In my previous post I mentioned what I labeled as a silly book (How to Defeat Your Own Clone), but now that I have a copy I’m finding it interesting and different than I expected. With a lot of humor the authors are trying to explain the science and debunk some of the mystery of human cloning. I haven’t finished the book yet (the biology bits I already knew), but it has provoked my own thoughts.
First off all, reproductive cloning is totally misunderstood by the public, shaped more by fantasy books and pop culture and the largely irrelevant “moral” debate. The simple bit is this: your genome (the only thing you share with your clone) is only a small part of who you are. Your clone may have the same genes, but: a) will be a person in every meaning of that word, and, b) it won’t be you, in fact it may be very different from you, and, c) it’s not your property to do with as you please, it is legally and realistically a complete independent being that has the right to do as it wishes.
Are you your genes? No I don’t mean, simply, the nature vs nurture issue. I mean identity. Is your personality in your genes? (maybe a little) Is your knowledge, your experience in your genes? Absolutely not.
Let’s start with the biology. Unless you are cloned at a very young age your clone will not have the same birth mother. While cloning may be in our near-term future, an artificial womb (incredibly complex biology to synthesize) will not. That means whatever woman you get to be the surrogate birth mother is going to heavily influence the baby that is born. Prenatal environment is hugely important for shaping the embryogenesis process and it’s will be very different for your clone. And in the early growth, after live birth, will also very much affect your clone as it grows. By the time it’s 18 it will have been exposed to a totally different developmental path and it will be different, not to mention quite a bit younger than you. Your clone will be less the same as you than an identical twin (also exactly you at the genome level) would be due to these many biological factors.
But the social and history will play a huge role. Each of us has had pivotal events in our life. When my parents decided to move to a drastically different location that had a major impact on me. My clone not only wouldn’t be born in the same place (or same time) but it’s not going to grow up in the same places. The Vietnam War had a huge impact on me, changing my career, changing who I married, changing where I lived later in life. My clone would have completely different experiences and would be shaped entirely by their life experience, not mine. It will grow up in a different timeframe (just think about the other subject of this blog, social media: I experienced none of it, my clone would be immersed in it and changed by it). I’ve worked in other countries that were even the enemies of the U.S. at the time I was born; my clone might grow up in one of those countries or be employed by a company in one of them or marry someone from one of them. So while my parents couldn’t imagine the “global” life I’ve lived, I can’t imagine the even more global life my clone would live. Like many of my generation JFK had a huge effect on me; my clone might have been influenced by George W. Bush! Our identity is shaped by our experience, not our genes, and so my clone would be at least as different than me as any other child I might have had.
People think clones will know the same things, enjoy the same activities, be good (or bad) at the same things as we are, but they won’t. Memories and even most of personality and identity is stored in neurons, not DNA. My clone could never know the same things I do and would probably find most of my experience as silly as I feel about much of my parents experience. My clone would chuckle at the things I like and I’d be wondering about how the new generation is so crazy. You and your clone are not even likely to be friends and in fact might really dislike each other. So why do you think you’d have any special affinity with your clone?
So cloning is just a somewhat different way of having children, but with the same set of consequences as we experience with our children. Despite our influence they are their own person and their relationship with us will be what it will be, not something somehow special due to being our clone.
I don’t know quite how popular culture got off on such fear of clones. Assuming cloning actually works right, there is no difference between a baby born of the old-fashioned biological process and a clone. So I’m the product of the scrambled and merged chromosomes of my parents and my clone has my chromosomes (although importantly, the book pointed out, not exactly the same ones I was born with since the DNA in my adult cells is not precisely the same as my own embryonic DNA). Twenty-three chromosomes are twenty-three chromosomes, no matter how they got assembled. And also imagine not-much-later enhancements to cloning: a) why does my clone have to have just my genome, why not scramble it a bit with chromosomes from others, b) and what about embryonic gene replacement; I’m probably predisposed to some disease, wouldn’t I like my clone to have some better genes, where possible, c) will my clone perhaps get better nutrition than I did and so have fewer adipose cells to fight with later in cell, and, so forth. By the time we can clone, we’ll be able to alter the embryo, and that technology will only improve with time, offering more opportunity to “optimize” the person that is produced. And don’t tell me, if you’re willing to clone, you won’t also invest even more in positive outcomes for your clone.
When IVF first happened it shocked popular imagination but now it’s so routine who even knows who is a “test tube” baby (just that term shows how poorly the public understood IVF). If cloning works it will someday be the same as IVF, a non-event, just an alternative way to make a baby. The resistance to IVF, primarily religious, was quickly swept aside because reproduction is too important to parents to deny them what they seek. Can any authority really tell parents they can’t reproduce just because they have some defect in their natural process? No, parents demanded and got that right with IVF. And they’ll get it with cloning. Imagine the story of Lance Armstrong. At a very young age (before any children) he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. In his book he describes the total weird circumstances of being told he had a likely fatal condition and then being sent to a private room with a bottle and skin magazines to make the last sperm sample he’d ever do. So imagine he already had several children and then lost his ability to make more, would anyone deny him cloning one of the existing children, or himself, or his wife, or any other willing person? Parents will face circumstances where the only option they have for reproduction is cloning and they’re going to take it. And why not? What is that difference than any other method of getting twenty-three + one (and it’s interesting to think that my clone might have two X’s, not my Y, and why not?)
The moral issue, I think, resolves down mostly to safety, esp. in the earliest days. AFAIK Dolly suffered from shortened telomeres and thus doomed to a shorter lifetime. Now, when that could happen to a human, a human to whom you’re very connected, that is not something we’d wish on our offspring. And the crude zap and shake-and-bake method of creating the embryo is a brutal mechanical process (at the molecular level) and some DNA break seems entirely possible (or even a missing or irreparably damaged chromosome, remember that one cell only has one set, it will be vital they’re intact). Or perhaps we can’t reverse all the epigenetic programming of the DNA with the cloning process. Or mixing a different set of mitochondria with my DNA might be a bad combination. Or my adult cell that is the source of the clone’s DNA has already had one of the DNA “hits” that is further along the way to cancer. There are tons of potential “mistakes” that can happen and the being we create is a person, and condemning them to a bad life (due to some damage the process causes) is an obvious moral no-no. As it is, making a baby is a crapshoot, but at least we can just blame random bad luck if something goes wrong. When we consciously and artificially create a new person and it has problems due to the technology that created it obviously we will blame ourselves and others. Certainly the religinuts have it easier, because any mistakes that happen in the natural process they get to blame on god, but in an artificial process it’s on us! So we have to get it right. We don’t even get it right on animals today, so it’s unthinkable to do reproductive cloning until the technology is actually far more reliable than the old-fashioned process.
But beyond that, so what? What is the moral issue? That we’ll offend god (if god really exists then somehow I suspect he’d just break the process). Is it supreme human conceit and arrogance that we “play god”? Come on, when those zillions of sperm seek out an egg after a little frisky activity, do you really think it’s any more than random luck which one finds the egg first? (If you think otherwise, then explain why males need so much sperm, one should do nicely if it were divinely inspired).
No, it’s not a moral issue – it’s a power issue. Religion has always existed in ignorance. When thunder and lightning were mysterious, naturally god (not Maxwell’s equations) did it. And it was the shaman who got to tell us this and thus held power over our lives. Today religious institutions consume vast amounts of our resources, simply because we let them. And what do they deliver in return? Nothing but superstition and fear and bigotry. No, science is not a threat to god (who could squash it like a bug if she chose); science, especially reproductive science, is a threat to men (and mostly men in the continuing misogyny of most churches). The power (and pursese) of our mystics, seers, revelators, shamans, priests, and televangelists is diminished, not any omnipotent being you wish to hypothesize.
So don’t let religinuts scam us in this area any more than they try to scam us in all the other reproductive areas (abortion, birth control) or gun control or tax policy or what books we can read. All the fear about cloning (or Plan B) or whatever is artificially created and instilled in us just to hand over power (and blame) to others. It’s harder to think we’re responsible for our own lives than merely to assign that responsibility to something we can’t even define much less prove exists, BUT, that’s life, get over it! It’s your job (and your clone’s job) to live your life, not someone else. Don’t let the impoverished science of ancient goatherds drive policy and your rights today.