Ah, cloning. There’s a once-massive topic that was right up there with abortion and gay rights as an social issue, that just sort of disappeared overnight. Anyone capable of reading a newspaper in the 90’s will likely remember Dolly the sheep, the first successfully cloned mammal way back in 1996. Scientists extracted the DNA from an adult sheep, injected it into an unfertilized sheep egg, grew that egg to form an adult sheep genetically identical to the DNA donor, and briefly caused the word to lose its mind over the implications.
Easily my favorite gif, ever.
For some this was the advent of a new golden age of technology – the precursor for a science fiction utopia where humanity might finally have figured out the riddle of life itself, and thereby finally defeated death. For others it was the final declaration of humanity’s hubris, spitting in the face of god/s and nature and almost guaranteed to lead to the sort of monstrous, twisted abominations of life that such pride would inevitably bring.
And others were apparently overcome by an unstoppable urge to hit photoshop and go nuts.
The media knew drama when they saw it, large segments of the public panicked, politicians made grand statements about science or safety, laws were passed, and then… we sort of just lost interest. Maybe the sweeping laws banning human cloning made everyone feel safe, or maybe we all kinda realized the technology wasn’t quite up to clone armies yet, but for whatever reason cloning went from nuclear power-levels of enthusiasm and fear, right down to an idea so abstract that most people don’t even have an opinion on it anymore.
Except that cloning didn’t just go away, and as of now it is looking to become a major topic once again. Why? Because China has decided to have a shot at it, that’s why. To quote this article, “While the rest of the world sorts out its feelings about the safety and ethics of cloning animals for food production, China is charging ahead and building the world’s largest animal cloning factory, set to begin operations in 2016.”
It should be noted that the facility will be using cloning, not to literally breed animals for consumption, but rather to develop the breeding stock they want to breed from. As redditor ‘jheee’ put it, “It saves 3-4 generations of breeding necessary to create herds of a specific kind of cow. Want black Angus? Go to cloning facility and clone a starting herd rather than buy the sperm from a prize black Angus abroad, artificially inseminate your own cow, then in breed for 4 generations with that one bull until his offspring have the desired genes to start a herd.” So we’re not quite at the point of mass-produced life as yet, but this initiative certainly brings us a hell of a lot closer – we are now officially designing animals for human use.
But is that really a problem? Creepy maybe, but a problem? This is still animal cloning we’re talking about here and as pro-cloners have been pointing out for decades, we’ve been artificially breeding domestic animals and selecting for genetic qualities for thousands of years. Every breed of dog alive today, up to and including high-maintenance genetic dead-ends like pugs, come from one of two types of common wolf ancestors. Can you imagine how much selective breeding must have been necessary to produce this from this?
Friggin’ embarrassing is what it is.
Modern livestock, such as the cattle the Chinese initiative will be breeding for, sure as hell never existed in the wild. It’s been estimated that some breeds of cows in particular have had as much as 22% of their genome altered in the last 40 years by human intervention – an incredibly large figure when you bear in mind that humans and cows share roughly 80% of our genetics. Cloning simply accelerates this (relatively) natural process, allowing us to breed the cattle we want without the messy and time-consuming process of four generations of selective breeding. If cloning can get us to exactly the same outcome with less time, money and animals involved then surely it’s a clear winner, right?
This argument can be extended to human cloning as well; right now we spend billions of dollars world-wide on human health problems, diagnosing, treating and constantly monitoring patients through until recovery – assuming of course that they do recover. Patients show up with illnesses, injuries and infections and the medical professionals do their best to patch them back together, relying mainly on the body’s own regenerative processes which may or may not be working properly. While great strides have been made, it’s still a very hit-and-miss process, partly because human diseases have a habit of adapting to our treatments, humans themselves are remarkably good at finding ways of messing themselves up, and perhaps ultimately, because the human body has a used-by date that we can constantly push, but never, ever eliminate.
That is of course, unless we stop trying to patch the old one and just get ourselves a fresh copy.
Properly developed, human cloning offers us cheap replacement parts for nearly everything that keeps a human running. Liver failure? Grab a fresh one, perfectly identical to your original. Suffered serious burns? Grow as much skin as you need and slip into it like a fresh, extremely painful suit. Arthritis? Here the joints you could have had when you were 23. Heart attack? Smoke it up buddy, we’ve got a fresh one in the fridge.
Obviously it’s one thing to have replacement parts and, er, introduce them successfully, but compared to the ‘making do with what’s left of you’ approach we currently use, how could cloning not be a massive improvement?
Would sir care for a fresh nose this evening?
So from a technical and economic point of view the case is pretty simple: cloning would significantly improve the way we do things we already do, so it’s a pretty clear winner. Yeah the idea of pre-programmed cows and growing spare bits of yourself is creepy as hell. And yeah, the mere concept of messing with the building blocks of nature might seem kind of wrong to you on a religious, moral or intuitive basis. But so what? Once again; these are things we already do. We already mess with the genetics of domesticated animals for our uses. We already do organ transplants when we’re lucky enough to have them available. If cloning offers us a simpler, cheaper and more effective method of reaching these ends then how could it be ‘wrong’? Compared to the current process we use to selectively breed livestock (it ain’t pretty), and the current source of organ transplants (altruistic dead people and/or political prisoners), cloning looks positively virtuous.
But of course this skirts the other, much darker question that hangs over the topic of cloning: what about the clones?
Selective breeding and organ duplication aren’t the only thing cloning can be used for. What about the fact that the famous cloned sheep Dolly died prematurely, from conditions far more common in older sheep? What about the possibility of freakish animal cross-breeds, like say, a lamb and a jellyfish which some unfortunately Parisian sod was served for dinner earlier this year? And the big one: what about the ethics of cloning a whole living human being?
The trick with all of this is that cloning is a new technology and while the theory might be pretty well understood, we’re a hell of a long way from seeing how far the theory can be stretched in practice. Is it possible to clone a human being in its entirety? If we cloned a 35 year old and implanted it into a woman’s womb, what would happen when it was born? Would we get a child with abnormal age defects? Would it quickly grow to its genetic age? Could intelligence and muscle memory of a 35 year old somehow be retained in a body much younger than that? Or would it all be a screaming heap of physical and psychological disorders?
Same goes for animal cloning; sure we might not be looking at mass production of livestock via cloning just yet, but why not? If the technology ever makes it economical, why not mass-clone animals for food? Would such a practice lead to crippling health issues? Genetic degradation? Extremely shortened lifespans? Loss of instinctual behaviours? And what about the possibilities of cross-breeding – if inserting DNA from a jellyfish, snake or perhaps even a human makes cows yield more meat and/or milk, should we do it? Economically it’s a simple answer, but what sort of impacts would such cross-breeding have on the resulting creature?
The fact of the matter for all these questions is that we don’t know. The problem with that answer is that we might not care.
That delightful video up there is one of thousands of recordings you can find online of completely routine, often legal animal abuse in the livestock industry. It is well establish and generally well known that practices such as factory farming, live exports and intensive farming cause enormous suffering for the animals involved. Either through disregard, neglect or the simple economic pressures that affect any business, animals in these industries are reduced to simple items of production, devoid of interests of any kind, all to provide humans with a regular supply of meat and leather – not exactly products you’d call essential to our quality of life, let alone survival. This is to say nothing of industries like fur and cosmetics, where there isn’t even the questionable justification of ‘providing food’ to justify the suffering involved. As we’ve discussed on here before the very concept of fashion is utterly, unbelievable stupid in-and-of itself, so the idea of causing any harm whatsoever for fashion’s sake is repulsive.
‘But those aren’t people!’ I hear you exclaim, ‘Sure we might be kinda callous towards animals to get the products we want, but we’d never accept that sort of suffering from humans!’. Well leaving aside the fact that an adult pig is more intelligent than those human babies we seem so protective of, I’m afraid you’re still wrong: we would and do routinely accept suffering by fellow human beings to provide us with the goods and services that we desire. Eaten chocolate recently? Guess what, odds are that you funded slavery in the process. Own an iPhone or similar Apple product? You might be interested to hear that the factory they are made in had to install nets to prevent people committing suicide off their roof, so hellish were the working conditions. And of course if you don’t know that Nike shoes are produced in sweatshops by now, you really need to do some reading.
All these facts are well-established, well-known and the ethical case against them extremely solid. Yet they persist as standard practice in western nations (care to speculate what happens in developing nations?) for one simple reason: we do not yet give enough of a shit to do anything about it.
But what does all this have to do with cloning? Well it’s simple really: consider that list of unknowns I listed before the video which could, potentially, lead to enormous suffering for cloned animals and/or humans. Contrast this against our current lack of giving a shit for the suffering caused by significantly less complicated practices such as factory farming or slave-produced chocolate, which we absolutely do know the consequences of and alternatives to. Now ask yourself the question; if it turned out that cloning was being used in useful and profitable ways but was also leading to some horrifying suffering for people and animals as a result, would we collectively give enough of a shit to put a stop to it?
Take a guess.
So does this terribly grim view of humanity mean that I am opposed to cloning as a technology? Hell no it does not! Technology is the expression of our ever-improving understanding of reality – an understanding which I’m on record here as saying is the key to our improvement in all things, particularly ethics. But technology is simply a set of tools; they are not good or bad, but rather used for good or bad by those that wield them. Does cloning have the potential to cause enormous suffering? Yeah, probably. But does cloning also have the potential to reduce that suffering and improve life for us all? Absolutely, yeah. So the question then for cloning, nuclear energy and any potentially dangerous technology is not whether the technology is ethical, but rather whether we can be trusted to do the right thing with that technology.
The answer to that question is a lot more clear: good gods no. You can’t give humanity complete freedom with so much as a pointed stick without us killing anything that looks at us shifty. And just as society has neither given this total freedom, nor tried to ban pointy sticks completely, so we should respond to this new advent of cloning technology: regulate the shit out of it. Not to restrict the development of the technology, nor because we’re scared of what it might result in, but simply because we know that technology represents power, and without accountability for how it is used, power will be abused.