CALL ME cynical if you want, but I am not easily convinced by claims from a bizarre cult led by a former racing car driver who says he has been visited by extraterrestrials. I become more sceptical when this cult explain they have cloned a human, and say it is linked to their belief that humans originated when extraterrestrials cloned themselves.
Whatever the truth, the story has fuelled a flurry of debate on cloning. Getting beyond the disturbing images of the discussions means getting basic facts straight.
A clone is an individual that is genetically identical to another. Both human and other animal clones occur naturally. They are called identical twins. The debate about cloning is about scientists trying to create clones in a lab from an adult animal or human.
The issue hit the headlines when in 1997 scientists in Edinburgh successfully did this, creating Dolly the sheep. Since then many more animals have been cloned. There seems to be no reason why at a technical level it would not be feasible to repeat this with humans.
At the heart of the debate is a vision deeply rooted in prevailing ideas in society-that we all want to produce offspring that are biologically ‘ours’. Cloning is an extension of this notion. What better way to be sure an offspring is ‘yours’ than for it to be a clone? This view is rooted in talk of ‘selfish’ genes which extend alleged animal behaviour to humans.
Popular science writers casually explain how humans are basically like apes, with would-be alpha males competing to ensure it is their genes that are passed on. Females select for the best genes to ensure their offspring survive. Except that there is no evidence to support these ideas. Serious studies of apes have shown that females are expert at having sex with a wide range of males.
Studies of other species, for example birds, have underlined a similar point. Humans are not apes, still less birds. I suspect that any proper study would reveal far more interesting patterns of paternity than many think-certainly enough to upset the Daily Mail. Another fallacy lies at the heart of the cloning debate.
This is a genetic determinism which assumes that because two individuals share the same genes they are somehow the same, or at least a very similar, person. Other than in the most trivial sense that identical twins look more alike than most people, this is simply false.
Identical twins are not the same people. Even on a physical level their childhood resemblance usually lessens as they grow older.
More important, in every human measure, from emotions and personality to intellect and sexuality, they are radically different people. This is because genes are just one important but small part of what makes us who we are. Genes, from the earliest stage of development in the womb, only exist in constant interaction with the wider environment, both physical and, later, social.
The fact that the fingerprints on your left and right thumb are not the same is one example of how identical genes don’t produce identical outcomes. So too is the different pattern of cats’ whiskers on either side of their faces. Such trivial examples are amplified a thousandfold when it comes to more complex physical characteristics.
And with subtle and complex aspects of human behaviour, such as sexuality, personality or intellect, any attempt to reduce these to genes is simply silly. Some rather sad, if usually rich, people may dream of creating designer babies with predetermined characteristics through cloning. It is a dream which they will never be able to realise.
Cloning will never achieve what the rich’s privilege and public schools do far more effectively-producing people with a certain mentality and outlook on the world.
The notion that a clone of some adult would be essentially the same person is what drives the nightmare vision of dictators reproducing themselves or the fantasy of people achieving some kind of immortality. Again these are visions which can never be realised. A clone of yourself would a different person to you.
A clone of Hitler would not have been Hitler. Depending on the physical and social circumstances he could have turned out to be a warm hearted liberal or a committed socialist. There are genuine and important debates to be had about cloning. There are real issues of safety, and ethical and social issues too.
Equally important are debates around therapeutic cloning, which is not about producing cloned people but using the technique to produce cloned tissue and cells which could treat disease.
All such debates are best able to take place if the real issues are examined, free from the ideologically driven context the media put them in now. Such issues can only be properly examined and decided when science is freed from commercial concerns and secrecy, and instead driven by human need and a concern for knowledge.
Boris Johnson’s attack on the burqa has left some liberals with a problem.