Philip Ball’s new book, Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People gets into the mythological underpinnings of our concerns about making people. Nature‘s Chris Mason reviews [gated] Unnatural and makes a striking observation:
Even today, Ball points out, societal and cultural debate is pervaded by the belief that technology is intrinsically perverting and thus carries certain penalty. Views that human cloning will be used for social engineering, eradicating one gender or resurrecting undesirable figures from the past, for example, all reflect age-old fears about the consequences of meddling in the ‘unnatural’. Ball warns that, as there is no global ban on human reproductive cloning, there is a strong chance that it will happen. It is thus likely to become a de facto reality without the well-informed debate it deserves.
Let’s unpack that little nugget, because it contains two very important points.
The first point is that many of our fears about advancing science and biotechnology related to the body trigger fundamental, core cultural fears. Leon Kass calls this the “Yuck” reaction, or, more eloquently, “Wisdom from Repugnance.” Kass’ argument is that we are naturally repelled by abhorrent ideas, like torturing babies and eating people. As regular readers of Science Not Fiction know, eating people isn’t always bad.
Well, as it turns out, Leon Kass’ argument that we should trust our gut when it says, “yuck!” is a pretty terrible way to do ethics. Why? Because what is “yuck” to me might be “yum” to you. And we’re back to not knowing if doing something ethically questionable, like cloning people, is morally permissible. Unnatural at least explains why so many people say “yuck” to modifying humans; it is a lesson we’ve been told over and over for millennia in myths and religion.
The second point is that we should be discussing these ideas like rational adults. Biotechnology is progressing at a rate and in ways that are so rapid as to be unpredictable. I make lots of educated guesses and suppositions, but none of what I write here is a prediction or a guarantee. My interest is in figuring out whether or not something like cloning is ethically permissible if we’re ever able to do it. As Ball notes, there is no current global ban on cloning. There is, as it stands, no global ban on most of the transhumanist issues, from eugenics to cognitive enhancers to A.I. to nano-implants. These possible technologies strain the very foundations of many of our philosophies and cultural institutions. If the lack of a global ban means the technology is likely inevitable, we better figure out how to go about things correctly.
Debate and discussion are essential to making good decisions. Recognizing our old, deep seated prejudices and biases, such as those against technology and making people, is equally essential. Simply because something is unnatural does not mean it is immoral. But that’s where the discussion starts, not where it ends ends.
Image of Book Cover via Bodley Head
30,000 years ago a Neanderthal woman died in what would become Croatia’s Vindija cave. Five years ago, 454 Life Sciences and the Max Planck Institute started working together on the tedious and time-consuming task of piecing her fossilized DNA back together. Just over a month ago, they succeeded and, in the process, revealed that most of us are between 1% and 4% Neanderthal. To crudely paraphrase the ever artful Carl Zimmer, knowing where Neanderthals fit into the evolution of Homo sapiens is essential to understanding the development of the human mind.
Knowing where Neanderthals fit, however, also creates a problem. What do we do if what makes humans “human” isn’t from a “human” at all? How do we justify “human rights” in light of evidence that our rational and moral minds are in no small part the result of prehistoric crossbreeding? In short: if human rights are based on being human, what rights would a cloned Neanderthal have?
The problem is, of course, that we don’t have a cloned Neanderthal. Which is why we need to make one.
The 2007 discovery of a perfectly preserved, 40,000 year-old baby mammoth raised hopes that the animal’s high-quality DNA could lead to a revival of the species via cloning.
This week, an elaborately produced documentary from National Geographic Channel traces the path of the baby mammoth (“Lyuba”) from discovery in Siberia to analysis in Russia and Japan, as scientists try to piece together the details of its life and death.
Last night’s episode of Eleventh Hour took a plot from the first episode and took it to the next level: From a failed human cloning experiment to success. We learn within the first ten minutes of the episode that Dr. Jacob Hood’s nemeiss, the evil geneticist known as Gepetto, has cloned humans, implanted the embryonic clones into women, and successfully brought them to term. We learn later that Gepetto cloned the babies with her own DNA so she can harvest one of them for a new pancreas, which she needs to live. Of course taking a pancreas means killing the baby, so Gepetto would be guilty of murder along with any number of additional violations of the law.
Last night CBS premiered it’s new science-fiction detective show, Eleventh Hour, which revolves around a scientist investigating misuses of science, accompanied by his FBI minder. The first episode focused on human cloning and the show deserves big kudos for wringing out a fresh take from what has become a very hackneyed topic in science fiction. The writer and producers managed this feat by actually sticking close to today’s science: most stories that incorporate reproductive cloning introduce a successfully created clone (whether a child or an adult) and go from there. The messy details of actually creating a clone are glossed over, or not mentioned at all. Not so on Eleventh Hour.
There’s a scene in the movie Babylon A.D., which opened Friday, where Mélanie Thierry’s character, Aurora, escapes from her guardians through a crowded post-apocalyptic marketplace and is suddenly confronted by two cloth-covered cages. She stares at the cages and as the camera zooms in, the audience realizes that something big is prowling about inside. The cage-porters whip the cloth off (Don’t ask why. This movie does not answer well to “Why?”) , and we see a pair of Siberian tigers pacing angrily and growling at the crowd. Aurora was raised in a convent, and the sight of the tigers awes her, not least because she knows (somehow) that tigers had been extinct for decades.
The plot of the film is set in some indeterminate future, and it centers on Aurora’s journey from Russia to America in the company of Sister Rebeka (Michelle Yeoh as a badass nun) and Toorop, the hard hard-bitten, badass mercenary (Vin Diesel, who plays no other kind of mercenary, right Riddick fans?).
Anyway, there’s the market place, there’s the tigers, there’s Aurora as Toorop and Sister Rebeka come up behind her. Toorop is not so impressed, later dismissing the beasts as “copies. Clones of clones. Fakes.”
But why so dismissive, Toorop? Read More