The clones are coming! The clones are coming!

December 14, 2007

When the news hit of Dolly, the first mammal cloned, it sent a shockwave of ethical repercussions around the world. Considered trite and boring by science fiction standards, cloning in Scotland generated enough excitement to put the picture of a sheep on front pages everywhere. Not since Louise Brown was there such a noteworthy birth. In the wake of public opinion that followed, it became clear that many people are confused as to what cloning really is. There are those who fear only the rich being able to grow spare parts for themselves. There are predictions of an army of Hitlers forming armed militia. Many people see adult replicas of the cloners serving unscrupulous needs. These people are mistaken, of course.

To understand what cloning really is, one must know the difference between genotype and phenotype. Genotype is the actual gene make-up of a living thing. Phenotype is what that living thing looks like. The brave new world of today sees a sheep identical to another, not only phenotypically but genotypically as well. For the first time, a sentient being, albeit it a herding animal, exists when it was never meant to be. Is this bad? I don't think so.

It's just weird

An egg is emptied of it's DNA, and the whole amount of DNA from an already existing being is inserted into it. The egg is electrically and chemically stimulated to divide normally as if the full amount of DNA were the usual mixture from mother and father. This is a leap from artificial insemination and other assisted reproductive techniques. At least those mixed a mother's and a father's genes together to produce the next generation.

If one were to consider cloning an identical twin a generation later, one must look into the human meaning of progeny because cloning changes everything: Dolly is the same generation. A generation later.

Motherhood and fatherhood, grand motherhood and grand fatherhood imply different generations. Dolly being the same generation eliminates these distinctions. This promises to add a lot of confusion. And what of spare parts? Once it's clear that a baby is "conceived" and born, it becomes obvious that we can no more raid his or her body than raid anyone else's. This child would be a citizen constitutionally protected like any other American born. And other countries? Perhaps terrible things may happen in those places, but terrible things already do happen...everywhere. Since cloning is a conception, there are no adult armies of Xeroxed Hitlers or anyone else to land on our shores in hordes. We're talking about babies. That's how Dolly started--she was born. Even an army of Hitlers would have to grow up, be raised, and, well, get along.

Don't worry about Hitlers

Cloning may be good or bad for a species, because it can either preserve a good aspect of biology or continue a bad aspect. The natural processes of evolution are thwarted, because natural selection is by-passed. This may seem attractive in thoroughbred horses, but in humans it really may be that only the rich are able to clone themselves. And if so, they will lose the greatest benefit of evolution--diversity, which promotes the fittest. This is the scientific reason for laws against incest. (The moral reasons speak for themselves.)

The ethical considerations are valid. If a couple were to lose a child in a car accident, would there be any harm in cloning him or her to replace, emotionally anyway, a place in the family that was meant to be--in the parents' eyes? I suppose there would be some value from the parents' point of view, but the cloned child would feel different. The psychodynamics are baffling. There's no perspective. How would a child feel, declaring existence at all as justification for existence, while knowing he or she owed existence to the failings of a previous child? If all of this is confusing, it's because cloning introduces elements that are contradictory and which mixe reason with emotion. I myself tend to feel that cloning humans is probably a pretty bad idea for now. Then again, how could I feel bad about someone who exists at all, no matter how the means?

A quote from Salman Rushdie is, "Being alive makes up for what life does to you." Life is a gift, no matter what. And if it's better to give than to receive, we should all be certain about the receiving part of the deal before we give life via cloning.

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