Case Study: Pink Chicken Project
Colouring all chickens pink with a CRISPR gene drive and re-occupying the rock strata by Nonhuman Nonsense.
The Pink Chicken Project is an ambiguous proposal to use a recently invented biotechnology called “Gene Drive” to genetically modify the bones and feathers of all chickens in the world to the colour pink. As scientists suggest chicken bones to be a primary identifier of our time (the Anthropocene), this intervention would modify the future fossil record, colouring the geological trace of humankind, pink!
Framed as an activist campaign/startup, this speculative suggestion reveals the intimate link between social and ecological justice, and allows us to think about the impact of novel biotechnologies from multiple ethical and political perspectives: why should we seek/avoid this future? How does the violence of entire-species genetic modification compare to the violence already inflicted on billions of chickens in factory farms? How can we have ethical relationships with other species in a shifting landscape of human-nonhuman power?
Between utopia and dystopia…
The Pink Chicken Project began with the launch of a website describing (roughly) how a Gene Drive could be used on the entire species Gallus gallus Domesticus.
Citing risks of ecological collapse and the ongoing destruction of the biosphere, the project claims to “Re-occupy the Rock Strata”, aiming to send a message to future generations on the inequitable liability of the Anthropocene disaster:
Sending a message through the DNA
“The current devastation of the planet is not the result of activities undertaken by the whole species Homo Sapiens: instead it derives from a small group of humans in power, upheld by the injustice of white supremacy, colonialism, patriarchy, heterosexism and ableism. We urge you to fight this oppression: for it enables and aggravates the anthropocentric violence forced upon the non-human world.”
Seemingly paradoxical, the project rejects the current violence inflicted upon the non-human world, but is itself an act of violence through the non-consensual modification of the bodies of billions of chickens.
As the project receives press attention and is discussed on social media, hundreds of people have expressed their view on why they would/wouldn’t order a pink egg, describing how it made them feel informed, inspired, hopeful or distressed.
Scientificially realistic and relevant, but not reality … yet
Developed in collaboration with a leading synthetic biology lab to make the science realistic and relevant – the Pink Chicken Project could be real, but should it be?
When assessing the impact of new technology, legislators, experts and communities are in a bind – it is always too early or too late. Too early because the possible risks are just vague speculation, or too late because society is already heavily invested or dependent on the technologies.
The Pink Chicken Project uses a scientifically sound scenario to allow many people to consider the ethical implications of this particular future, before it is upon us. It is multi-layered and contradictory, which opens for complexity, nuance and perspectives – just like reality.
The project has not genetically modified any chickens, and never says that it has either. It seeks a balance between being thought-provoking and believable – but not directly deceptive.
The Antrophocene – An epoche defined by … chickens?
As geologists work to formalize the stratigraphic signals of a reconfigured biosphere, chicken bones are (surprisingly) a suggested identifier of this new age.
Developed in dialogue with the Anthropocene Working Group, the Pink Chicken Project reveals the immense scale of this terraforming enterprise, by showing how the yearly raising and slaughtering of 60,000,000,000 chickens around the globe has deep time reverberations.
It discusses how the naming of the epoch as “Anthropocene” has been widely critiqued for implying that ecocidal logic is inherent to “human nature”, a reasoning that erases the power differentials of colonialism and social injustice that underpin and drive the extractivist mindset of capitalism.
Even though alternative framings might be preferable, the all-encompassing epochal view can be useful to see our ensnarement in multiple interlocking systems that are in crisis simultaneously. A pink “Gene-Drive” broiler finds itself entangled in a perfect storm of climatical, extinctional, and biogeochemical exhaustion.
United Nations intervention
In November 2018, the Pink Chicken Project intervened at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.
At the United Nations, 196 Governments, International Bodies and representatives of Businesses, Education, NGOs and Science, are currently trying to agree on international regulations on “Engineered Gene Drives” – if and how they should be legal. It is a controversial topic, as some voices are describing them as “Biology’s Nuclear Weapon” – a technology with geopolitical ramifications.
At the moment, the discourse on Gene Drives at the UN and the international media is centered around another possible use case of the technology: to combat mosquito-borne diseases such as Malaria, Zika, and Chikungunya. However, NGOs and conservationists are highlighting that when assessing the potential impact of novel technologies, we can not only look at the best possible use case.
Accredited by the University of the Arts London, the Pink Chicken Project went to the COP-14 meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt. Intervening in the assembly, the project held a statement describing the possible future of pink chickens, urging the parties to think more long term about the implications of their decisions.
“Zooming out to geological timescales; are we being good ancestors?”
The outcome of COP-14 was unclear and inconclusive, with a treaty that cautions on the risks of engineered gene-drives but contains few actual legal restrictions. The resulting text talks of the “free, prior and informed consent of potentially affected indigenous peoples and local communities”, but does not mention if these are human, or nonhuman.
Pink Chicken Project is currently travelling in exhibitions worldwide.
As the debate and the project continues, Nonhuman Nonsense is working towards the creation of a book that will overview the different perspectives in the discourse, and gather the knowledge and wisdom created in response to the initial speculative intervention.
- Kahn, J. (February 2016). Gene editing can now change an entire species — forever. TED. https://www.ted.com/talks/jennifer_kahn_gene_editing_can_now_change_an_entire_species_forever
- Borel, B. (12 September 2016) When Evolution Fights Back Against Genetic Engineering. The Atlantic Online. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/09/gene-drives/499574/
- FAQs: Gene drives. Wyss Institute. https://wyss.harvard.edu/staticfiles/newsroom/pressreleases/Gene%20drives%20FAQ%20FINAL.pdf
- Oye et. al. (08 Aug 2014) Regulating gene drives. Science. Vol. 345, Issue 6197, pp. 626-628. DOI: 10.1126/science.1254287
- Reardon, S. (March 9, 2016) Welcome to CRISPR’s Gene-Modified Zoo. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/welcome-to-crispr-s-gene-modified-zoo/
- ETC Group (08 June 2016) Stop The Gene Bomb! ETC Group Comment on NAS Report on Gene Drives http://www.etcgroup.org/content/stop-gene-bomb-etc-group-comment-nas-report-gene-drives
- Oishi et. al. (06 April 2016) Targeted mutagenesis in chicken using CRISPR/Cas9 system DOI:10.1038/srep23980
- Will Steffen, Paul J. Crutzen and John R. McNeill. (2007). The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature? Royal Swedish Academy of 2007. Ambio Vol. 36, No. 8, December 2007. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18240674
- Rockström, J. (30 March 2015) Big World, Small Planet: Abundance Within Planetary Boundaries. Lecture at Centre for International Governance Innovation. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fOJYWDsQD4s
- Steffen, W. et. al. (13 Feb 2015) Planetary boundaries: guiding human development on a changing planet. Science:Vol. 347, Issue 6223, DOI: 10.1126/science.1259855
- Steffen, W. Broadgate, L. Deutsch, O. Gaffney, C. Ludwig. (2015) The Trajectory of the Anthropocene: the Great Acceleration. The Anthropocene Review. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/2053019614564785
- Heather Davis, H. Turpin, E. (2015). Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies. Open Humanities Press.
- Donna J. Haraway (September 2016) Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press.
DEFINING THE ANTHROPOCENE:
- Waters, C. N. The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene. Science 08 Jan 2016: Vol. 351, Issue 6269 DOI: 10.1126/science.aad2622
- Biello, D. (7 January 2016) Humans Leave a Telltale Residue on Earth. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/humans-leave-a-telltale-residue-on-earth1/
- Williams, M. et. al. (2015) The Anthropocene biosphere. The Anthropocene Review. Vol 2, Issue 3, pp. 196 – 219. 10.1177/2053019615591020
- William F. Ruddiman, Erle C. Ellis, Jed O. Kaplan, Dorian Q. Fuller (03 Apr 2015) Defining the epoch we live in. Science, Vol. 348, Issue 6230, pp. 38-39 DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa7297
CHICKEN DEFINING THE ANTHROPOCENE:
- Bennett, C. E. et. al (12 December 2018) The broiler chicken as a signal of a human reconfigured biosphere. Royal Society Open Science. DOI: 10.1098/rsos.180325
- Carrington, D. (29 August 2016) The Anthropocene epoch: scientists declare dawn of human- influenced age. The Guardian Online. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/29/declare-anthropocene-epoch-experts-urge-geological-congress-human-impact-earth
- Carrington, D. (31 August 2016) How the domestic chicken rose to define the Anthropocene. The Guardian online. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/31/domestic-chicken-anthropocene-humanity-influenced-epoch
CHICKENS IN THE WORLD:
- Andrew Lawler, Jerry Adler. (June 2012) How the Chicken Conquered the World. Smithsonian Magazine. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-the-chicken-conquered-the-world-87583657
- (Jul 27th 2011) Counting chickens. The Economist Online. http://www.economist.com/blogs/dailychart/2011/07/global-livestock-counts
- Susan M. Kidwell. (2015) Biology in the Anthropocene: Challenges and insights from young fossil records. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. http://www.pnas.org/content/112/16/4922
- Yaniv Erlich,Dina Zielinski (2017). DNA Fountain enables a robust and efficient storage architecture. Science 03 Mar 2017: Vol. 355, Issue 6328, pp. 950-954, DOI: 10.1126/science.aaj2038 http://science.sciencemag.org/content/355/6328/950
- Byrgess, M. (3 March 2017) A movie, operating system and Amazon gift card have been stored in DNA. Wired Magazine Online. http://www.wired.co.uk/article/dna-data-storage
- M. E. Allentoft, et. al. (2012) The half-life of DNA in bone: measuring decay kinetics in 158 dated fossils. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 279(1748):4724– 4733. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23055061
- Colleary, Caitlin et. al. (September 28, 2015) Chemical, experimental, and morphological evidence for diagenetically altered melanin in exceptionally preserved fossils. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1509831112
- Steven Mackay (September 29, 2015) Pigment from fossils reveals color of extinct mammals for the first time, researchers say. Virginia Tech. http://www.vtnews.vt.edu/articles/2015/09/092915-research-fossilcolor.html
OBJECT ORIENTED ONTOLOGY:
- Latour, B. Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene. New Literary History, Volume 45, Number 1, Winter 2014, pp. 1-18 (Article).
- Morton, T. (2013). Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. University Of Minnesota Press.
- Szerszynski, B (2016). The Anthropocene monument: on relating geological and human time. European Journal of Social Theory.
Nonhuman Nonsense is a research-driven design duo working at the intersection of art, science, philosophy and technology, consisting of Leo Fidjeland and Linnea Våglund. They create near-future fictions and experiments somewhere between utopia and dystopia. Aiming to redirect focus to the underlying ethical and political issues, to challenge the power structures that enable and aggravate the current destruction of the (non)human world – allowing other entities to exist.