Tom Knapp is the publisher of Rational Review.
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Some questions tend to bring out the best in humanity. They spark deep philosophical discussions, call upon us to examine our most deeply held beliefs, act as a bellows breathing air into the forge of human progress.
I'd hoped that the questions surrounding the practice of human cloning would evoke such a response. Instead, the announcement by a group widely derided as a "cult" (the Raelians) that they'd produced the first intentional human clone, brought forth a hodgepodge of religious, scientific and political denunciations that don't even rise to the level of entertainment, let alone rational debate.
Have the Raelians produced the first intentional human clone? I don't know. Unlike many, however, I'm not inclined to reject that claim out of hand. From what I can glean of the Raelians, they are at least as well-positioned as anyone to have done so. So concluding does not require that I agree with their beliefs ... it just means that I have some grasp of the historical role of religion in advancing human knowledge.
The Raelians believe that humanity itself is an artificially created life form, placed on earth by an alien species. They base this belief in their interpretation of biblical and other religious accounts and in the supposed visitation of the group's founder (who calls himself "Rael") by emissaries of this alien culture.
Different strokes for different folks, I guess. Their suppositions are no more facially bizarre than those of most more overtly "religious" sects. Ever heard of the doctrine of transubstantiation of the host?
What's important here, though, isn't so much what they believe or why they believe it as that they believe it and how they act upon it. Let me explain:
For many years, the conventional wisdom held that, while early Islam acted as a sort of "repository of ancient knowledge" during Europe's descent into and rise out of the Middle Ages, it produced nothing especially notable of its own in the field of human knowledge.
The conventional wisdom was wrong. Yes, the Muslims were privy to the thoughts of pioneering mathematicians like Pythagoras, et al ... but they expanded on the body of knowledge that they possessed. And they did so, at least in some measure, in order to advance their religious goals.
Five times a day, Muslims around the world face Mecca to say their prayers. Trigonometry as we know it emerged from their need to calculate the direction in which their holy place might be found.
The Muslims (and the Mayans) came up with the concept of "zero" in order to perform complex calculations related to their religious duties.
The Aztecs possessed greater knowledge than their European contemporaries on human anatomy -- because while European taboos militated against dissection, Aztec religious ceremonies mandated it as part of the human sacrifice ritual.
The Raelians have an intense interest in biology and genetics. This interest is part and parcel of their beliefs.
Individual Raelians (Clonaid, the company claiming to have cloned a human, is not owned by the sect, but by members of it) have, therefore, put considerable money and work into studying -- and acting on -- human biology.
Being possessed of religious or quasi-religious beliefs, however bizarre, does not necessarily prevent one from accomplishing things. There are some areas -- inspiration, motivation and dedication, for example -- in which those beliefs may even represent an advantage.
We'll find out, eventually, whether the Raelians at Clonaid have the goods or not. But don't write them off just yet.
The more important question, of course, isn't whether a human has been cloned. If it hasn't happened yet, it will soon. The real questions are about what cloning portends for humanity and what we propose to do about it. It's on these points that I must confess to a sense of bewilderment.
I am a pro-life libertarian. I believe that a person is a person, regardless of that person's age or location (even if that age is less than nine months and that location is inside another person). I'm divulging this not because I want to argue the issue of abortion here, but because there seems to be some strange correlation between opposing abortion and opposing cloning.
When one's pro-life sentiments stem from religious beliefs, I can understand them -- to a degree. It is possible, given a belief in deity, that one might object to mucking around in his or her bailiwick.
I was flabbergasted, however, by a recent encounter in which an anti-cloning advocate told me that she opposed the practice because "clones wouldn't have souls."
Come again? You've got an omnipotent, omniscient deity ... and you get to decide on whom he confers a "soul?"
"Acts of Parliament," wrote Tom Paine, "decide nothing with respect to God." I suspect the same is true of believers' whimsical wishes. The issue of cloning must be decided independently of, although probably not without input from, religious arguments.
Even more bewildering was the apparently very flippant attitude of a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate last year; that candidate, who was later elected, left some wiggle room for himself on the issue. His most memorable remark, however, centered around his possible discomfiture should he walk down the street "and see myself coming the other way."
This is one of the people who propose to weigh the issue and have their final opinion written into law.
So much of our "knowledge" of cloning comes from gimmicky novels (The Boys from Brazil) and B movies ("Parts: The Clonus Horror") that I'm very distrustful of the results as cloning becomes an object of governmental interest. Of course, I'm generally distrustful when anything becomes an object of governmental interest. But I digress.
At the end of the day, I have to come back to the Zero Aggression Principle. I don't believe in initiating force. Does the process of cloning inherently require the initiation of force? If not, then any resolution in favor of "banning" or "regulating" it is unsupportable.
If the process of cloning requires the initiation of force, then it's fair game for prohibition to the extent that it does so. I could not, for example, countenance the creation of clones to be killed for "spare parts." Being genetically identical to another person does not make one an unperson. If it did, then twins would be fair game for commercial versions of "The Most Dangerous Game."
Of course, "therapeutic cloning" does not necessarily entail the cloning of a person. I suspect that in the near future, we'll see technologies that, using a single cell -- not an embryo, just any old cell -- and some mechanism for instructing it in how to reproduce, will produce a heart or kidney genetically identical to that of the cell donor. No more rejection problems. No more waiting for someone to die in a car wreck. The ticker gives out, but there's a new one in the fridge, awaiting installation. Cool beans!
As for reproductive cloning, I can see applications. Man and woman want a child. Man suffers from an awful, genetically passed on, disease, but man and woman would rather not have another "biological father." Why not produce a child of their heart that is biologically a clone of mom?
Bottom line? Cloning may or may not be here yet, but it is coming. It's not a genie that can be, or ought to be, put back in the bottle. Acts of Congress decide nothing with respect to human progress. At most (and at worst) they may impede it slightly and push it into a black market where abuses are more, not less, likely to take place.
There's plenty of heat on this issue. It's time for some light.