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Synthetic Morphology Lets Scientists Create New Life-Forms

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In the collection of the Peabody Museum at Harvard University reside the mummified remains of a very peculiar creature. It has the shrunken head, torso and arms of a monkey, but from the waist down, it is a fish. This bizarre hybrid was bought by Moses Kimball, founder of the Boston Museum, from the family of a sea captain. Kimball leased it in 1842 to the impresario P. T. Barnum for his popular American Museum in New York City. Barnum claimed it was a mermaid found in Fiji.

In fact, such artifacts, typically intended for sale, were made from animal parts by fishermen and artisans in Japan at the time (although some of the mermaid seems to be fashioned from papier-mâché). Mythical hybrid beasts such as mermaids, centaurs and chimeras testify to our enduring fascination with the plasticity of biological form: the idea that natural organisms can mutate or be reconfigured. Both in legends and in fiction, from H. G. Wells’s 1896 novel The Island of Doctor Moreau to the 2009 movie Splice, we seem inclined to imagine living organisms as assemblies of parts that can be shuffled and…

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