Chimeras Aren’t Impossible. At All.
The Greek myth left behind a legacy that has become very, very real.
Chimera is a word that’s taken on many meanings across many centuries, but however you slice it, its essence remains the same: multiple creatures, fused together into an abomination of nature. In many regards, yes this idea is mythical at its core…but when we really look at the stories, and when we examine how the word is used today, it becomes clear that chimeras are true-to-life organisms that live among us.
There’s one problem, though. Once these creatures become real, they become entirely…unremarkable. The chimera-ness becomes stripped down and replaced by real, boring biology. It’s the worst.
But first things first, what even is a chimera? And I mean…the old kind.
Like much of Greek fantasy, the term “Chimera” refers to both a specific, supernatural character in mythology, as well as a general catch-all category for similarly-composited creatures. The first mention of the character — actually spelled Chimaera in this specific text — is from Homer’s Iliad:
When he had received the wicked letter he first commanded Bellerophon to kill that savage monster, the Chimaera, who was not a human being, but a goddess, for she had the head of a lion and the tail of a serpent, while her body was that of a goat, and she breathed forth flames of fire; but Bellerophon slew her, for he was guided by signs from heaven.
For most of us, though, the abundance of different stories and legends lead to an ambiguous definition for the chimera: any creature that’s a physical amalgamation of other animal segments, like heads, tails, or limbs. The pegasus and the minotaur, while having origins of their own, also fall under the chimera umbrella.
And honestly, that’s basically it. The definition has become almost deliberately vague, which is where things get really fascinating. While we may like to think of this mythical hybrid of animal parts as pure fantasy…it’s not.
To make this point clear, I want to take a slight detour from the science-versus-mythology debate and visit an ancient Indian parable: The Blind Men and the Elephant. The parable is thousands of years old but the message is simple: a group of blind men encounter an elephant, and after each feeling a different part of its body, disagree over what an elephant…is. The theme behind the story is that perception can be misleading, and that conflicting perspectives can actually all be insightful and true.
It’s an impressive journey:
Now, I’m really hoping the leap back to chimera logic isn’t too egregious. Before the moment when the elephant is identified as “what it actually is,” the creature exists as a complex hybrid of different, known, competing characteristics.
Here, hold on, I’ve got a better example:
In 1798, the Europeans discovered the platypus. At the time many actually thought it was a hoax, especially since the early descriptions of the “Amphibious Animal of the Mole Kind” were…less than specific.
The tail of this animal was thick, short, and very fat; but the most extraordinary circumstance observed in its structure was, its having, instead of the mouth of an animal, the upper and lower mandibles of a duck…These little animals had been frequently noticed rising to the surface of the water, and blowing like the turtle. — An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales (1802)
Mole + duck + turtle. It almost sounds like a…chimera…doesn’t it? No? Here, hold on, I’ve got another one:
This is from The Seattle Star, dated April 11, 1914, when the weekly “Animal You Do Not Know” happens to be the okapi. In the first sentence of the article’s description: “Part zebra, part deer, part giraffe — that’s what the okapi looks like.”
The platypus and the okapi and the elephant aren’t actual chimeras, clearly, with bodies made from the unnatural fusion of other creatures. We acknowledge them as unique, complete animals…but we only give them names and identities because they’re real. If the platypus had never evolved, and a school-child had drawn a silly duck/mole/turtle hybrid, well that would fall healthily into chimera territory.
And here’s the kicker: if a hybrid between a lion, snake, and goat was real, just as Homer had described long ago, then that species wouldn’t be considered “a hybrid” at all. A composite creature with chimera qualities is only noteworthy if it doesn’t exist. Once this creature is identified, and named, it transitions from “hybrid” to “whole.” It’s not a chimera anymore — it’s just the thing that it is.
Oh, the power of words.
Now, before wrapping up, it would be careless to skip over the scientists working hard at the other end of the biology spectrum. Let’s give genetics its due credit as well.
The chimera takes on an entirely new meaning when considering the building-blocks of life: DNA. Modern genetics has coopted the mythical term rather liberally, now defining any individual organism to be a chimera when it contains tissues of “diverse genetic constitution,” meaning basically that there are multiple sets of DNA housed within the same body.
This might sound like science-fiction.
Human chimeras are quite common, to an extent. Certain types of transplants and transfusions can result in an organ system with differing sets of DNA, and the same goes for fetuses that absorb an unborn twin in the womb. Since the 1990’s, geneticists have known about the “microchimerism” that occurs in pregnant mothers when fetal tissue spreads throughout the parent’s’ body.
There’s nothing unnatural about this type of genetic chimera, but as of just this past year, science has taken a step a bit further. In August 2016, the government lifted a ban on something called ‘human-animal chimeras,’ but don’t get too hyped up. These chimeras merely combine human stem cells and animal embryos in order to study and treat disease — with potentially life-saving results.
And no, these embryos do not mature into full-fledged animal hybrids…but within the next hundred years of genetic research, it’s hard to rule anything out.
Still, if we’ve learned anything from the platypus, it’s that once these human hybrids are engineered and introduced into society…they won’t be called “chimeras” at all. They’ll be given their own names and identities — nothing special anymore, merely a human with pig DNA.
Maybe they’ll be named Carl, or Mary, or Steve. Just don’t call them chimeras. And don’t call them late for dinner!