A Clone by Any Other Name, Part 1

A Clone by Any Other Name, Part 1

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Introductory Questions

Why is it that we actually think that a change in technology has to reflect or create a corresponding change in human nature? It does not. When Martin Luther King, Jr., observed that we now had guided missiles and misguided men, he was commenting upon the novelty of the missiles, for we have always had misguided men. There is nothing new about the human condition that will be changed or revealed by the cloning of human beings. And I found it a great relief when it was announced on Friday, March 9th, 2001, that scientists – specifically, Panos Zavos (formerly of theUniversityofKentucky) and Severino Antinori (an Italian gynecologist) – had finally stated publicly their plan to clone a human being. Thus the debate about whether a human being could possibly or should actually be cloned has been concluded. Ever since Dolly the sheep debuted on the existential circuit, it had only been a matter of time before a human being would attempt (and succeed) at cloning another human being.

And if people thought there would be some sort of hesitance about cloning another human being, then that was a foolish optimism. Human beings have never been hesitant about breeding their fellow humans to meet certain cultural expectations. As evidence, I submit to your consideration the ancient custom of arranged marriage, which is practiced at all social levels, and the historical record of the practices of various royal lines and other aristocratic lineages and their regard for pedigree. Anecdotally, and more recently, there would be the existence of Nobel Prize sperm banks. This, of course, raises the question of whether there are Nobel Prize ova banks-in case anybody wants a daughter like Rita Levi-Montalcini or Mother Teresa? Or even such a son? But I digress.

Now, there are specific issues that do concern us about human cloning: the possibility of slavery, the possibility of designer humans, the use of clones for organ harvesting, and the ultimate dehumanization of said clones, i.e., the notion that they will be treated as subhumans. Finally, there is the obvious, but bizarre, underlying source of most of these problems: eugenics.

Do we have cause to fear that these things might happen? No, we have no reason to fear that these things might happen. Instead, we can rest assured that somewhere, someplace, at some time, they WILL happen. Not because the clones in question are clones, but because both we and they, us and them, ARE humans.

Consider the creation of a clone. The genetic content, i.e., the chromosomes or DNA, comes from a somatic cell of a human being, and perhaps with the advent of other techniques, the double germ cell content of one human being (a kind of parthenogenic reproduction). This genetic material is then inserted into a human ovum or perhaps some other kind of ovum or even some kind of altered stem cell material. Since this genetic content has had restored to it its totipotency, thus allowing the material to repeat, theoretically in its entirety, the process of producing from this genetic material an exact copy of its source organism.

Now there are several fallacies involved with this view of human (or any other kind) of cloning.  First and foremost is the fact that cloning is, in an oddly and ironically logical way, a prime example of the genetic fallacy. Let me demonstrate the ways, both biological and philosophical, in which this is the case.

The main problem is that cloning technology at this time can only address the problem of genetic information. What is cloned is, for lack of a better term, a particular code or, rather, the text of the organism. Under the illusion that the “central dogma” of genetics is scientifically tenable and not merely an heuristic device, people assume that the cloning, i.e., replication of the mere genetic information, is tantamount to an exact replication of the individual originally produced by that genetic information. Thus, we have succumbed to the fallacy that reproduction is, in fact, re-production, when it is actually a novel productive capacity in virtue of, among other things, recombination. What goes unmentioned, perhaps in virtue of the complexity of the situation, and complexity as we know is not an answer but merely a type of delay mechanism for scientific knowledge, is the notion that the developmental process is a kind of hermeneutical unraveling of the genetic code.

Throughout development, which is itself an interpretive endeavor, the genetic code is impacted by its environment, including the environment of space and time. For example, if one takes into consideration Gerald Edelman’s notion of topobiology, part of what decodes the genetic code, is the place in space in which said unraveling occurs. How can a clone thus be identical to its source organism unless it is implanted at the same time, in the same place, and in the same way (for instance, at the same point of the menstrual cycle, in the same part of the uterus, thus washed in the same hormonal sea and from the same direction)?

Moreover, the notion of optimizing the implantation and development of this cloned genome may NOT be what contributed to the traits desired in the donor organism in the first place. It is quite possible that the very anomalies of the donor’s developmental situation in utero contributed to a certain unfolding of the genetic code that would not occur in a perfect or optimal environment.  So, there is developmental indeterminacy.

Furthermore, there is also the chance of developmental error. Not simply the teratogenic errors of pregnancy, but also the fact that every replication of the genetic material brings with it the possibility of mutation. If somatic cells can turn cancerous, there is no way, particularly after fertilization, to prevent or predict such mutations in the cloned somatic DNA content, especially since it has been reverted to its totipotency.

Another aspect of this same problem is the pre- and post-natal interaction between genes and the environment-both biological and non-biological. If the average human masks anywhere from 5-7 deleterious alleles, there is no way of knowing whether the donor’s DNA with its genetic predispositions to trait A or B, with its half dozen hidden deleterious alleles, has simply lived a fluke existence inasmuch as those alleles or that genetic predisposition were simply not forced to expression. The very fact that identical twins are not EXACTLY identical in behaviors, including sexual orientation and rates of mental illness, should reveal that genetic material is not determinative of complex human behaviors and traits. A 50% correlation is no correlation at all in the strong sense.

Given this, a true clonal experience would seem to be impossible, since neither the interuterine environment nor the extrauterine environment will be replicable in their entirety.  Thus the actual production of a human clone qua clone (not qua human being) would seem to be existentially impossible. Scientific techniques do not existential realities create. This very problem of the dynamic nature of the environment is best reflected in the lovely Southern expression “you can’t escape your raisin’.” And I would like to add that you cannot re-create it, either. One of the most magnificent things about life is that life cannot be controlled-in the strong sense. This is why mutations are considered random. In other words, mutations, like excrement, just happen.

This randomness is not confined to biological, but also includes the environmental, the experiential, and the existential. We call these non-biological random events “accidents”, but-speaking as a philosopher-I would point out that it is often the accidental that becomes essential in the creation of human identity. These accidents of birth-gender, race, eye color, or whether one was a planned or unplanned child, in fact, whether one was a clone-eventually can (and often do) become determinative of human individuality and personal identity. If nothing else, this is the strong lesson that can be gained from Aldous Huxley’s character in Brave New World.

Now I would like to turn to a few of the “moral” issues that would seem to surround the problematic of human cloning. The first I would like to address is the notion of eugenics.

Cloning and Eugenics

In all honesty, it seems to me that the only real motive behind the attempt to clone a human being is a eugenic one. Rhetoric about pushing forward the frontiers of science, the unending pursuit of knowledge, and the unquenchable thirst of curiosity are all well and good, but we are also aware that there is no such thing as pure science because there is no such person as a pure human-whether in intention or action. In other words, the real problem is not cloning as such; it is human cloning. And, historically, the motivation behind any attempt to regulate reproduction is invariably the notion of improving the breed, or eugenics.

Eugenics is the perfect American upshot of pragmatism and evolutionary theory. It is not simply a matter of whatever works, but whatever works best. It is, so to speak, managed process biology. And before mentions the biological record of Nazi Germany, please consider that they got their theory from us. It was theUnited States of America, specifically the state ofVirginia, and not Nazi Germany or even Soviet Russia, that authored eugenics in its modern instantiation.

Why is eugenics so threatening? It certainly cannot be threatening in its biological aspect. For as long as we’ve bred animals, we have bred humans by exercising strict social controls on marriage and imposing severe sanctions on sexuality. The incest taboo is probably the most widely recognized of these sanctions. Yet it is actually the moral aspect of human eugenics that causes us to quake in our boots, because it reveals us for what we are as a species: elitist, racist, and self-centered-where the best folk are defined as those folk who are just like ourselves. And such a state of affairs has nothing to do with technology; it has everything to do with human nature. The policies of Nazi Germany toward its ethnic minorities were no different than those of the biblical Israelites toward a host of -ittites: Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, Jebusites, etc.[1] Seek and destroy all of them. And why? In both cases, it was the need for more living space, for Lebensraum [2]-room to expand their particular race. Thus, the justification of racial purity and its concomitant need for territory can be traced back to the one of very oldest sources of all that we call “Western”.  Hence, the situation that we have watched unfold in the formerYugoslavia for the last decade is not the exception but the rule. Ethnic cleansing is not a novel idea of a few Serbs, for the notion that “‘we’ are superior because we are who we are” is the strongest tautological motivator of any and every group of mankind.


1 Consider, particularly, the treatment of the city ofAi(Joshua 7-8) and its fate (Joshua 8:25). That the Israelites do not succeed in their wholesale slaughter is not to be attributed to the divine mercy but to human disobedience (Consider Joshua 9-11; compare Deuteronomy 20:16-18 and Joshua 13:6 with Judges 2:22-23).

2 This, by the way, is a Swedish concept, not a German one. According to George Seldes in The Great Quotations (Castle Books, 1978, p. 392), the German professor Karl Haushofer appropriated this idea from the Swedish geographer Rudolf Kjellen.