Should A Clone Have Rights?

In the more than twenty years that I have been teaching biology at Washington University, few scientific advances have created a media uproar like that seen in the last few weeks over Dolly, a lamb cloned in Scotland from an adult sheep. It is interesting to ask why. While the advance is of undoubted scientific importance, and may aid agriculture and medicine substantially, the same might be said of any number of other scientific advances in recent years. What is it about Dolly that creates such fear and unrest among the general public?

The fear of human cloning is of course at the heart of the public unease. If you were to clone a child, the initial cell of the clone, the cell that would go on to form a child in your image, would be in every way the same as the cell that made YOU. So what is so wrong about this cell, that was so right about you?

The answer is that we suppose individuality in every person. Deeply ingrained in our culture is the supposition that we are all different from one another, and that these differences are an essential part of the human condition. When Jefferson wrote that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” he didn’t mean that we are all clones, genetically equal to one another, but rather that, despite all our differences, every person ought to be equal under the law. Why treat every person equally? Because, when we were conceived, the genetic dice were rolled for all of us equally. How we turn out as people, Jefferson imagined, depended importantly on opportunity, which should be the same for all. This sense of individual self-worth lies at the heart of Jeffersonian democracy, and is an integral part of our laws and how we look at each other. It is what we mean by the word “individual.” Yet, under law, a clone would have every right you do.

You see, it never occurred to Jefferson that it might be possible to load the genetic dice. The possibility of controlling what people will be like, cloning identical offspring of specific individuals, would probably have horrified Jefferson, for the same reason it disturbs so many people today: deeply and fundamentally, we each KNOW ourselves to be unique, special, unlike any other person. It is deeply disquieting to imagine otherwise. I suspect that after thinking it over, a well-informed Jefferson would be quite disturbed. Careful studies of identical twins over the last decade have produced very strong evidence that much of the variation in personality and intelligence between humans is highly heritable — that is, that a substantial portion of the variation among individuals in such traits is the result of genetic differences between them. Only some 20% to 30% of the variation among individuals in these traits reflects differences in experience, in how they were raised and educated. A bunch of clones would differ from one another by just that much. Is 20% of the variation we see among us enough to sustain our Jeffersonian view of individual uniqueness?

Looming within the blizzard of ethical issues surrounding human cloning is the temptation to yield to the understandable urge to “better” humankind, to achieve in the short run what evolution strives for in the long run. The danger, of course, lies in assuming we know the answer to the challenge of the future. Senator Bond is quite right — we are not equipped to play God.

I think an even more profound problem arises from another direction, one that does not cause public unrest because few of us think in its broad-brush terms. The problem that truly disturbs me as a biologist is that because cloning promotes genetic uniformity, making our genes more like each others, cloning increases the danger that at some future time a disease might arise against which the “common” cloned form has no resistance. Genetic variation is the chief defense our species has against an uncertain future. To strip ourselves of it, even partially, is to endanger our species.

Asexual reproduction, in which all offspring are genetically identical clones, is common in nature in both plants (dandilions are a common example) and animals (some lizard species have only females), but usually only in extreme or high-risk environments, where survival is uncertain. Nature has not favored asexual reproduction in any mammal because the 20% of variation due to nurture is just not enough protection against an uncertain future if you are going to make a major investment in each offspring. It is thus the very nature of our species that places such value on variation among individuals, and I find that the deepest and most compelling reason to carefully consider the implications of human cloning before proceeding.

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