issuing research guidelines.

While research on chimeras may be valuable, the guidelines, in a fit of "Island of Dr. Moreau" queasiness, suggested bans on inserting human embryonic stem cells into an early human embryo, apes or monkeys.

The idea is to avoid animals with human sex cells or brain cells, Mr. Wade wrote. "There is a remote possibility that an animal with eggs made of human cells could mate with an animal bearing human sperm. To avoid human conception in such circumstances, the academy says chimeric animals should not be allowed to mate," he explained. Human cells in an animal brain could also be a problem. As Janet Rowley, a University of Chicago biologist, told a White House ethics panel: "All of us are aware of the concern that we're going to have a human brain in a mouse with a person saying, 'Let me out.' "

Mary Shelley was right. Playing Creator is tricky - even if you chase down your accidents with torches.

President Bush's experiments in Afghanistan and Iraq created his own chimeras, by injecting feudal and tribal societies with the cells of democracy, and blending warring factions and sects. Some of the forces unleashed are promising; others are frightening.

In a chilling classified report to Congress last week, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, conceded that Iraq and Afghanistan operations had restricted the Pentagon's ability to handle other conflicts.

That's an ominous admission in light of North Korea's rush toward nukes, which was spurred on by the Iraq invasion and North Korea's conviction that, in bargaining with Mr. Bush, real weapons trump imaginary - or chimerical - ones.

The U.S. invasion also spawned a torture scandal, and its own chimeric (alas, not chimerical) blend of former enemies - the Baathists and foreign jihadists - with access to Iraqi weapons caches.

The Republican Party is now a chimera, too, a mutant of old guard Republicans, who want government kept out of our lives, and evangelical Christians, who want government to legislate religion into our lives.

But exploiting God for political ends has set off powerful, scary forces in America: a retreat on teaching evolution, most recently in Kansas; fights over sex education, even in the blue states and blue suburbs of Maryland; a demonizing of gays; and a fear of stem cell research, which could lead to more of a "culture of life" than keeping one vegetative woman hooked up to a feeding tube.

Even as scientists issue rules on chimeras in labs, a spine-tingling he-monster with the power to drag us back into the pre-Darwinian dark ages is slouching around Washington. It's a fire-breathing creature with the head of W., the body of Bill Frist and the serpent tail of Tom DeLay.