Cloning? Get used to it

Human genetic engineering is coming - and it will be good for us, writes Colin Tudge

Share
Related Topics
IN 1984 the excellent American embryologist Davor Solter declared that to clone a mammal from an adult cell was "biologically impossible". Twelve years later we have Dolly the cloned sheep from the Roslin Institute, Edinburgh, and, from Wisconsin, an alleged procession of cloned calves already claimed to be too numerous to be named individually.

Richard Seed of Chicago did no one any favours earlier this month when he announced his plans to clone humans, but Princeton geneticist Lee Silver was surely right to suggest in a lecture last week at the London School of Economics that human cloning will happen - alongside the already established but once astonishing technologies of in vitro fertilisation (IVF), genetic engineering, and the rest. The new technologies of reproduction and genetics are almost unmeasurably powerful, or will be, with another few decades' refinement. As Nature has suggested, they could "change the nature of our species".

We should face reality. There are no "biological laws", apart from the underlying laws of physics, and technology might achieve anything that does not break those bedrock laws. We should also recognise, as Dr Silver points out, that the potent new biotechnologies are already outside humanity's present control. Individual countries may have their laws, mores and customs, and influence technology up to a point through the flow of research funds. But the US in particular is driven by market forces, and while most Americans are known to deplore the idea of human cloning, that same majority supports a Constitution which defends the rights of minorities effectively to do as they please. If 1 per cent of Americans want cloning, and it's known that they do, then most of the other 99 per cent will not gainsay them.

The first stirrings of embryo selection are with us, too, and are potentially far more influential than cloning. It is becoming possible through the technique of PCR (the polymerase chain reaction - the same technology that underpins "genetic fingerprinting") to identify embryos that contain damaging genes, and reject them in favour of healthy embryos; all this being carried out in vitro. More and more genes will become identifiable, and the selection more rigorous. In addition, bright and beautiful young men and women are already offering themselves through Californian agencies as donors of sperm or eggs, inviting people worldwide to wonder why they should settle for the dubious genetic endowment of their here-and-now partners. It's happening, and will happen more.

Genetic engineering for human beings will surely be with us within a few more decades. Physicians even now plan to treat cystic fibrosis by correcting damaged genes in the cells of the lungs. Such genetic changes, made ad hoc to body tissues, are not passed to subsequent generations. But someday they will alter the genes of the "germ-line". Embryos will be fitted with new genes that will appear in the eggs and sperm and will be passed on, altering the lineage for all time. US surveys again show that most people are appalled by such a prospect - but that they think again when it is pointed out that embryos might in principle be fitted with stretches of DNA (genes) that would protect permanently against Aids.

Similar technology might provide the only realistic wide-scale defence against malaria. Who would deny their children such advantages if the threat is significant and the technology is affordable and safe? As Dr Silver says, what rational people at the present time deny their children the polio vaccine? What is the difference? But if we accept permanently installed genes to defend against Aids or malaria, why not seek to snuff out genes that predispose to heart disease, say, or obesity? Put the new reproductive and genetic technologies together and we will indeed enter the age of "designer babies".

So what are we going to do about it? In the early 1970s one of the first of the "genetic engineers", Paul Berg, called for a moratorium on his own line of research, and it is always good to take time to think. But Bill Clinton will surely be obliged to withdraw or conveniently forget his knee-jerk condemnation of cloning. People grow used to new technologies quickly. IVF was condemned in the late Seventies at least as roundly as cloning is today, but now there are 150,000 "test-tube" babies in scores of countries. Good medicine pulls the technology along: the proper desire of clinicians is to help their patients. But the market is driving it along too. The US test-tube babies cost their parents an average of $50,000 apiece, while the scientists who do the work earn an annual average of $200,000.

Dr Silver said he deplored the power of the market - but could offer nothing convincing in its place. So far, as he points out, there is nothing convincing. The objections tend to be expressed in arguments that easily collapse: over-stretched theology, misconstrued biology, flimsy rhetoric.

We need, then, to think more clearly and more deeply. We might begin by acknowledging that in reality, ethical objections to technologies have three separate components: humanitarian, aesthetic and religious. The three are commonly conflated, which leads to confusion and deadlock; but for starters, they need to be teased apart.

In practice, humanitarian arguments alone can carry us a long way. They should be concerned both with outcome (which is traditional utilitarianism, in the spirit of Jeremy Bentham and J S Mill) and with motive (which traditional utilitarians ignore). Thus cloning might sometimes provide the only means by which infertile couples could produce the child they desperately want; adoption is becoming less and less of an option as abortion is tolerated and single parenthood becomes common. If a couple can give their child - however created - a stable loving home, why should they be denied?

The point is to define the principle that will enable us to recognise when a potent technology might reasonably be deployed, and when it should not. It seems that even the heavy-duty technologies of cloning and genetic engineering can comfortably be contained by humanitarian criteria, applied with sense, as they are already applied in many other contexts already.

Aesthetics is crucial. For example, cosmetic plastic surgery has not caught on in Britain as it has in California, not because the British can't afford it but because we find it vulgar. This is as it should be: technologies in the end should be controlled by gut feeling. But we have to be careful. Thus, in the 1970s, Enoch Powell and medical ethicists such as Ian Kennedy at King's College, London, greeted IVF with what both called the "Yuk!" response. Well, changing a baby's nappy is yukky, too, yet it's a good thing. Bowel surgery can be disgusting but it saves lives. Thus aesthetics is a rough guide only. Revulsion may alert us that something is amiss but we still have to think it through.

But when we have discussed the humanitarian aspects and scrutinised our aesthetic aversions, the new biotechnologies still leave us with misgivings; and these residual fears are difficult to put into words because they are, in reality, religious. In our society we are hoist on our own secular petard: we retain the concepts of religion, and feel their resonance, but have lost the accompanying vocabulary. When the time comes to legislate we find ourselves inarticulate. We feel that "something should be done" but cannot clearly express the nature of our feelings.

The elusive concepts are those of hubris and blasphemy. Hubris is a Greek idea: usurping the power of the Gods. Blasphemy is Jewish, offence against God. All of us - pantheist, Jew, atheist or whatever - feel deep down that it is not in our gift, our right, to treat the Universe and the creatures it contains simply as raw material. The Universe should be revered; and its living and sentient creatures must be respected.

This is why, however much presidents protest and ethical committees pronounce, we feel that the new technologies are out of our control, and why, in fact, they are. Our deepest misgivings are religious in nature, but the religions that gave rise to them have been marginalised and their concepts have no meaning or force in secular law. Yet we cannot simply ask the traditional religions to provide directives off the shelf. All the great religions were conceived in a different age, with different problems, and their precepts do not fit comfortably with modern knowledge. The Catholic notion, for example, that life begins with conception, is at best arbitrary (and not simply because "conception" itself is not a clean and discrete phenomenon).

Yet the power and value of religion does not lie in particular icons or liturgies, and still less in any preoccupation with the supernatural. The central task of all religions, the essence that unites them, is to cultivate emotional response. Aesthetics can be refined. Cultivate rev- erence for the Universe as a whole and respect for the sentient members of it, and even the most potent technologies will fall into place. They really will.

Colin Tudge is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Philosophy of the London School of Economics.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The law is too hard on sexting teenagers

Memphis Barker
 

Obama must speak out – Americans are worried no one is listening to them

David Usborne
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game