Sunday, March 27, 2011

Why do we react negatively to cloning humans?

by Salman Hameed

Human cloning is so far a fictional question only. Though, Raelians - a UFO religion, did claim to have cloned a human baby in December 2002, but most people treat their claim with skepticism. Nevertheless, there is general feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong for humans to clone themselves or to artificially create humans. Of course, the creation of Frankenstein is the first image that comes to mind. But these definitions of "artificial" are changing fast. For example  in vitro fertilization (IVF) is now mainstream - and I don't think many people have serious problems with that (yes, with the exception of the Pope).

Now here is review of a fascinating new book, Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People by Philip Ball, that looks at the origins of our reaction to artificially created humans. Interestingly, it even raises the possibility that human cloning may get accepted as mainstream (I'm not sure if it is advocating this position - but it is certainly taking the idea seriously). It looks like a great out-of-the-box thinking book. Here is a review from Nature (you may need subscription to access it):

In Unnatural, science writer Philip Ball explores the history of our fascination with — and fear of — creating artificial people, from ancient folklore to today. Tracing a clear path from medieval alchemists' homunculi to routine assisted conception is a feat. Through his impeccable research, Ball successfully argues that the tenacious myths of the past that surround the making of people or 'anthropoeia' (his coinage) affect life-science research today.
Ball traces the concept that nature is good and techne is bad back to Aesop's and Ovid's Prometheus, maker of humanity from earth and water, and provider of technology to man. After Prometheus came recipes for making miniature humans called homunculi. Starting in the Middle Ages, initially as a cure for childlessness, the art of homunculi-making evolved into a debate over whether the miniscule men had a soul. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's nineteenth-century poetic play Faust raises this spectre. Deploying the biological equivalent of alchemy, Faust's former assistant, Wagner, creates his homunculus: a tiny super-being with magical powers who is trapped in a glass vessel, doomed to remain captive without the capacity to become a proper man. In 1818, Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, appropriately subtitled 'The Modern Prometheus', in which her eponymous scientist unintentionally constructs a monster, by unexplained means, from human parts. There are also golems — the animated beings of Jewish folklore, made from clay and brought to life by religious magic for the purpose of imitating God's creation.
Ball distills out of all this a set of universal myths surrounding anthropoeia that are deeply ingrained in society, resulting in the widely held view that artificial people-making is unnatural and deeply wrong — heretical, as in the book's subtitle. His thesis is that humans fear that uncovering forbidden knowledge will result in either divine or other retribution. Prometheus, Faust and Frankenstein all pay a heavy price for their transgressions into anthropoeia. Even today, Ball points out, societal and cultural debate is pervaded by the belief that technology is intrinsically perverting and thus carries certain penalty.
But his point is that we are getting to a place where some aspects of 'anthropoeia' (I do like this new word...) are becoming reality - and yet a well-informed debate has not taken place. In particular
As scientific knowledge accumulates and makes some acts of anthropoeia more and more plausible, the challenge for the public will be to separate fact from fiction. For example, Ball ends his literary tour with Aldous Huxley's novel Brave New World. In 1931, the book's in vitro production of embryos in the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre was pure conjecture by Huxley, based on the scientific forecasts of his day. Today, in vitro fertilization (IVF) is mainstream medicine — more than four million babies have been born using this technique. But the technology still has its critics, including within the Vatican. On the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to IVF pioneer Robert Edwards, Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, head of the Pontifical Academy for Life, stated that the award was “completely out of order”, as without IVF there would be no market for human eggs “and there would not be a large number of freezers filled with embryos in the world”.
The challenge for innovative biological research is that, until it translates into real benefits, it is often viewed with mistrust and worse-case scenario imagery. In reality, once products and services are released into society, they are adopted by a few enthusiasts and then, if successful, by the wider community. In the 1970s, for example, anxieties were rife about the unfounded threat that IVF posed to human welfare and dignity, let alone whether a test-tube baby could ever be wholly human. Yet the first IVF baby, Louise Brown, was just like everyone else, so IVF became socially acceptable. We cannot predict whether human cloning will proceed in the same manner, so the past is our only pointer.

Absolutely fascinating. As far as some recent relevant films on the topic are concerned, check out the post on the excellent film "Moon" from 2009 and Splice from last year. Of course, you can also watch countless other films on this theme. By the way, Danny Boyle is directing Frankenstein for National Theater Live - and it looks phenomenal. It will be shown in movie theaters as well. I will have a post on it after I have a chance to see it.


emre said...

Social animals want to easily identify their relatives and peers. Clones muddy the waters.

Geoff said...

My mother, the historian Lorna Arnold, was posed this question by Edward Teller during a meeting at Stanford University. Her response was pragmatic: our experience with cloning non-human animals involved many false starts, and a number of non-viable "partial successes" had to be destroyed. We should expect the development of human cloning to be equally complex and attended by setbacks. What do you propose to do with all of the "partial successes"? Is it acceptable to create physically or mentally defective humans in the name of science?

Salman Hameed said...


"What do you propose to do with all of the "partial successes"? Is it acceptable to create physically or mentally defective humans in the name of science?"

This is a false choice. Of course, the answer in this case is no. However, what if human cloning gets possible without "partial successes"? Current technology does not allow that - but it may become possible couple of decades down. I think that is when the question of human cloning, and how we feel about it, would get really interesting.

Dr. M. Akbar Hussain said...

Why an objection to cloning? If we can clone humans, well this is how the nature works. Like we can overcome infections with vaccines, we can treat disabilities with transplanation of organs, we can do cloning too. To establish a balance between advantages and disadvantages is upto us, but it does not invalidate a scientific breakthrough, which if properly controlled, can help us reap immense benefits for mankind.
And it is not like playing God. Man was never meant to fly, let alone land on Moon, but it happened. So is this.