January 24, 2021
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What's Wrong With Cloning?

Is it so obviously repugnant that we shouldn't even think about it? Mightn't even you, in your heart of hearts, quite like to be cloned?
Free Speech: What do you

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What's Wrong With Cloning?
Photo collage: Gopinath S
What's Wrong With Cloning?
Science and logic cannot tell us what is right and what wrong. You cannot, as I was once challenged to do by a belligerent radio interviewer, prove logically from scientific evidence that murder is wrong.  But you can deploy logical reasoning, and even scientific facts, in demonstrating to dogmatists that their convictions are mutually contradictory.  You can prove that their passionate denunciation of X is incompatible with their equally passionate advocacy of Y, because X and Y, though they had not realised it before, are the same thing (Glover 1984).  Science can show us a new way of thinking about an issue, perhaps open our imaginations in unexpected ways, with the consequence that we see our personal Xs and Ys in different ways and our values change.  Sometimes we can be shown a way of seeing that makes us feel more favourably disposed to something that had been distasteful or frightening.  But we can also be alerted to menacing implications of something that we had previously thought harmless or frivolously amusing.  Cloning provides a case study in the power of scientific thinking to change our minds, in both directions.

Public responses to Dolly the sheep varied but, from President Clinton down, there was almost universal agreement that such a thing must never be allowed to happen to humans.  Even those arguing for the medical benefits of cloning human tissues in culture were careful to establish their decent credentials, in the most vigorous terms, by denouncing the very thought that adult humans might be cloned to make babies, like Dolly.

But is it so obviously repugnant that we shouldn’t even think about it?  Mightn’t even you, in your heart of hearts, quite like to be cloned?  As Darwin said in another context it is like confessing a murder, but I think I would.  The motivation need have nothing to do with vanity, with thinking that the world would be a better place if there was another one of you going on after you are dead.  I have no such illusions.  My feeling is founded on pure curiosity.  I know how I turned out having been born in the 1940s, schooled in the 1950s, come of age in the 1960s, and so on.  I find it a personally riveting thought that I could watch a small copy of myself, fifty years younger and wearing a baseball hat instead of a British Empire pith helmet, nurtured through the early decades of the twenty first century.  Mightn’t it feel almost like turning back your personal clock fifty years?  And mightn’t it be wonderful to advise your junior copy on where you went wrong, and how to do it better?  Isn’t this, in (sometimes sadly) watered down form, one of the motives that drives people to breed children in the ordinary way, by sexual reproduction?

If I have succeeded in my aim, you may be feeling warmer towards the idea of human cloning than before.  But now think about the following.  Who is most likely to get themselves cloned?  A nice person like you?  Or someone with power and influence like Saddam Hussein?  A hero we’d all like to see more of, like David Attenborough?  Or someone who can pay, like Rupert Murdoch?  Worse, the technology might not be limited to single copies of the cloned individual.  The imagination presents the all too plausible spectre of multiple clones, regiments of identical individuals marching by the thousand, in lockstep to a Brave New Millennium.  Phalanxes of identical little Hitlers goose-stepping to the same genetic drum  –  here is a vision so horrifying as to overshadow any lingering curiosity we might have over the final solution to the ‘nature or nurture’ problem (for multiple cloning, to switch to the positive again, would certainly provide an elegant approach to that ancient conundrum). Science can open our eyes in both directions, towards negative as well as positive possibilities.  It cannot tell us which way to turn, but it can help us to see what lies along the alternative paths.

Human cloning already happens by accident; not particularly often but often enough that we all know examples.  Identical twins are true clones of each other, with the same genes.  Hell’s foundations don’t quiver every time a pair of identical twins is born.  Nobody has ever suggested that identical twins are zombies without individuality or personality.  Of those who think anybody has a soul, none has ever suggested that identical twins lack one.  So, the new discoveries announced from Edinburgh can’t be all that radical in their moral and ethical implications.

Nevertheless, the possibility that adult humans might be cloned as babies has potential implications that society would do well to ponder before the reality catches up with us.  Even if we could find a legal way of limiting the privilege to universally admired paragons, wouldn’t a new Einstein, say, suffer terrible psychological problems?  Wouldn’t he be teased at school, tormented by unreasonable expectations of genius?  But he might turn out even better than the paragon.  Old Einstein, however outstanding his genes, had an ordinary education and had to waste his time earning a living in the patent office.  Young Einstein could be given an education to match his genes and an inside track to make the best use of his talents from the start.

Turning back to the objections, wouldn’t the first cloned child feel a bit of a freak?  It would have a birth mother who was no relation, an identical brother or sister who might be old enough to be a great grandparent, and genetic parents perhaps long dead.  On the other hand the stigma of uniqueness is not a new problem, and it is not beyond our wit to solve it.  Something like it arose for the first IVF babies, yet now they are no longer called ‘test tube babies’ and we hardly know who is one and who is not.

Cloning is said to be unnatural.  It is of more academic than ethical interest, but there is a sense in which, to an evolutionary biologist, cloning is more natural than the sexual alternative.  I speak of the famous paradox of sex, often called the twofold cost of sex, the cost of meiosis, or the cost of producing sons.  I’ll explain this, but briefly because it is quite well known.  The selfish gene theorem, which treats an animal as a machine programmed to maximise the survival of copies of its genes, has become a favoured way of expressing modern Darwinism (see, for example, Mark Ridley 1996, Matt Ridley 1996). The rationale, in one tautological sentence, is that all animals are descended from an unbroken line of ancestors who succeeded in passing on those very genes.  From this point of view, at least when naively interpreted, sex is paradoxical because a mutant female who spontaneously switched to clonal reproduction would immediately be twice as successful as her sexual rivals.  She would produce female offspring each of whom would bear all her genes, not just half her genes.  Her grandchildren and more remote descendants, too, would be females containing 100% of her genes rather than one quarter, one eighth. etc.

Our hypothetical mutant must be female rather than male, for an interesting reason which fundamentally amounts to economics. We assume that the number of offspring reared is limited by the economic resources poured into them, and that two nurturing parents can therefore rear twice as many as one single parent.  The option of going it alone without a sexual partner is not open to males because single males are not geared up to bear the economic costs of rearing a child.  This is especially clear in mammals where males lack a uterus and mammary glands.  Even at the level of gametes, and over the whole animal kingdom, there is a basic economic imbalance between large, nutritious eggs and small, swimming sperm.  A sperm is well equipped to find an egg.  It is not economically equipped to grow on its own.  Unlike an egg, it does not have the option of dispensing with the other gamete.

The economic imbalance between the sexes can be redressed later in development, through the medium of paternal care. Many bird species are monogamous, with the male playing an approximately equal role in protecting and feeding the young. In such species the twofold cost of sex is at least substantially reduced.  The hypothetical cloning female still exports her genes twice as efficiently to each child. But she has half as many children as her sexual rival, who benefits from the equal economic assistance of a male.  The actual magnitude of the cost of sex will vary between twofold (where there is no paternal care) to zero (where the economic contribution of the father equals that of the mother, and the productivity in offspring of a couple is twice that of a single mother).

In most mammals paternal care is either non-existent or too small to make much of a dent in the twofold cost of sex. Accordingly, from a Darwinian point of view, sex remains something of a paradox.  It is, in a way, more ‘unnatural’ than cloning.  This piece of reasoning has been the starting point for an extensive theoretical literature with the more or less explicitly desperate aim of finding a benefit of sex sufficiently great to outweigh the twofold cost.  A succession of books has tried, with no conspicuous success, to solve this riddle (Williams 1975, Maynard Smith 1978, Bell 1982, Michod & Levin 1988, Ridley 1993).  The consensus has not moved greatly in the twenty years since Williams, who began:

"This book is written from a conviction that the prevalence of sexual reproduction in higher plants and animals is inconsistent with current evolutionary theory. . . there is a kind of crisis at hand in evolutionary biology . . ."

and ended:

"I am sure that many readers have already concluded that I really do not understand the role of sex in either organic or biotic evolution.  At least I can claim, on the basis of the conflicting views in the recent literature, the consolation of abundant company."

Nevertheless, outside the laboratory, asexual reproduction in mammals, as opposed to some lizards, fish, and various groups of invertebrates, has never been observed.  It is quite possible that our ancestral lineage has not reproduced asexually for more than a billion years. There are good reasons for doubting that adult mammals will ever spontaneously clone themselves without artificial aid (Maynard Smith 1988).  So far removed from nature are the ingenious techniques of Dr Wilmut and his colleagues, they can even make clones of males (by borrowing an ovum from a female and removing her own DNA from it).  In the circumstances, notwithstanding Darwinian reasoning, ethicists might reasonably feel entitled to call human cloning unnatural.

I think we must beware of a reflex and unthinking antipathy, or ‘yuk reaction’ to everything ‘unnatural’.  Certainly cloning is unprecedented among mammals, and certainly if it were widely adopted it would interfere with the natural course of the evolutionary process.  But we’ve been interfering with human evolution ever since we set up social and economic machinery to support individuals who could not otherwise afford to reproduce, and most people don’t regard that as self-evidently bad, although it is surely unnatural.  It is unnatural to read books, or travel faster than we can run, or scuba-dive.  As the old joke says, "If God had intended us to fly, he’d never have given us the railway."  It’s unnatural to wear clothes, yet the people most likely to be scandalised at the unnaturalness of human cloning may be the very people most outraged by (natural) nudity. For good or ill, human cloning would have an impact on society, but it is not clear that it would be any more momentous than the introduction of antibiotics, of vaccination, of efficient agriculture, or than the abolition of slavery.

If I am asked for a positive argument in favour of human cloning, my immediate response is to question where the onus of proof lies.  There are general arguments based on individual liberty against prohibiting anything that people want to do, unless there is good reason why they should not.  Sometimes, when it is hard to peer into the future and see the consequences of doing something new, there is an argument from simple prudence in favour of doing nothing, at least until we know more.  If such an argument had been deployed against X-rays, whose dangers were appreciated later than their benefits, a number of deaths from radiation sickness might have been averted.  But we’d also be deprived of one of medicine’s most lifesaving diagnostic tools.

Very often there are excellent reasons for opposing the ‘individual freedom’ argument that people should be allowed to do whatever they want.  A libertarian argument in favour of allowing people to play amplified music without restriction is easily countered on grounds of the nuisance and displeasure caused to others.  Assuming that some people want to be cloned, the onus is on objectors to produce arguments to the effect that cloning would harm somebody, or some sentient being, or society, or the planet at large.  We have already seen some such arguments, for instance that the young clone might feel embarrassed or overburdened by expectations.  Notice that such arguments on behalf of the young clone must, in order to work, attribute to the young clone the sentiment, "I wish I had never been born because . . ."  Such statements can be made, but they are hard to maintain, and the kind of people most likely to object to cloning are the very people least likely to favour the "I wish I didn’t exist" style of argument when it is used in the abortion or the euthanasia debates.  As for the harm that cloning might do to third parties, or to society at large, no doubt arguments can be mounted.  But they must be strong enough to counter the general ‘freedom of the individual’ presumption in favour of cloning.  My suspicion is that it will prove hard to make the case that cloning does more harm to third parties than pop festivals, advertising hoardings or mobile telephones in trains  –  to name three pet hates of my own.  The fact that I hate something is not, in itself, sufficient justification for stopping others who wish to enjoy it.  The onus is on the objectors to press a better objection.  Personal prejudice without supporting justification  –  which is all that the yuk reaction is  –  will not suffice.

A convention has grown up that prejudices based upon religion, as opposed to purely personal prejudices, are especially privileged, self-evidently exempt from the need for supporting argument.  This is relevant to the present discussion, as I suspect that reflex antipathy to advances in reproductive technology is frequently, at bottom, religiously inspired.  Of course people are entitled to their religious, or any other, convictions.  But society should beware of assuming that when a conviction is religious this somehow entitles it to a special kind of respect, over and above the respect we should accord to personal prejudice of any other kind.  This was brought home to me by media responses to Dolly.

A news story like Dolly’s is always followed by a flurry of energetic press activity.  Newspaper columnists sound off, solemnly or facetiously, occasionally intelligently.  Radio and television producers seize the telephone and round up panels to discuss and debate the moral and legal issues.  Some of these panelists are experts on the science, as you would expect and as is right and proper.  Others are distinguished scholars of moral or legal philosophy, which is equally appropriate.  Both these categories of person have been invited to the studio in their own right, because of their specialised knowledge or their proven ability to think intelligently and express themselves clearly.  The arguments that they have with each other are usually illuminating and rewarding.

But there is another category of obligatory guest.  There is the inevitable ‘representative’ of the so-and-so ‘community’; and of course we mustn’t forget the ‘voice’ from the such-and-such ‘tradition’.  Not to mince words, the religious lobby.  Lobbies in the plural, I should say, because all the religions (or ‘cultures’ as we are nowadays asked to call them) have their point of view, and they all have to be represented lest their respective ‘communities’ feel slighted.  This has the incidental effect of multiplying the sheer number of people in the studio, with consequent consumption, if not waste, of time.  It also, I believe, often has the effect of lowering the level of expertise and intelligence in the studio.  This is only to be expected, given that these spokesmen are chosen not because of their own qualifications in the field, or because they can think, but simply because they represent a particular section of the community.

Out of good manners I shall not mention names, but during the admirable Dolly’s week of fame I took part in broadcast or televised discussions of cloning with several prominent religious leaders, and it was not edifying.  One of the most eminent of these spokesmen, recently elevated to the House of Lords, got off to a flying start by refusing to shake hands with the women in the television studio, apparently for fear they might be menstruating or otherwise ‘unclean’.  They took the insult more graciously than I would have, and with the ‘respect’ always bestowed on religious prejudice  –  but no other kind of prejudice.    When the panel discussion got going, the woman in the chair, treating this bearded patriarch with great deference, asked him to spell out the harm that cloning might do, and he answered that atomic bombs were harmful.  Yes indeed, no possibility of disagreement there.  But wasn’t the discussion supposed to be about cloning?

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