The Speculist: Three Things Cloning Isn't


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Three Things Cloning Isn't

Rand Simberg does a nice job deconstructing of some rather nonsensical coverage emerging from the inevitable discussion of human cloning following the announcement of the ability to clone primates. There is no shortage of naive and, yes, hysterical ideas about human cloning out there. We've spent some time responding to these in the past and now, as a public service, here's a quick summary of responses to the three most egregious (and yet popular) ideas that people have about cloning.

1. Cloning is not a human photocopier.

A clone is a genetic duplicate of an organism. It is an identical twin to the original, delivered at some later date (or else we'd just call it a twin, not a clone) and -- presumably -- by a different mother. So if your are cloned, you will share the same relationship with that individual that an identical twin shares with his or her sibling. As Rand points out, it's unclear what familial relationship you will legally share with the clone. The clone could be your child, your sibling, your cousin, or no (legal) relation whatsoever. It all depends on who is doing the cloning.

Unless and until some radically new human gestation technology is developed (see point 2) any human clones who arrive in this world will do so the way everyone else does. They will be babies, born of mothers. Your clone will not be an adult duplicate of you with all your memories, but rather a baby with a predisposition to grow up looking, perhaps acting, and maybe thinking a lot like you. That's all.

Human photocopier technology may be with us at some point. In fact, we spent an entire segment discussing the implications of such technology on the most recent FastForward Radio. But cloning is not it.

2. Cloning is not growing armies in vats.

There is a popular idea that clones are synthesized or manufactured human beings. They are not. To quote myself:

Reproductive cloning raises serious moral and ethical issues, but "cloned armies" is not one of them. The ability to produce armies would require not cloning, but a technique popular in (uninformed) science fiction movies that might properly be called Rapidly Growing Large Numbers of Sentient Adults in Vats. That I know of, no one is currently working on developing that technology...

For the time being, producing a human clone will require having a viable mother willing to carry the child to term. You'll need a mother for every child (just like you do now) and you'll need the full nine months. There are no shortcuts and no economies of scale with cloning. Should either RGLNSAV or the related but more modest RGLNBV (Rapidly Growing Large Numbers of Babies in Vats) come on line at some point, some serious issues may emerge. Of course, even just using sperm (plenty of that around) and eggs (harder, but by no means impossible, to get in large quantities) to produce your Insta-Army, both RGLNSAV or RGLNBV could cause plenty of mischief.

But again, they don't exist and -- as far as I know -- no one is trying to develop them.


3. Clones are not slaves

The slavery issue comes up in the "cloned army" scenario, also in nightmare scenarios such as The Island, wherein -- spoilers coming -- clones are created to provide replacement parts for evil rich people. At least The Island gets the legalities right -- clones are human beings, and human beings are protected by law in most jurisdictions from being held against their will or forced to sacrifice themselves by providing replacement parts for others. So any racket like in The Island would require operating underground. Cloned armies would also have to be created somewhere outside of most legal jurisdictions. Sharing the same genetic code with someone else does not erase or diminish one's humanity under law, or else we'd have special rules about how we treat identical twins.

There was an episode in the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation which managed to pull off a hat-trick where these three misconceptions are concerned. The Enterprise encounters a small society that reproduces only by cloning which needs an infusion of fresh blood, as it were. Things quickly get wacky...

The Mariposans ask the Enterprise-D crew for a sample of their DNA, so they could create new clones. The crew refuses, so the Mariposans kidnap Commander William Riker and Doctor Katherine Pulaski to steal their DNA. When Riker and Pulaski find out, they visit the colony's cloning labs and destroy the new clones.

The clones that Riker and Pulaski kill are adults. They are still in vats, though, and I think they're bald. The basic idea here seems to be that Riker and Pulaski are perfectly entitled to murder these mostly formed adult human beings because they are

-- Exact duplicates of Riker and Pulaski, and therefore in some sense a violation of their right to individuality.

-- Not yet conscious. This is never explicitly stated, but the scene where they kill the clones would have been even harder to swallow had the clones opened their eyes and looked scared.

I believe the makers of this episode were attempting to draw some clumsy analogy to abortion. Unfortunately, due to the rapid maturation provided by the vat technology, the Riker and Pulaski clones looked to have been somewhere in the 100th and 120th trimesters, respectively. Either under Federation law, Roe v. Wade has been substantially expanded, or the presumption that one's clone is simply one's property to do with as one wishes is a firmly embedded legal principle of the 24th century.

However, under the more primitive and restrictive laws of the 21st century, it's clear that killing your adult (or infant) clone would land you in jail for murder. And I have a feeling that the "I was protecting my individuality" defense would get you nowhere. Well, maybe you'd have a shot with a California jury, but otherwise...

I'm hardly suggesting that there are no serious legal and ethical issues that must be considered where cloning is concerned. There are. But we can only deal with them seriously when we stop talking about all this nonsense.


Bajoran law had more respect for clones:

"Killing your own clone is still murder."
- Odo

God schmod, I want my monkey man!

- Bart Simpson.

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