From chapter 3 (Never Let Me Go), Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Science Fiction Movies
On July 5, 1996, Dolly the sheep was born. What made Dolly unusual was that she didn’t have regular biological parents. Rather, she was grown from a cell that came from a single animal.
Dolly the sheep was the first successful clone of a domesticated animal from an adult cell. And the proof that this was possible shot the possibility of cloning from science fiction to science fantasy almost overnight.
In Dolly’s case, the DNA from an ordinary, or somatic, cell—not a reproductive cell or stem cell—was injected into an unfertilized egg that had had its nucleus removed. This “clone egg” was then electrically shocked into starting to divide and grow, after which it was implanted in the uterus of a third sheep.
Dolly was born healthy and lived for nearly seven years before she was put down due to increasingly poor health. But the legacy of the experiment she was a part of lives on. What her birth and life demonstrated without a shadow of doubt is that it’s possible to grow a fully functioning animal from a single cell taken from an organ, and presumably to keep on doing this time and time again.
It’s easy to see the attraction of cloning large animals, at least on the surface. Loved pets could be reproduced, leading to a never-ending cycle of pup to adult and back to pup. Prize livestock could be duplicated, leading to large herds of prime cattle, or whole stables of thoroughbreds. Rare species could be preserved. And then there are people. Yet cloning human from scratch is harder than it might at first seem.
In July 2016, there was a flurry of articles marking the twentieth anniversary of Dolly’s birth. In one of these, bioethicist Hank Greely astutely pointed out just how hard cloning still is, even after two decades of work: “Cats: easy; dogs: hard; mice: easy; rats: hard; humans and other primates: very hard.” The trouble is, while the concept of cloning is pretty straightforward, biology rarely is.
The basic idea behind cloning is to remove the DNA from a healthy non-reproductive cell, insert it into a viable egg cell, and then persuade this to develop into a fully functional organism that is identical to the original. The concept is seemingly simple: the DNA in each cell contains the genetic code necessary to create a new organism from scratch. All that’s needed to create a clone is to convince the DNA that it’s inside a fertilized egg, and get it to behave accordingly. As it turns out, though, this is not that easy. DNA may contain all the right code for creating a new life, but getting it to do this is tricky.
This trickiness hasn’t stopped people from experimenting, though, and in some cases succeeding. And as a result, if you really want to, you can have your dog cloned, or pay a company to create for you a clone-herd of cattle. And there continues to be interest in cloning humans. But before we even get to the technical plausibility of whether we can do this, there are complex ethical challenges to navigate.
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This concern over human reproductive cloning seems to run deep. Certainly, it’s reflected in a number of the positions expressed within the UN Declaration and is a topic of concern within plenty of popular articles on cloning. The thought of being able to grow people at will from a few cells feels to many people to be unnatural and dangerous. It also raises tough questions around potential misuse, which is something that Never Let Me Go focuses our attention on rather acutely.
In 2014, the online magazine io9 published an article on nine “unexpected outcomes of human cloning,”keeping the fascination we have with this technology going, despite the deep moral concerns surrounding it. These unexpected outcomes included ownership of clones (will someone else own the patent on your body?), the possibility of iterative improvements over generations (essentially a DNA software upgrade on each cloning), and raising the dead (why not give Granny a new lease on life?). The article is admittedly lighthearted. But it does begin to dig into the challenges we’ll face if someone does decide to buck the moral trend and start to turn out human facsimiles. And the reality is that, as biomedical science progresses, this is becoming increasingly feasible. Admittedly, it’s incredibly difficult at the moment to reproduce people. But this is not always going to be the case. And as the possibility comes closer, we’re going to face some increasingly tough choices as a society.
Yet despite the unease around human cloning, there are some people who actively suggest the idea shouldn’t be taken off the table completely. In 1997, not too long after Dolly’s birth, a group of prominent individuals put their name to a “Declaration in Defense of Cloning and the Integrity of Scientific Research.”Signatories included co-discoverer of DNA Francis Crick, scientist and writer Richard Dawkins, and novelist Kurt Vonnegut.
This Declaration acknowledges how knotty an ethical issue human cloning is, and it recognizes up front the need for appropriate guidelines. But where it differs from the later UN Declaration is that its authors suggest that human cloning isn’t as ethically or morally fraught as some people make out. In fact, they state:
“We see no inherent ethical dilemmas in cloning non-human higher animals. Nor is it clear to us that future developments in cloning human tissues or even cloning human beings will create moral predicaments beyond the capacity of human reason to resolve. The moral issues raised by cloning are neither larger nor more profound than the questions human beings have already faced in regards to such technologies as nuclear energy, recombinant DNA, and computer encryption. They are simply new.”
The Declaration doesn’t go so far as to suggest that human reproductive cloning should proceed. But it does say that decisions should be made based on science and reasoned thinking, and it cautions scientists and policy makers to ensure “traditionalist and obscurantist views do not irrelevantly obstruct beneficial scientific developments.”
In other words, the declaration’s authors are clear in their conviction that religious beliefs and mystical thinking should not be allowed to stand in the way of scientific progress.
Ironically, one of the easiest places to find a copy of the “Declaration in Defense of Cloning…” is, in fact, in a treatise that is infused with religious beliefs and mystical thinking: Claude Vorilhon’s monograph Yes to Human Cloning
Vorilhon, better known these days by his adopted name of Raël, published the monograph Yes to Human Cloning as a wide-ranging treatise on technological innovation and humanity’s future. And at its center is his rationale for why cloning is not only acceptable, but in fact essential to us achieving our destiny as a species.
Despite its rather unusual provenance, I’d recommend reading Yes to Human Cloning, although I would suggest you approach it with a critical mind and a good dose of skepticism. Raël is a clear and engaging writer, and he makes his case with some eloquence for adopting emerging technologies like nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. In fact, if parts of this work were selectively published with the “I talk to aliens” bits removed, you’d be forgiven for thinking they came from a more mainstream futurist like Ray Kurzweil, or even a technology entrepreneur like Elon Musk. I’d go so far as to say that, when stripped of the really weird stuff, Raël’s vision of the future is one that would appeal to many who see humans as no more than sophisticated animals and technology as a means of enhancing and engineering this sophistication.
In Raël’s mind, human cloning is a critical technology in a three-step program for living forever. Some transhumanists believe the route to longevity involves being cryogenically frozen until technology advances to the point at which it can be used to revive and repair them. Others seek longevity through technological augmentation. Raël, though, goes one step further and suggests that the solution to longevity is disposable bodies. And so, we have his three-step program to future immortality, which involves (1) developing the ability to clone and grow a replacement human body, (2) developing the technology to accelerate the rate of growth, so an adult body takes weeks rather than years to produce, and (3) developing the technology to upload our minds into cyberspace, and then download them into a fresh new (and probably upgraded) cloned version of yourself.
Stupendously complex (not to mention, implausible) as this would be, there are people around who think that parts of this plan are feasible enough that they’re already working on it, as we’ll see in later chapters. Raël’s plan would, naturally, require the ability to grow a body outside of a human womb. But this is already an active area of research, as we saw in chapter two. And, as we’ll explore in later chapters, neuroscientists and others are becoming increasingly excited by the prospect of capturing the essence of the human mind, to the point that they can reproduce at least part of it in cyberspace.
What particularly fascinates me here is that, beneath the Raëlian mysticism and UFO weirdness, this movement is playing with ideas that are increasingly garnering mainstream attention. And this means that, even if we won’t be growing bodies in our basements anytime soon, we have to take the possibility of human reproductive cloning seriously. And this means grappling not only with the ethics of the process itself, but also the ethics of how we chose to treat and act toward those clones we create.