Thinking Clearly About Clones

Richard Dawkins

Cloning already happens by accident; not particularly often, but often enough that we all know examples. Identical twins are true clones of each other, with the same genes. So the new discovery just announced from Edinburgh can’t be all that radical in its moral and ethical implications. Heaven’s foundations don’t quiver every time a pair of identical twins is born.

Nevertheless, two bees seem to be buzzing around in public bonnets. First, the new technique makes baby duplicates of an existing adult. We might, as it were, clone Stephen Hawking or Mother Teresa, and this is not the same thing as twins of the same age. Second, the specter is raised of multiple clones, regiments of identical individuals marching by the thousand, in lockstep to a Brave New Millennium. Looked at in certain ways, both these notions can be made to seem unpleasant. Phalanxes of identical little Hitlers, goosestepping to the same genetic drum, is a thought so horrifying as to overshadow any lingering curiosity we might have over the final solution to the “nature or nurture” problem.

But do you whisper to yourself a secret confession? Wouldn’t you love to be cloned? I’ve never admitted it before, but I think I would. This has nothing to do with vanity, with thinking that the world would be a better place if there was another one of me going on after I’m dead. It is pure curiosity. I know how I turned out having been born in the 1940s, schooled in the 1950s, come of age in the 1960s, and so on. I find it a personally riveting thought that I could watch a small copy of myself, 50 years younger and wearing a baseball hat instead of a solar toupee, nurtured through the early decades of the twenty-first century. Mightn’t it feel almost like turning back your personal clock 50 years? And mightn’t it be wonderful to advise your junior copy on where you went wrong and how to do it better?

Such self-indulgent fantasies aside, cloning obviously brings with it some difficult questions. Suppose society managed to outlaw general, free-for-all cloning of just anybody who could afford it. How might we then decide whom we’d like to clone? Nobody has come up with a good solution to the “playing God” problem (which arises, say, when there’s a shortage of kidney machines, and doctors are accused of playing God when they have to choose whose is the most worthy life to save). Would cloning dilemmas lead us inexorably to yet another committee of the great and the good?

I think we must beware of a reflex and unthinking antipathy to everything “unnatural.” Certainly cloning is unnatural. We haven’t bred without sex for perhaps a thousand million years. But unnatural isn’t a necessary synonym for bad. It’s unnatural to read books, or travel faster than we can run, or scuba-dive, or fly. It’s unnatural to wear clothes, but we do.

Indeed, the people most likely to be scandalized at the prospect of human cloning are the very people most outraged by a lack of human clothing.

Cloning may be good, and it may be bad. Probably it’s a bit of both. The question must not be greeted with reflex hysteria but decided quietly, soberly, and on its merits. We need less emotion and more thought.

Dumbing Down the Debate

Much discussion in the media, however, comes from those guaranteed to offer very little thought.

What has intrigued me is the process by which invited contributors to broadcast debates on such delicate matters are chosen. Some of them are experts in the field, as you would expect and as is right and proper. Others are distinguished scholars of moral or legal philosophy, which is equally appropriate. Both these categories of person have been invited in their own right because of their expert knowledge or their proven ability to think intelligently and express themselves clearly. The arguments they have with each other are usually illuminating and rewarding.

But there is another category of obligatory guest. There is the inevitable “representative” of the so-and-so “community”; and, of course, we mustn’t forget the “voice” from the such-and-such “tradition.” Not to mince words, the religious lobby. Lobbies in the plural, I should say, because all the religions have their point of view, and they all have to be represented lest their respective “communities” feel slighted.

This has the incidental effect of multiplying the sheer number of people in the studio, with consequent consumption, if not waste, of time. It also often has the effect of lowering the level of expertise and intelligence. This is only to be expected, given that these spokesmen are chosen not because of their own qualifications in the field, or as thinkers, but because they represent a particular group.

Recently I have experienced public discussions of cloning with several prominent religious leaders, and it has not been edifying. One of the most eminent of these, someone recently elevated to the House of Lords, got off to a flying start by refusing to shake hands with the women in the studio, apparently for fear that they might be menstruating or otherwise “unclean.”

They took the insult graciously and with the “respect” always bestowed on religious prejudice (but no other kind of prejudice). The spokesman then, when asked what harm cloning might do, answered that atomic bombs were harmful. No disagreement there, but the discussion was in fact supposed to be about cloning.

Perhaps he knew more about physics than about biology? But, no, having delivered himself of the daring falsehood that Einstein split the atom, he switched with confidence to geological history. He made the telling point that, since God labored six days and then rested on the seventh, scientists, too, ought to know when to call a halt.

Now, either he really believed that the world was made in six days, in which case his ignorance alone disqualifies him from being taken seriously. Or, as the presenter charitably suggested, he intended the point purely as an allegory—in which case it was a lousy allegory.

Sometimes in life it is a good idea to stop. The trick is to decide when. The allegory of God resting cannot, in itself, tell us whether we have reached the right point to stop in some particular case. As allegory, the six-day creation story is empty. As history, it is false. So why bring it up?

Holy Ignorance

The representative of a rival religion on the same panel was frankly confused. He feared that a human clone would lack individuality. It would not be a whole, separate human being but a mere soulless automaton.

When one of the scientists mildly suggested that he might be hurting the feelings of identical twins, he said that identical twins were a quite different case. Why? Because they occur naturally, rather than under artificial conditions. Once again, no disagreement about that. But weren’t we talking about “individuality”?

This religious spokesman seemed simply unable to grasp the two separate arguments: first, whether clones are autonomous individuals (in which case the analogy with identical twins is inescapable and his fear groundless); and second, whether there is something objectionable about artificial interference in the natural processes of reproduction (in which case other arguments should be deployed). I respectfully submit to the producers who put together these panels that merely being a spokesman for a particular “tradition” or “community” may not be enough. Isn’t a certain minimal qualification in the IQ department desirable, too?

On a different panel, this time on radio, yet another religious leader was similarly perplexed by identical twins. He too had theological grounds for fearing that a clone would not be a separate individual and would therefore lack “dignity.” He was swiftly informed of the undisputed scientific fact that identical twins are clones of each other with the same genes, exactly like Dolly the sheep except that Dolly’s clone is older. Did he really mean to say that identical twins lack the dignity of separate individuality? His reason for denying the relevance of the twin analogy was even odder than the previous one and transparently self-contradictory.

He had great faith, he informed us, in the power of nurture over nature. Nurture is why identical twins are really different individuals. When you get to know a pair of twins, he pointed out triumphantly, they even look a bit different.

Er, quite so. And if a pair of clones were separated by 50 years, wouldn’t their respective nurtures be even more different? Haven’t you just shot yourself in your theological foot? He just didn’t get it—but, after all, he hadn’t been chosen for his ability to follow an argument.

Religious lobbies, spokespersons of “traditions” and “communities,” enjoy privileged access not only to the media but to influential committees of the great and the good. Their views are regularly sought and heard with exaggerated “respect.” Religious spokespersons enjoy an inside track to influence and power that others have to earn through their own ability or expertise.

What is the justification for this? Maybe there is a good reason, and I’m ready to be persuaded. But shouldn’t wit-nesses expect to be chosen for their knowledge and accomplishments as individuals rather than because they represent some group or class of person? In the light of worries about lack of individuality among clones, isn’t there a touch of irony here or a useful allegory? Ah, now, you’re talking!


Adapted from materials published in The Independent and the London Evening Standard.

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is an English ethologist, evolutionary biologist, and author. He is an emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford, and was the University of Oxford's Professor for Public Understanding of Science from 1995 until 2008.