Tall, Slender, Straight and Intelligent

Philip Kitcher

  • Clone: The Road to Dolly and the Path Ahead by Gina Kolata
    Allen Lane, 218 pp, £15.99, November 1997, ISBN 0 7139 9221 2
  • Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World by Lee Silver
    Weidenfeld, 315 pp, £20.00, January 1998, ISBN 0 297 84135 1

From the late seventies to the mid-Nineties, biological orthodoxy insisted that the artificial production of animals with an identical complement of nuclear genes – clones, in the vernacular – could only be achieved by means of the transfer of nuclei from embryonic cells, and then only in non-mammalian species. There were excellent grounds for insisting on the impossibility of cloning from adult cells. For, although virtually all the cells in a mature animal contain the same complement of genes, cellular differentiation, the process by which the cells of different systems and tissues take on their distinctive properties, modifies the nuclear DNA in such a way that some regions are effectively silenced. In consequence, nuclei from adult cells were not supposed to be able to direct normal embryonic growth – which accounted for the disappointing results of transplantation experiments using adult nuclei, i.e. the deaths of embryos at early stages.

There are elements of a great human interest story here: early optimism after the successful transfer of nuclei into frog embryos, repeated failures with mammals and with efforts to clone from adult cells, the conclusion that adult mammals could not be cloned, a journalistic hoax (David Rorvik’s announcement that he had helped a wealthy eccentric clone himself), a brilliant experimentalist (Karl Illmensee) accused of faking results, and, finally, a small band of mavericks working outside the prestigious centres of biotechnology in the earthier world of animal husbandry who eventually defy the naysayers. In one of the two books contained in Clone, the one corresponding to the first half of her subtitle, Gina Kolata tells this story with great clarity and enthusiasm, offering vivid sketches of the people who cleared ‘the road to Dolly’ and a sympathetic account of their struggles. Some of the historical details are not entirely accurate – Hans Driesch’s name is consistently misspelled and Richard Dawkins is awarded a Nobel Prize (in what field?) – but Kolata is particularly good at providing accessible explanations of scientific ideas and achievements, and even those who know very little about contemporary biology should be able to follow her.

Especially successful is her account of the way Ian Wilmut and his co-worker Keith Campbell managed to trick nuclei from differentiated cells into behaving like their embryonic counterparts. The biochemical constitution of a cell varies throughout the cycle, and there is a phase in which the cell rests. Campbell, conjecturing that in this phase all the genes are accessible for expression, wondered whether ‘the same sort of thing happens when the newly fertilised egg reprogrammes the DNA it received from the sperm to mesh with the egg’s own DNA. Perhaps the egg slips into a resting state and rearranges proteins so that its newly combined DNA will be ready to orchestrate embryo development.’ It was this conjecture that allowed Wilmut and Campbell to produce a lamb whose nuclear genetic material was ultimately obtained from the udder of a dead ewe. Yet the enormous interest that Dolly has inspired has much less to do with the ingenuity of Wilmut, Campbell, Steen Willadsen, Neal First and Kolata’s other heroes, than with the sense that scientists are trespassing on new, possibly forbidden, ground.

In the second part of her book – ‘the path ahead’ – Kolata tells us that cloning is one of those rare ‘events that alter our very notion of what it is to be human’; that it ‘pares the questions down to their essence, forcing us to think about what we mean by the self, whether we are our genes’. ‘If a clone is created,’ she asks, ‘how could its soul be different from the soul of the person who is being cloned?’ (This is only a small sample of the many similar passages that frame the central narrative.) Kolata’s fondness for hype, her tendency to present foggy questions and grandiose theses in purple prose, her lack of analytical skill with philosophical and theological questions, and, most remarkable of all, her talent for eliciting fatuous remarks from intelligent people, combine to make her account of the implications of cloning valueless.

Consider, first, the question about the ‘souls’ of clones, posed but never analysed or answered. Most readers, surely, will reject the idea that people come in two parts, their physical constitution (including the brain) and a non-physical something that is somehow attached. Insofar as they can give any credence to the notion, they will assume that a sufficient condition for having a soul is to be an organism that develops normally from a particular kind of fertilised egg (most obviously one with the kind of genotype found in typical members of our species), and, on this account, there is no rational basis for concern about the souls of clones. And why would someone who thinks of the soul as non-physical, assigned to the body at some particular moment in human development, worry that clones will not benefit from this assignment? People who think that there can only be one soul to a genotype will already have serious difficulties with identical twins. Of course, if there is an ethereal vault in which souls are stored, and if in the case of twins the Assigner of Souls has the option of making two, clones may suffer because (presumably without foresight) the appropriate soul has already been given away. Yet however mysterious the ways of the Almighty, I doubt that any of those who are troubled about life after Dolly are thinking along these lines.

Kolata’s announcement that cloning confronts us with deep questions about the self is also naive. Although she quotes Dawkins’s admission of curiosity at the idea of watching a ‘copy of myself, fifty years younger’, and refers to cloning as making ‘replicas of humans’, Kolata and Dawkins surely know better. Identical twins share a genotype, but, however similar they are, they are two people, not one. A clone of Dawkins would not even be as much like him as an identical twin, for it would not have his mitochondrial DNA, would come to term in a different uterus, and would grow in an environment very different from that of post-war Britain. Even though the New York Times, the newspaper for which Kolata writes, seems devoted to publishing stories that reinforce crass ideas of genetic determination, scientific orthodoxy insists that the traits of organisms result from interactions between genes and a vast number of environmental variables. Moreover, philosophers from John Locke to Derek Parfit and John Perry have rightly insisted on the importance of the continuity of psychological states – experiences, memories, desires and intentions – to personal identity. Cloning raises deep questions about the self only for those who have forgotten the limits of genetic determinism and who are ignorant of some of the least controversial ideas in the history of philosophy.

Why, then, should the Wilmut-Campbell breakthrough be compared to the achievements of Copernicus, Darwin and Freud? It shouldn’t. Kolata ends her book with a clear and sober account of the technical consequences of cloning: we can expect to produce strains of domestic animals with more of the qualities for which we breed them; we will be able to rear genetically modified mammals whose milk will contain important drugs; we may be able to solve problems of organ transplantation by establishing cell lines for each baby; and human cloning may offer new techniques for assisted reproduction (but, we may hope, would-be cloners will wait until the technological details are better understood and, even then, will carefully circumscribe the cases in which cloning is morally justified). Further, although Kolata doesn’t discuss this, the Wilmut-Campbell technique may offer some insight into the process of cellular differentiation and the biochemistry of the cell cycle. These are excellent reasons to celebrate Dolly’s birth as an event of scientific importance. They do not underwrite Kolata’s claim that it changes our understanding of what it is to be human. Overstatement of this kind contrasts sharply with the modesty and good sense with which Ian Wilmut has spoken about his achievement.

On the other hand, the foreseeable consequences of cloning do raise serious moral and social questions, even if they are not the Grand Issues towards which Kolata gestures. Under what circumstances, if any, should the cloning of human beings be permitted? Lee Silver in his admirable book understands that the most important issue doesn’t centre on cloning but on the possibilities opened up by a field he calls ‘reprogenetics’.

Reprogenetics draws on knowledge derived from developing techniques of assisted reproduction, on the one hand, and our understanding of genetics, particularly molecular genetics, on the other. As biomedical methods of assisted reproduction have been refined, expressions of outrage or distaste have given way to social acceptance – and human cloning may prove to be the next controversial technique to win a place in the fertility clinic’s arsenal. At the same time, advances in molecular genetics have provided us with an unprecedented ability to test embryos or eggs that have been fertilised in vitro. Some researchers foresee ways of modifying the DNA contained in a fertilised egg to enhance the abilities of the person who would develop from it, to increase their resistance to disease or to the diminutions of function that come with age, even, perhaps, to increase their chances of a serene temperament or greater intelligence. Our descendants will be in a position, not to determine the kinds of children they want, but to make it more likely that their children will have qualities they – the parents – have chosen. (It is important to speak of probabilities or chances here because, except in rare instances, choice of a particular genotype will only make it more likely that the bearer has a particular trait.)

Remaking Eden is a thorough exploration of the possibilities for reprogenetics that are already available with existing knowledge and techniques, or that can be predicted for coming decades. Silver supplies a vivid account of how a lesbian couple might give birth to two baby girls (one apiece), each daughter equally related genetically to each parent. Much more conjectural is the prospect he outlines of the future division of the human population, as one sub-group, the GenRich, reproduce by enhancing the genotypes of their offspring, while the other, the Naturals, do things the old-fashioned way. In Silver’s narrative, not only do the GenRich dominate most aspects of society, but after a few centuries they separate off from me rest.

Much of the power of Remaking Eden comes from Silver’s ability to see and describe links between futures that are distasteful, even morally repulsive, and present choices that seem entirely reasonable. He begins by supposing that people have a deep desire for ‘children of their own’ (here there is at least a whiff of vulgar sociobiology), and that biomedical science should do what it can to enhance freedom of reproductive choice. Even those of us who believe that it would be good if science and society provided more support for the practice of adoption are unlikely to be indifferent to the desire of women to bear their own biological children, and in consequence we applaud the use of IVF to help women with blocked fallopian tubes (to take just one example). Again, there’s little doubt that some prenatal uses of genetic tests are compassionate, allowing parents to avoid bringing into the world children whose development would be enormously disrupted, who would suffer severe retardation and who would die young. It seems therefore that we are committed to allowing parents to exercise their own reproductive decisions, using all the resources that science makes available. Of course, in the affluent societies where reprogenetics is likely to take hold first, economic inequalities will give some, but not others, access to the new technologies. If we don’t set limits to the use of prenatal genetic tests, it is likely that, in coming decades, those who are best-off will have the resources to select children with genotypes that are correlated, however loosely, with the characteristics that society favours and that this will increase the gap between the ‘higher’ and the ‘lower’ orders. Perhaps, as Silver fantasises, the bifurcation will go so far as to produce two distinct species.

In recognising the full scope of human reprogenetics, its threats as well as its promises, we see the debate about human cloning for what it is – a sideshow. Within a decade the practice of nuclear transplantation in mammals may be sufficiently reliable to make the probability of having a healthy baby by means of cloning equal to (or even greater than) the probability of having one by means of sexual reproduction. If so, it’s not hard to envisage circumstances under which a strong case could be made for human cloning: imagine an infertile widow who wants to use a cell from her dying only child, or a couple who want to have a child whose cells will be available for transplant to save an older sibling. In each of these instances, the moral acceptability of cloning turns on the intentions of the prospective parents, specifically on whether their plan is compatible with their loving the child for its own sake. Children should not be used as means to parental ends, born to live a particular kind of life in order to fulfil parental dreams, designed to serve simply as living memorials to someone else, fashioned just as a source of organs or tissues for another child who is the real focus of the parents’ love. Human cloning is most obviously permissible in those cases where there are no grounds for the growing child to harbour any suspicions that his or her life was cast in a very particular mould.

Because alternative means will typically be available, cloning is likely to figure only marginally in future practices of assisted reproduction. By contrast, genetic testing for a wide variety of traits and capacities will be accessible only to those who can afford it – at least for the foreseeable future. Within a decade, prospective parents will probably be offered up to a thousand tests, many of them for the devastating (but very rare) singlegene disorders, a significant number for genetic propensities to late-onset diseases, some for body-type and facial features, and maybe a few for genotypes that nudge upwards the probability of having (or not having) some socially consequential personality trait – ability to score well on academic tests, a disposition to be sexually attracted to members of one’s own sex, sociability, propensities to lose one’s temper and similar things. Those who are concerned that their children should have some qualities and lack others will be able to use today’s standard methods to harvest eggs, fertilise them in vitro, and then implant one or more of them with the genotype(s) they prefer. We can make a reasonable guess that the well-to-do parent of tomorrow will act to promote the birth of tall, slender, straight and intelligent offspring.

The day after tomorrow, perhaps, parents will manage to do even better, inserting into eggs just those forms of genetic material that are conducive to the characteristics they like. Although he is well aware that we have no idea whatever about how to snip out pieces of unwanted DNA and replace them by the segments of our choice, Silver offers an interesting scenario for the creation of genetically enhanced embryos. The trick he has in mind is to build artificial human chromosomes containing the forms of the genes we want expressed as well as DNA sequences that will encode for proteins that suppress unwanted parts of the genome. I am rather less certain than he is that this can be done without modifying the cellular biochemistry in ways that will have damaging side-effects – but if the recent history of reprogenetics teaches us anything, it is that we should never say ‘never’.

In any event, the more modest strategy of fertilisation followed by genotypic selection already raises crucial moral and social issues. Like many recent authors, including me, Silver locates the difference between the evils of the eugenic past, and present and future practices of pre-natal genetic testing in the freedom of reproductive decision-making: parents now make their choices without coercion from the state. Recognising that individual reproductive choices will have large social consequences – including, perhaps, the speciation event that divides the GenRich from the Naturals – he refrains from recommending any limitation on those choices. Silver’s position here is ambiguous, and it’s unclear whether he conceives of reproductive freedom as an overriding value or considers the protection of such freedom as an enduring fact of political life (he seems very confident that the conditions of late 20th-century capitalism will last for centuries). In any event, he points out that allowing people to choose the genotypes of their offspring, even though this may exacerbate social inequalities, is continuous with other choices we allow parents to exercise. If today’s parents can increase their children’s chances of success by sending them to expensive schools, why shouldn’t tomorrow’s have the opportunity to invest in the right genetic stuff, even if that extends the rat-race back into the womb?

This is the point at which Silver and I diverge. In my view, the proliferation of genetic tests in societies that are marked both by intolerance and by an increasing gap between the successful and the also-rans limits reproductive freedom. Given the right kinds of social support, there are many ways to live a happy and productive life, and it is sad to think of the parents of the future, driven to select against children who might have flourished, because their hyper-competitive societies offer large rewards to those who fit a narrow ideal. Background social prejudices – against people who are short, fatter than average, homosexual, of slightly less than normal intelligence – are likely to fuel the desire for tests that can disclose increased chances of these characteristics (they are unlikely to do more); and those who can afford them will bow, probably regretfully, to the values that surround them. If that is so, our descendants will narrow the definition of what it is to be fully human, not in the grandiose senses canvassed by Kolata, but by treating people who might have flourished as social detritus.

If we are serious about fostering individual reproductive freedom, we must work to create a climate in which prospective parents aren’t forced to acquiesce in contingent standards about what kinds of human life are valuable. Instead of thinking of future attempts to produce designer babies as justified by continuities with today’s practices, we might use Silver’s scenarios to think critically about our current ways of fostering human lives. Reprogenetics promises to improve the quality of human lives, and it should not be finally evaluated without taking into account the ways in which social arrangements might be modified to achieve the same goal. In the bastions of competitive capitalism that flank the North Atlantic, reprogenetics is likely to be practised in a context that neglects the health and educational development of a large number of children. It is not inevitable that this should be so, and if it were changed the worthy goals of reprogenetics would be enormously advanced.

When James Watson argued for the Human Genome Project he wisely promised to commit funds to exploring its ethical, legal and social implications. We are now almost halfway through the project, and its great scientific and technological successes have not been matched by new ideas as to how the social framework might be altered to accommodate the coming biomedical techniques. Virtually nothing has been done to prevent foreseeable practices of genetic discrimination. The trouble is that the central issues are intertwined with broad questions about freedom, equality and social justice, principled solutions to which will require us to move along a different path from the individualistic politics of such as Reagan, Thatcher and their successors. Current attempts to tackle the problems of reprogenetics are hampered by an apparent compulsion to honour existing inequalities in access to health care, inadequate investments in public health, and the increasing gap between the very rich and the poor. It is hardly surprising that solutions seem so elusive.

In this context the birth of Dolly supplies a diversion. The idea of cloning as either a key to immortality or a means for demented dictators to assemble the forces of doom entertains the public. The President of the United States calls for a thorough investigation of the moral issues, and Nature chides him for not having thought about this earlier. A moratorium on human cloning is announced, fostering the illusion that something morally significant has been achieved. An unlikely spokesman for the free market, Dr Richard Seed, proposes to start human cloning at once, although his announcements are not notable for their awareness either of technical difficulties or of the moral principles that should guide such endeavours. Seed’s crass and premature proposal excites another confused public response to the prospect of human cloning. Yet, as Remaking Eden shows so clearly, the questions that surround cloning are a small, detachable fragment of the complex of problems with which reprogenetics confronts us.