Friday, March 30, 2007


Dawkins vs Collins, and cloning

On Terry Gross's radio interview show Fresh Air, the past two days have been devoted to conversations with Richard Dawkins, author of “The God Delusion”, and Fancis Collins, author of “The Language of God”, giving us two vastly different views of how science can (or can't) mix with religion. They're an interesting pair of interviews, and I recommend a listen to both (you can stream them online from the links above, or you can download the shows here: Dawkins, Collins).

Near the end of his interview, Dr Collins, in discussing stem-cell research, postulates that ultimately the best stem cells will be created by cloning one's own cells, to create cells specific to oneself. As he does that, he makes it clear that he's not talking about cloning humans, but just certain human cells. Never, he says, would we look at cloning whole people. Of course, he says, that's off the table, beyond the pale. and, indeed, Dr Collins is far from alone in saying that; in fact, it's pretty much a universal statement. No one would consider such a thing. Of course not.


No, really.


I see why some people would object, but why is there essentially a universal revulsion to the idea, even among the most liberal of cloning-research supporters?

Dr Collins cites issues of safety, ethics, and morality. It's the “morality” part that I understand, but that's surely where we differ the most in our opinions. Some will say that God doesn't want us to meddle in these areas, but surely the morality of many is sufficiently flexible to allow them to support the study of this. But where are the “safety” issues, and why are our “ethics” offended by it?

I believe I'm a moral, ethical person, and I think most who know me would agree. Yet I'm not with the rest of the universe on this. I understand concerns about someone's trying to use cloning to breed a master race, or some such, but there are other ways to deal with that, and people have also tried other ways to accomplish it, so the problem (and the solution) isn't limited to cloning.

On the other hand, it seems to me that there's a great possibility of medical and scientific advancement from the unfettered study of cloning and related technology, and that it doesn't serve us well to reject anything out of hand, especially when we're still far enough away from actually being able to do it that this is a hypothetical issue for now. In fact, I think we will eventually clone humans — if not in my lifetime, then within the next century — and that all of these moral and ethical questions will but delay it.

I'm sure the commenters will have something to say about what I'm missing, what really makes it so different to clone a sheep and to clone a human, what is so horribly, fundamentally, unquestionably wrong about it. Please tell me; I'm listening.


Maggie said...

I wonder if what scientists say is just a knee-jerk reaction to a knee-jerk reaction: quickly announce that we have no intention of cloning humans beause people object to it so vehemently, in order to promote therapeutic cloning research.

I don't know why people have the negative knee-jerk reaction to cloning, but I would guess that it's because the negative possibilities are the fun ones to write a book or movie about, which makes for frightening scenarios. Probably the main reason is it's "playing god." Of course, people don't extend that sort of reasoning to medical care generally. But I would guess that most of the negative reaction is religious.

Science fiction used to depict computers and robots negatively. But computers have pretty much taken over the world at this point, and people seem to embrace it.

Clearly we don't have a set of ethics yet for cloning humans. Perhaps this is the problem. Science creates an advance, such as a nuclear bomb or artifically impregnating a 65-year-old woman or prolonging the life of a person in a coma, and then ethics and the law have to catch up.

It is a rather serious thing to mess with -- a person's life. We don't raise our children right as it is -- they don't have universal health care, many don't have a secure place to sleep or enough food every day. Many are abused. We have a pretty good idea how a child should be raised, though, ideally. How do you raise a child who has no parents? Who is responsible for that child? If I gave up my own DNA for a clone, I wouldn't be able to let somebody else raise the child, but am I the right person to raise *me*?

In the limited space that we have on this earth for people, should we really just go and make copies of the ones we already have? Doesn't that reduce diversity? Doesn't it halt evolution?

(I'm assuming that the clone would have all the rights of a natural-born person, and wouldn't be lying around in a clone bank waiting for me to get in a car accident, or grown in case I die to replace me, or insert your favorite sci fi scenario here.)

I don't know. It really is a very interesting question.

The Ridger, FCD said...

I think the "universal" rejection - which isn't, because there are at least a dozen of us who don't share it - comes from some combination of (a) it wouldn't have a soul and (b) you can't make people for medical purposes! Just think of the revulsion many people have when confronted with a family that elected to have another child to be a bone marrow donor - or kidney donor - for the sick one they already have.

And yes, it's a weird combination of notions, but we are nothing if not excellent at holding weird combinations of ideas in our heads at the same time.

Barry Leiba said...

Maggie said:
«I'm assuming that the clone would have all the rights of a natural-born person, and wouldn't be lying around in a clone bank waiting for me to get in a car accident»

Actually, that's the interesting premise of an otherwise stupid movie called The Island — who'd have thought that a movie starring Ewan McGregor and Scarlet Johansson could be that stupid? Our heroes are inmates in a restrictive society in which everyone lives in a dome, protected from some contamination outside. There's one place, "the island", that's not contaminated, and periodically a lottery is held and someone's chosen to go to the island, to live out his or her life outside, in paradise.

Only they find out very early in the movie that it's not what it seems. In fact, there's no contamination. They are clones, living in a colony of clones. Periodically someone on the outside needs an organ transplant or some such, and that person's clone is "chosen", under cover of a rigged lottery, to "go to the island". But the clone really goes to an operating room to have the needed organ(s) harvested, and, thus, of course, to die.

Having found this, Ewan and Scarlet escape and the movie degenerates in to a ridiculous set of loud and outlandish chase scenes, with Djimon Hounsou shouting inspiring dialogue like, "Go, go, go!" and "Move, move, move!"

I saw it on a plane.