The future should not be hostage to the yuck factor

The weakest part of the Christian argument is that a fertilised egg is a human being

GENETICALLY MODIFIED food was bad enough: yesterday's decision to set up yet another committee on cloning technology suggests that the Government is determined not to get embroiled in a row about genetically modified humans as well. This is a pity, because the decision postponed yesterday would not have allowed human cloning at all: the ultimate purpose is to grow only those sorts of tissue that are useful. Though my kidneys, my corneas and even my spit all contain my DNA, as a clone would, none of them are me and none of them are a human being, either. If there were, somewhere, a frozen egg cloned from me, and it could be made to produce only one kind of tissue - say the brain cells that might relieve Parkinson's disease - I would not hesitate for a moment. Nor would I think anyone else unethical for doing so.

We don't know if that will ever be possible. Without trying it, we can't know. But it is not what is generally meant by cloning, any more than my spit is a human being. Opposition to the research programme arises from a mixture of instinctive revulsion and religious, largely Christian objections. I don't disparage the yuck factor: often we can see that something is wrong long before we can explain why it is wrong; but the insight is not enough on its own: sooner or later we must give reasons for our revulsion, and this is where the trouble comes.

The basis of the yuck factor is an instinctive feeling that some things should not be done to human bodies. The trouble is that what is permissible to human bodies has varied wildly through time and round the world. Transplant surgery is still controversial in the Islamic world: it's nasty, but probably true, to say that it is less widely accepted than female circumcision. The use of dead people's corneas in transplants was illegal even in this country until the 1950s.

The yuck factor has led to the rejection of good things and the toleration of evil in every society but our own. With a little imagination we can realise that even our own might not be perfect. We need principles that are at least partly independent of our instincts to be able to judge what we should do; and this, I think, is where the Churches have noisily failed. Their speciality is the marriage of reason and insight, yet in their reasoning on this subject, the noisiest churches have managed to stress all the wrong insights.

The weakest part of the Christian case against embryo research and cloning is the assertion that a fertilised egg is a human being. So far as one can give any clear meaning to the term "human being", this is simply ridiculous. It's not just that we can do things an embryo can't. It has capabilities which even foetuses lose as they develop and differentiate. You can take a fertilised embryo, divide it into two clumps of cells, and each half will grow into a complete baby. Try doing that with a child, and see if you get two adults.

What seems even more unlikely: you can, with sufficiently early embryos, break them up as before, recombine the bits from two separate ones, and again, a complete organism results. That doesn't work with babies either. All these things are prime candidates for the yuck factor, but nature itself is yucky: it is reasonably common for early embryos to be reabsorbed by the lining of the mother's womb. We don't call that cannibalism.

By the same token, we should not regard the disposal of frozen embryos as murder. They are not human beings. They are not really animals of any sort and it is their extraordinary ability to generate and regenerate cells which makes the tissue so potentially valuable.

The more we know about the way that nature actually works, the less likely we are to confuse what is natural with what is ethical. The great unexamined premise of the yuck factor is that what is natural is good. But all that we can actually be sure of, in a Darwinian world, is that what is natural, frequent and works to our benefit, is unlikely to repel us very deeply. Cloned embryonic tissue sounds repulsive but is not; cloned children can sound more attractive, but their creation would be wrong.

I distrust the argument, though I have used it myself, that we should not be worried about artificial human clones, since natural ones - identical twins - already live quite happily. I think, at the very least, that they should be asked whether they consider their condition desirable before we make more of them. This won't happen, of course, because if human cloning does prove possible, it will be done by rich and powerful families who've never really worried about the effects of their dynastic needs on other people, even their own children.

Any discussion of what is natural or unnatural about reproductive technology ought to start from the fact that there is nothing new or unnatural about exploitation and the abuse of the powerless. There have been eunuchs for almost as long as there have been slaves; even the popes had a choir of castrati until 1878. I don't myself believe, as Catholics do, that the embryo or even the foetus is a human being. But they are surely right to start from a deep distrust of human nature.

Something of this distrust lies behind the British attempt to eliminate financial considerations from the research. But money functions both as a way to exercise power and as an information system. Prices show what people want. Outside Britain, big money will be on offer, and it will be accepted. This is tragic because cloning is not an offence against the embryo: it is an offence against the human being that embryo will become, not least because the qualities that people will clone for will be competitive.

The parents will buy, or try to buy, excellence in particular fields. They will want Einstein's brain, or even Bill Gates's. But just because they all want the best in a competitive field, it follows most must fail even when the technology succeeds. In Wimbledon fortnight we can see quite clearly what it does to a child to be groomed for one thing from the age of six; and those we see are the successful ones. Behind them are a legion of failures: thousands of teenagers who have worked just as hard with almost as much talent and got nowhere. It's bad enough to be ranked at 1,001th in the world after 10 years of effort. Imagine what that ranking would be like for a child who had been conceived, as well as trained, to be number one.

Cloning embryos to make stem cells is right because they're not human beings; cloning embryos to make babies is wrong because they will inevitably grow up to be unhappy human beings.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star