Philosophy with Attitude


Understand the facts about cloning

By Jan A Andrea
Graduate Student

I would like to address Shawna Starkey's recent display of biological ignorance in the Friday, March 7 edition of TNH. Not that this is an uncommon ignorance; most Americans probably share her Woody Allen-esque view of cloning, where a cell is taken from somebody and Bang! a fully grown adult, physically and mentally identical clone appears. Want to know something, though? People really are cloned every day, and it's perfectly natural; most of us know them as identical twins.

There are a number of misconceptions (no pun intended) associated with cloning technology as it exists today. Most of these are probably due to the manner in which the media has covered the story of Dolly, the cloned Scottish sheep. All that the public sees is a grown-up sheep. What they don't see is the process that went into her development. First, several eggs that had been previously fertilized underwent a procedure that removed the DNA from their nuclei. It was then replaced by the DNA from a cell taken from the donor sheep's udder. (This is all a very complicated and time-consuming process, by the way, which I am greatly simplifying.) The resultant cells were then implanted into the sheep equivalent of a surrogate mother. Of about eight that were implanted, only two or three actually continued developing; and one of them was born, after a normal gestation, as Dolly.

This is not some miracle "plug in a cell and instantly grow an animal" process; the only thing about it that differed from any other in-vitro fertilization technique was that the DNA was from an ordinary somatic (body) cell instead of the combined DNA from sperm and egg. Gestation (pregnancy) still had to occur. When Dolly was born, she was a lamb, not an adult, and she still had to undergo normal development. This process would be the same for any animal, from a mouse to a human, and that is very important when one considers the ethical questions that have surfaced.

1) With cloning, it would be possible to create a whole army of Hitlers, or a lab full of Einsteins. False. If you could get your hands on a cell from one of these men, it would be possible to duplicate their genetic makeup, but anyone who knows a set of twins should realize that identical genes do not equal identical personalities. Any given human trait has at most, on average, 50 percent of its expression due to genetics, and the rest is due to environment and upbringing. Hitler's twin, if he'd had one, would have had different experiences as a child, and would probably not have been the psychopath that Hitler was. Einstein's twin brother would stand a chance of being pretty smart, but would probably not have been as much a genius as Albert. Individuality comes from upbringing, and you could never duplicate exactly the experiences that any person had.

2) Clones are created as fully functional adults. False. As described above, cloning is simply an alternate route to getting the full human load of 46 chromosomes. (Sperm's 23 chromosomes + egg's 23 chromosomes = 46 chromosomes, somatic cell's 46 chromosomes = 46 chromosomes). We cannot now, and will not in the near future, be able to accelerate the growth process so that mental abilities are preserved, and probably not so that a viable individual would result - all science fiction/horror stories to the contrary.

3) Clones have no souls and/or no individual personality. Well, if you believe that "ensoulment" occurs at conception, and that the soul cannot be split, then one twin of two has no soul, since twinning occurs after conception. The same is true of a clone. Science does not tend to deal with issues like the soul, since the concept of a soul has no physically observable counterpart. In pure science, the soul does not exist, because there is no physical or mathematical model or observational strategy that proves its existence. I cannot stress enough, a clone is just a twin that is born after its sibling. Traits such as personality and abilities are determined largely through experience, and so a clone would have as much of a personality as any other human being.

The government is paranoid about the cloning process because, like most of the general population, all they know about cloning has come from science fiction and the media. It's true that clones of humans are possible. But as for Shawna's scenario of a clone hiding in the closet, well, how many sets of twins do you know that keep their clone for future organ use? A clone is simply a twin that has been produced artificially, and at a later point in life than its twin.

As for the delay in reporting these breakthroughs, the media is the agency responsible. The results of the sheep cloning experiment were published in the journal "Nature" in March of 1996. They published a followup in late February of this year. This is the way that scientific research works, though. After results are reported in a journal, other scientists are given the opportunity to respond to them - to point out flaws in their procedure or results and the like - and the media generally waits until all of the peer review is done before it releases a story, as well it should, if it is to be responsible coverage. There is no conspiracy involved here; if you wanted to know about cloning last year, the information was out there. You just didn't look for it until television brought it into the general public's eye.

The possibility of creating a cloned "monster" is, too, a real one, but not in the way that Shawna describes. We still know very little about the inner workings of the human genome; there are so many different genetic and environmental influences on even a simple trait, such as relative strength that it would be all but impossible to create a human who was monstrously stronger than "normal" humans. Now, if genetic changes equate to monstrosity in Shawna's mind, what does she think of children with Down syndrome? They have an extra chromosome; does that make them monsters? What about people with other inherited diseases? Are they really monstrous, or just unlucky? No legitimate scientist - especially one with government funding - would do something like that on purpose. Besides that, in general, if there is a massive flaw in the genome (genetic makeup) of an embryo, a spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) usually results anyway. I wouldn't worry about a "gaggle of ballistic human freaks" if I were you, Shawna, unless you truly inhabit the same universe as the very fictional "X-Files".

The kind of paranoia seen in Friday's "On the Flip Side" is very common among Americans, though it shouldn't be. Anyone with an adequate introduction to biology should be able to tell the difference between science fiction and science fact; but the truth is, most people don't see science as an important part of their lives, or give the excuse for their ignorance that they "hate science" and so never bothered to learn anything about it. This is, in my opinion, inexcusable; the articles that have appeared in many newspapers -- ours now included - should be proof enough that understanding must come before a decision is made to reject an scientific breakthrough.

As a future science teacher, I hope to decrease the ignorance seen in today's society. But those who write about these things without any true knowledge of their implications don't help matters much. I hope that if Shawna decides to teach her future students about, say, the life of Mark Twain, she does a little more research than renting a copy of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer;" that is essentially what she has done for her column on cloning.

In summary: science fiction does not equal science fact, horror movies are rarely, if ever, accurate in their treatment of biology, and there is more to cloning than the "X-Files" or "Stepford Wives" shows you.

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