An unusual dialogue of art and science raises doubts in a scientist’s mind.
Abstracted cells that cannot be classified as any known organisms? HeLa cell line as a new species? Evolved from a human being?
It raises a question about the definition of a species. Our common sense says: a mouse is a species, or a cat – also a species. Yet does our everyday intuition always prove right? Trying to define a species, science provides a rather casual definition: a species is a group of organisms that are able to reproduce sexually in natural conditions to produce fertile offspring. But wait! What about California newts? Their habitat extends from the California coastline to the north, then along a broad arc to the east, and back to the south at the other side of the Central Valley. Within that territory, all local populations crossbreed with one exception: populations inhabiting south-west and south-east ends of this arc do not crossbreed. Too many changes have occurred on the way. And what about the animals that only reproduce asexually? Or pear trees grafted onto quince, or, to come back to the exhibition, cell lines that have been created in laboratories as a result of combining cells originating from different species? The definition fails here.
So is there such a thing as a species at all? Or does it just help us to understand and order the world like a whole range of other scientific concepts, and is just a mental construct? If it is so – does the concept of a species have any sense at all in every possible case? Because mammal cells bred in vitro do not reproduce sexually, so this concept has no sense; the HeLa cell line is not a new species, and Helacyton gartleri is an idea within the realm of pseudo-scientific fantasy. That is how it is treated by scientists, too. By the way, it is considered in biology that in vitro cell cultures reflect processes taking place in their parent organisms. Though, of course, with certain limitations: a cell is not a human being after all.
What are semi-living forms, plastic constructions on which animal cells are bred by artists? In what way are they semi-living? Do only half of life processes take place in them? Or do their life processes take place 50% slower? Or maybe these forms are partially made of life and partially of dead matter? Can anything be only partially alive? The first two interpretations can be crossed out – that’s not what the Artists have in mind. What about the third one? Let’s look for analogous examples. The simplest ones first. Is a stone covered with moss a semi-living form? Our intuition says that it is just living moss plus a dead stone, and neither does the moss make the rock partially alive, nor does the stone partially kill the moss. Yet the world is full of formations that are more complex than stones covered with moss. What then? Is a human with an artificial cardiac pacemaker semi-living? Following this line: is a human with leg prostheses only partially alive? And what about a cyborg – a robot controlled by a human mind, is it semi-living? Or the other way round: is a human body controlled by a computer semi-living? Or like the stone covered with moss: made of living and inanimate parts. By the way, cells bred by scientists and artists in laboratories are alive, totally. Unless they die. Then they are dead, totally. But what is life?
Dr hab. Jan Brzeski, molecular biologist
Copernicus Science Centre