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.Reuse content