Free to Experiment?

Last month, Vice published a short article by Jason Koebler about how genetic engineering, including the genetic engineering of human beings, is probably protected by the First Amendment. The basic argument behind this seemingly ridiculous notion is that the First Amendment protects not only speech but also “expressive conduct,” which can include offensive performance art, flag burning, and, perhaps, “acts of science.” Such acts of science may be especially worth protecting when they are very controversial, since that might mean they should be treated as political or religious speech. The 2010 hullabaloo over Craig Venter’s “synthetic cell” was trotted out as an example of the deep political and even religious implications of scientific experiments, since the idea of creating synthetic life might, as it did for Venter himself, change our “views of definitions of life and how life works.”

It is worth noting that, notwithstanding breathless headlines and press releases, Craig Venter did not create a “synthetic life form.” What Venter did was synthesize a bacterial genome, though he did not design that genome, but rather used a slightly modified version of the sequence of an existing bacterial species. Venter then put this synthesized genome into cells of a closely related bacterial species whose genome had been removed, and, lo, the cells used their new genomes and eventually came to resemble the (slightly different) species from which the synthetic genome was derived.

Unless Venter once believed that DNA possessed mystical properties that made it impossible to manufacture, or that he had never heard of bacterial transformation experiments by which bacteria can pick up and use foreign pieces of DNA (experiments that predate, and were in fact used to establish, our knowledge that DNA is the molecule of heredity), it is hard to see why he would need to change his “views of definitions of life and how life works” in light of his experiment.

Of course, freedom of speech is not only for the coherent but also the confused arguments made for the deep implications of some controversial forms of research. In a talk given at a recent DARPA conference, bioethicist Alta Charo suggested that controversial experiments like cloning or genetic engineering may be carried out to “challenge” those who think that these experiments are wrong, and that this might mean they should be protected as forms of political expression.

Scientists and academics should be free to challenge deeply held beliefs about human nature and morality. As Robert P. George has argued regarding his pro-infanticide Princeton colleague Peter Singer, “freedom of thought and expression and academic freedom are for everyone — not just those whose views others find congenial.” But this academic freedom is premised on doing business “in the currency of academic discourse: a currency consisting of reasons and arguments.” Cloned or genetically engineered children are not reasons or arguments, and they are certainly not the currency of academic discourse.

The use of reproductive biotechnologies like cloning or genetic engineering to express a political or religious view would mean that the child that results from these technologies would be treated as a form of political or artistic expression. But as the Witherspoon Council on Ethics and the Integrity of Science argued in its recent report on human cloning, this kind of perversion of the relationship between parents and children, where children become seen as products to be manufactured in accordance to the parents’ specifications and to serve their interests, is at the heart of what is wrong with technologies like human cloning and genetic engineering. And moreover, as the Council notes, to claim First Amendment protection would require satisfying several legal criteria that cloning almost certainly would not satisfy. That there are respectable bioethicists arguing that the creation of human beings is now seen as a form of artistic or political self-expression is in fact a very good reason for passing laws to ban technologies like cloning for manufacturing human beings.

Using cloning for human enhancement?

We have occasionally written about human cloning here on Futurisms — for example, five years ago we had a backandforth with Kyle Munkittrick about cloning — and we return to the subject today, with an excerpt from the latest issue of The New Atlantis. The entirety of that new issue is dedicated to a report called The Threat of Human Cloning: Ethics, Recent Developments, and the Case for Action. The report, written by a distinguished body of academics and policy experts, makes the case against all forms of human cloning — both for the purpose of creating children and for the purpose of biomedical research.


Below is one excerpt from the report, a section exploring the possibility of using cloning to create “enhanced” offspring. (I have removed the citations from this excerpt, but you can find them and read this section in context here.)


*     *     *

Cloning for “human enhancement.” Much of the enthusiasm for and anxiety about human cloning over the years has been concerned with the use of cloning as a genetic enhancement technology. Scientists, and especially science-fiction writers, have imagined ways of using cloning to replicate “persons of attested ability” as a way to “raise the possibility of human achievement dramatically,” in the words of J.B.S. Haldane. As molecular biologist Robert L. Sinsheimer argued in 1972, “cloning would in principle permit the preservation and perpetuation of the finest genotypes that arise in our species.” Candidates for this distinction often include Mozart and Einstein, though the legacy of eugenics in the twentieth century has left many authors with an awareness that those who would use these technologies may be more interested in replicating men like Hitler. (While in most cases, the idea of cloning a dictator like Hitler is invoked as a criticism of eugenic schemes, some writers have actually advocated the selective eugenic propagation of tyrants — for instance, the American geneticist Hermann J. Muller who, in a 1936 letter to Stalin advocating the eugenic use of artificial insemination, named Lenin as an example of a source of genetic material whose outstanding worth “virtually all would gladly recognize.”)

Today, eugenics has a deservedly negative reputation, and the idea of using a biotechnology like cloning to replicate individuals of exceptional merit is prima facie ethically suspect. However, advocates of eugenic enhancement have never entirely disappeared, and their influence in bioethics is arguably not waning, but waxing. In recent years academic bioethicists like John Harris and Julian Savulescu have been attempting to rehabilitate the case for eugenic enhancements on utilitarian grounds. For these new eugenicists, cloning-to-produce-children represents “power and opportunity over our destiny.”

This new eugenics needs to be confronted and refuted directly, since insisting on the self-evident evil of eugenics by pointing to historical atrocities committed in its name may become increasingly unpersuasive as memories of those atrocities dim with time, and as new technologies like cloning and genetic engineering make eugenic schemes all the more attractive. Furthermore, as the philosopher Hans Jonas noted in a critique of cloning, the argument in favor of cloning excellent individuals, “though naïve, is not frivolous in that it enlists our reverence for greatness and pays tribute to it by wishing that more Mozarts, Einsteins, and Schweitzers might adorn the human race.”

In an important sense, cloning is not an enhancement, since it replicates, rather than improves on, an existing genome. However, as Jonas’s remark about the human race indicates, the cloning of exceptional genotypes could be an enhancement at the population level. And from the point of view of parents who want children who can checkmate like Kasparov, belt like Aretha, dunk like Dr. J, or bend it like Beckham, cloning could represent a way to have offspring with the exceptional abilities of these individuals.

Arguably, cloning is a less powerful form of genetic engineering than other techniques that introduce precise modifications to the genome. After all, cloning only replicates an existing genome; it doesn’t involve picking and choosing specific traits. This weakness may also, however, make cloning more appealing than other forms of genetic engineering, especially when we consider the genetic complexity of many desirable traits. For example, some parents might seek to enhance the intelligence of their children, and evidence from twin studies and other studies of heredity seems to indicate that substantial amounts of the variation in intelligence between individuals can be attributed to genetics. But any given gene seems to have only a tiny effect on intelligence; one recent study looking at several genes associated with intelligence found that they each accounted for only about 0.3 points of IQ. With such minor effects, it would be difficult to justify the risks and expense of intervening to modify particular genes to improve a trait like intelligence.

Cloning, on the other hand, would not require certain and specific knowledge about particular genes, it would only require identifying an exceptionally intelligent individual and replicating his or her genome. Of course the cloned individual’s exceptional intelligence may be due to largely non-genetic factors, and so for a trait like intelligence there will never be certainty about whether the cloned offspring will match their genetic progenitor. But for people seeking to give their child the best chance at having exceptional intelligence, cloning may at least seem to offer more control and predictability than gene modification, and cloning is more consistent with our limited understanding of the science of genetics. Genetic modification involves daunting scientific and technical challenges; it offers the potential of only marginal improvements in complex traits, and it holds out the risk of unpredictable side effects and consequences.

Of course, it is possible that cloning could be used in conjunction with genetic modification, by allowing scientists to perform extensive genetic manipulations of somatic cells before transferring them to oocytes. In fact, genetic modification and cloning are already used together in agriculture and some biomedical research: for larger animals like pigs and cattle, cloning remains the main technique for producing genetically engineered offspring….

Using cloning as an enhancement technology requires picking some exceptional person to clone. This necessarily separates social and genetic parenthood: children would be brought into the world not by sexual pairing, or as an expression of marital love, or by parents seeking to continue and join their lineages, but by individuals concerned with using the most efficient technical methods to obtain a child with specific biological properties. Considerations about the kinds of properties the child will have would dominate the circumstances of a cloned child’s “conception,” even more than they already do when some prospective parents seek out the highest-quality egg or sperm donors, with all the troubling consequences such commodified reproduction has for both buyers and sellers of these genetic materials and the children that result. With cloning-to-produce-children for the sake of eugenic enhancement, parents (that is, the individuals who choose to commission the production of a cloned child) will need to be concerned not with their genetic relationship to their children, but only with the child’s genetic and biological properties.

Normally, the idea of cloning as an enhancement is to create children with better properties in which the improvement resides in an individual and his or her traits, but some thinkers have proposed that cloning could be used to offer an enhancement of social relationships. This is the very reason given in the novel Brave New World: the fictional society’s cloning-like technology “is one of the major instruments of social stability! … Standard men and women; in uniform batches,” allowing for excellence and social order. And as the geneticist Joshua Lederberg argued in 1966, some of the advantages of cloning could flow from the fact of the clones’ being identical, independent of the particular genes they have. Genetically identical clones, like twins, might have an easier time communicating and cooperating, Lederberg wrote, on the assumption “that genetic identity confers neurological similarity, and that this eases communication” and cooperation. Family relationships would even improve, by easing “the discourse between generations,” as when “an older clonont would teach his infant copy.” Lederberg’s imaginings will rightly strike today’s readers as naïve and unsettling. Such a fixation on maintaining sameness within the family would undermine the openness to new beginnings that the arrival of each generation represents.

Before we embark on asexual reproduction in order deliberately to select our offspring’s genes, we would do well to remember that sexual reproduction has been the way of our ancestors for over a billion years, and has been essential for the flourishing of the diverse forms of multicellular life on earth. We, who have known the sequence of the human genome for a mere fifteen years — not even the span of a single human generation — and who still do not have so much as a precise idea of how many genes are contained in our DNA, should have some humility when contemplating such a radical departure.

Cloning and the Lessons of “Overparenting”

Tonight, HBO is premiering a new episode of its State of Play series on sports. This new installment is called “Trophy Kids” and its focus is the tendency among some parents — in this case, the parents of student-athletes — to live vicariously through their children. Here’s a teaser-trailer:

Of course, the phenomenon of parental overinvolvement and inappropriate emotional investment isn’t limited to sports and athletics. It can happen with just about any childhood activity or hobby — from schoolwork to scouting, from music to beauty pageants (Toddlers and Tiaras, anyone?). The anecdotal stories can be astonishing; it would be interesting to see what psychologists, therapists, and social scientists have had to say about this.

All of which brings to mind the debates over human cloning. Way back in 2010, we here at Futurisms tussled with a few other bloggers about the ethics of cloning. We were disturbed, among other things, by the way that cloning advocates blithely want to remake procreation, parenthood, and the relationship between the generations. As the phenomenon depicted in this HBO program suggests, many parents already have a strong desire to treat their children’s childhoods as opportunities to relive, perfect, or redeem their own. Imagine how much more powerful that desire would be if the children in question were clones — willfully created genetic copies.

In its 2002 report Human Cloning and Human Dignity, the President’s Council on Bioethics attempted to think about procreation and cloning in part by contrasting two ways of thinking about children — as “gifts” or as “products of our will”:

Gifts and blessings we learn to accept as gratefully as we can. Products of our wills we try to shape in accord with our desires. Procreation as traditionally understood invites acceptance, rather than reshaping, engineering, or designing the next generation. It invites us to accept limits to our control over the next generation. It invites us even — to put the point most strongly — to think of the child as one who is not simply our own, our possession. Certainly, it invites us to remember that the child does not exist simply for the happiness or fulfillment of the parents.

To be sure, parents do and must try to form and mold their children in various ways as they inure them to the demands of family life, prepare them for adulthood, and initiate them into the human community. But, even then, it is only our sense that these children are not our possessions that makes such parental nurture — which always threatens not to nourish but to stifle the child — safe.

This concern can be expressed not only in language about the relation between the generations but also in the language of equality. The things we make are not just like ourselves; they are the products of our wills, and their point and purpose are ours to determine. But a begotten child comes into the world just as its parents once did, and is therefore their equal in dignity and humanity.

The character of sexual procreation shapes the lives of children as well as parents. By giving rise to genetically new individuals, sexual reproduction imbues all human beings with a sense of individual identity and of occupying a place in this world that has never belonged to another. Our novel genetic identity symbolizes and foreshadows the unique, never-to-be-repeated character of each human life. At the same time, our emergence from the union of two individuals, themselves conceived and generated as we were, locates us immediately in a network of relation and natural affection.

As that section of the report concludes, it is clear that the nature of human procreation affects human life “in endless subtle ways.” The advocates of cloning show very little appreciation for the complexity of the relations they wish to transform.


(H/t to Reddit, where the HBO video elicited many interesting responses from students, parents, and coaches.)

Snap, Crackle, Pop Transhumanism

While we were busy with a few other projects recently, we failed to note that Kyle Munkittrick of the Pop Transhumanism blog had a follow-up post in our exchange about the morality of cloning. It’s a disappointing response. He ignores some of our major arguments, he misrepresents others, and he repeats some of his own points that were so weak that we didn’t bother rebutting them first time he made them.

Although this back-and-forth could go on indefinitely, I suspect that both blogs’ readers would quickly tire of the exchange, so except for the few further comments below, we’ll let the record stand for now.

Dark and Inscrutable Are the Ways

Mr. Munkittrick points out a pair of studies that suggest that twelve-year-old children born via IVF have good relationships with their parents and are emotionally and socially well adjusted. He intends these studies to rebut our point that the lives of children conceived via assisted reproductive technologies can be profoundly shaped by the facts of their conception.

The studies that he points to, though, paint a more complicated picture than he may realize. (I’ll refrain both from my usual kvetching about the shortcomings of this kind of social-scientific research and from pointing out the many oddities of these particular studies.) One of the studies, for example, notes an apparent “difference in attitude toward parenting” between couples who conceive via a sperm donation and couples who conceive naturally: the families that relied on sperm donors apparently had “more positive parent-child relationships” with their twelve-year-olds.

For the purposes of argument, let’s accept this finding. This means that different modes of conception available today can provoke (measurably) different styles of parenting. It would stand to reason, then, that producing a child via cloning might also result in a noticeably different style of parenting. That is surely hinted at in Bryan Caplan’s lament that launched this discussion: he wants to experience a “sublime bond” with a cloned child, a bond shared only by himself and his clone, a bond he apparently does not feel with the children he and his wife already have.

Once we agree that child-rearing would be transformed if a child were produced by cloning, we can speculate as to how it would be transformed. This kind of speculation — grounded in a rich understanding of the meaning of procreation in human life, of child-rearing, and of the relationship between the generations — is necessary for ethical reflection about cloning. The 2002 President’s Council on Bioethics report on cloning is a model of this kind of balanced, informed, and searching speculation. Mr. Munkittrick, by contrast, refuses to concede that cloning might have any effect whatsoever on the cloned child — despite the fact that the language of cloning advocates like Bryan Caplan suggests that a desire to change the meaning of procreation, child-rearing, and the relationship between the generations, is in fact central to their advocacy of cloning. Why is it that defenders of cloning are loath to discuss the subject directly in those terms?

A Handful of Questions

But enough about cloning. What makes Mr. Munkittrick’s response so disappointing is that his Pop Transhumanism blog is so often a pleasure to read. It is spirited and doesn’t creak with the earnestness, self-importance, and obsessive self-referentialism that make certain other transhumanist sites so very tedious. Also, Mr. Munkittrick doesn’t shy away from picking fights with his friends and allies, and he is admirably skeptical about parts of their vision of and for the future.

Speaking of fights that he picks, Mr. Munkittrick did challenge this blog a few weeks ago and we never got around to responding publicly. Since more than a month has gone by, and since most of his challenge was either insubstantial or deeply misguided, I’d like to focus only on one aspect of Mr. Munkittrick’s post — one where he describes his own views, saying that he believes

in natural rights, but that those natural rights are emergent and explain why a single human cell does not have the same rights as a child, and, furthermore, why a child does not have full citizenship but an adult does. Though our legal system doesn’t say it explicitly, this form of rights codification implies that rights stem from a specific level of cognitive aptitude allowing autonomy, sentience, empathy, and reflexivity allowing one to function in a polis…. I was able to incorporate ideas like uplift and non-human rights into my value structure without compromising other beliefs, such as that many animals are justly treated with fewer rights than humans because of their lower cognitive capacity.

For Mr. Munkittrick (and any commenters who share these views), some questions:

First, if you understand natural rights to attach to a “specific level of cognitive aptitude,” what is that level, specifically? Which rights are not possessed by human beings whose cognitive aptitude is beneath that level (a category that would presumably include those who formerly functioned at or above that level, such as a permanently comatose person or an elderly person with advanced dementia; those who have yet to reach that level, such as an infant, a fetus, or an embryo; and those who may never reach it, such as the severely developmentally disabled)? Are there any rights that all human beings, regardless of cognitive aptitude, possess?

Second, do you believe that cognitive enhancement will be an important factor in shaping the future of humanity? If so, and if you believe that rights attach to cognitive aptitude, do you believe that the cognitively enhanced will possess new rights? Like what? If you believe that “animals are justly treated with fewer rights than humans because of their lower cognitive capacity,” do you believe that in the future unenhanced human beings would be “justly treated with fewer rights” than enhanced posthumans “because of their lower cognitive capacity”?

Clone Knowns and Unknowns

Ari, your excellent post about cloning ends with a passing reference to the question of safety. I’d like to make two further broad points about the Bryan Caplan-inspired cloning debate, starting off with a few thoughts about safety, and then looking at the overall shape of Kyle Munkittrick’s argument.

In his first post about this cloning kerfuffle, Mr. Munkittrick sidesteps the safety question:

No sane proponent of cloning … advocates the process if it is unsafe. Animal testing must be thorough, rigorous, and successes conclusive and easily repeatable. As with any other process, such as IVF, there will be risks early on, but those risks must first be at or below the level of standard, unassisted pregnancy before experiments on humans are even considered. [Emphases added.]

That sounds very agreeable, but for two problems. First, it ignores the actual history of assisted reproductive technologies — a history of adopting new technologies before their safety is rigorously established. Consider IVF, which Mr. Munkittrick mentions as a precedent. In May 1979, a year and a half after the conception through IVF of Louise Brown, a major federal ethics advisory board noted that there had been “insufficient controlled animal research designed to determine the long-range effects” of IVF; the board called for studies, including “developmental assessments” of the IVF-produced offspring.

In the decades after, of course, the use of IVF to create new human children became enormously widespread — even though today we still have huge pockets of ignorance about its safety, especially regarding the long-term effects of the procedure on the children it is used to conceive. In 2004-05, the Genetics and Public Policy Center (GPPC) undertook a study-of-studies that waded through some 2,500 research papers about IVF, and while it found only a few serious problems among the young children who had been conceived through IVF, it also noted that there wasn’t much information about the health effects over the longer term. To rectify what it called the “gaps in existing knowledge,” the GPPC team called for more research aimed at long-term monitoring of people conceived via IVF. Those knowledge gaps also led the President’s Council on Bioethics in 2004 to recommend a major prospective longitudinal study that would let researchers “observe and consider health impacts that reveal themselves only years after birth.” (No such study has yet been launched.) Researchers are only now discovering some of the potentially harmful long-term effects of IVF.

All of which is to say that we have an established history of widely adopting new reproductive technologies without understanding thoroughly their effects on health and safety (let alone their moral and social implications).

Establishing the Safety of Cloning

The second problem with just waving off the question of safety was neatly explained in the Bioethics Council’s 2002 report on cloning. Put simply: attempting to make human cloning safe is itself an inherently unsafe undertaking. When people talk about cloning, the Council report said, they just sort of assume

that the safety concern is a purely temporary one that can be allayed in the near future, as scientific advances and improvements in technique reduce the risks to an ethically acceptable level. But this impression is mistaken, for considerable safety risks are likely to be enduring, perhaps permanent. If so, there will be abiding ethical difficulties even with efforts aimed at making human cloning safe.

The reason is clear: experiments to develop new reproductive technologies are necessarily intergenerational, undertaken to serve the reproductive desires of prospective parents but practiced also and always upon prospective children. Any such experiment unavoidably involves risks to the child-to-be, a being who is both the product and also the most vulnerable human subject of the research…. If experiments to learn how to clone a child are ever to be ethical, the degree of risk to that child-to-be would have to be extremely low, arguably no greater than for children-to-be who are conceived from union of egg and sperm. It is extremely unlikely that this moral burden can be met, not for decades if at all….

Even a high success rate in animals would not suffice by itself to make human trials morally acceptable. In addition to the usual uncertainties in jumping the gap from animal to human research, cloning is likely to present particularly difficult problems of interspecies difference…. [T]he magnitude of the risks to the child-to-be of the first human cloning experiments would be unknown and potentially large, no matter how much success had been achieved in animals. There can in principle be no direct experimental evidence sufficient for assessing the degree of such risk.

Can a highly reduced risk of deformity, disease, and premature death in animal cloning, coupled with the inherently unpredictable risk of moving from animals to humans, ever be low enough to meet the ethically acceptable standard set by reproduction begun with egg and sperm? The answer, as a matter of necessity, can never be better than “Just possibly.” Given the severity of the possible harms involved in human cloning, and given that those harms fall on the very vulnerable child-to-be, such an answer would seem to be enduringly inadequate. [All italics in original.]

Although cloning and other assisted reproduction technologies raise special ethical questions, it is worth noting that advocates of other enhancement technologies often make the same baseless assumption that the Council criticizes here — that health and safety are “purely temporary” concerns that will someday be overcome, without acknowledging that even the attempts to make certain enhancements safer can be ethically questionable.

You Don’t Hate Children… Do You?

Moving away from the question of cloning’s safety, there is something more sinister afoot in Mr. Munkittrick’s post — an effort to blame not would-be cloners but opponents of cloning for the problems (social, psychological, etc.) that cloned children may someday face. “By and large,” he writes, it is opponents of cloning

who perpetuate the idea that a cloned child is determined by its genetics, suggest that a cloned child would/should be perceived as lesser than a “normal” child, and help fan the very social stigmas about which they worry. I too, worry about the social pressures and normative stigmas against children born via cloning, and so I work to break and uproot the biases and dogmas that nourish them. I do not use stigmas and social pressures as a kind of “it would be too hard for a cloned child, so shouldn’t we ban the creation of the little abominations” argument.

Cloning is a method of reproduction, a cloned child is not determined by its genetics any more or less than an identical twin, and if a social dogma is a problem you remove the dogma not the victim. [Italics in original.]

If the switcheroo that Mr. Munkittrick is trying to pull off here weren’t so risible, it would be a despicable slander. When the critics of biotechnologies, especially new reproductive techniques, try to understand and explain the moral problems involved in those technologies, it is with the aim of preserving human dignity. When the critics of cloning point out the potential harms of producing children via cloning, they are hardly “fanning social stigmas.” Likewise, when IVF was new, its critics neither directly supported nor indirectly “fanned” stigmas against so-called “test-tube babies”; in fact, they explicitly described sharing the joy of the new parents in welcoming these new children into the world, even while worrying about the implications of the technique.

The same goes for critics of techniques that would give parents-to-be greater control over the genetic makeup of their offspring (e.g., sex selection, preimplantation genetic diagnosis, efforts to make “designer babies” or “savior siblings,” etc.). The aim of these critics has been preventing harms, preventing procreation from becoming entirely an act of parental will and manufacture, and protecting human dignity and equality. Despite what Mr. Munkittrick claims, no responsible critics of cloning have ever suggested that cloned children “should be perceived as lesser than a ‘normal’ child.”

Mr. Munkittrick says he wants to “break and uproot the biases and dogmas” that may put social pressures and stigmas on future cloned children. Here he is misappropriating the language of civil rights battles — language used to criticize discrimination against blacks and Jews and women and homosexuals, language that does not suit this discussion. The debate over cloning is not about unjustified stereotypes or irrational beliefs about a minority population. The debate over cloning is about changing the nature of procreation, and about the profound effects of that change. Mr. Munkittrick seems to want to evade that debate, and so he reflexively resorts to accusations of discrimination.

Attack of the Cloners

In a couple of posts last week (here and here), Kyle Munkittrick joined in on the recent blogospherical cloning debate, taking particular aim at our post on the subject.
There’s a good deal of sloppiness in Mr. Munkittrick’s posts to nitpick (e.g., the Bioethics Council’s claim that “genetic uniqueness is an important source of our sense of who we are and how we regard ourselves” is far from “genetic determinism”; people can act like arrogant narcissists without necessarily being arrogant narcissists, just as sometimes good people do bad things; the term “neoconservative” is stretched to the point of meaninglessness; and so forth). But there are also crucial flaws in the central points of his posts, and (you guessed it) they point towards common flaws in transhumanist arguments.
Reproductive Equivalence
First, Mr. Munkittrick seeks to defend cloning by drawing a moral equivalence between it and other means of reproduction (both assisted and unassisted), and arguing in particular that the genetic relationship between parent and child does not matter:

Cloning is a method of reproduction just like IVF and PGD and rutting in the back seat and the rhythm method…. IVF, adoption, surrogate parenting, and egg/sperm donation all also alter the genetic make up of the child from unassisted reproduction and produce no ill effects on parent/child relation.

He argues further that the notion that the genetic relationship does matter was made up by critics of cloning. Twisting (or perhaps misunderstanding) something Adam Keiper quoted, he quips and challenges:

I am almost certain that human beings were endowed with a “sense of life” [as a] “never-before-enacted possibility” before Mendel, Watson, Crick, and Collins, but I might be wrong!… Where is the evidence people identify with their genetics? Anyone?

Well, for starters, try the quote from Bryan Caplan that Mr. Munkittrick’s post is ostensibly defending:

Yes, I wish to clone myself and raise the baby as my son. Seriously. I want to experience the sublime bond I’m sure we’d share. I’m confident that he’d be delighted, too, because I would love to be raised by me.

That sure sounds like identifying with your genetics. It’s more than just a little odd that Munkittrick, in trying to defend Caplan’s wish to clone himself, ignores the stated source of that desire.
A Sober Look at Assisted Reproduction
Believing that the nature of the biological relationship between parents and children is essentially irrelevant, Mr. Munkittrick writes that cloning would be similar to other kinds of assisted reproductive technology (ART) in producing “no ill effects on [the] parent/child relation.” But he’s wrong about the track record of existing ART.
Cheryl Miller’s New Atlantis essay “Donated Generation” examines the profound and pronounced social and psychological effects of ART on the children it is used to create. Her essay rebuts the simplistic assumption that there are no moral differences between different means of human reproduction. And it highlights a contradiction similar to the one in Mr. Munkittrick’s post — denying the importance of biological relationships even while defending them:

To [author Elizabeth] Marquardt, donor conception is inherently problematic, no matter how openly or lovingly it’s done, since it intentionally separates children from at least one of their biological parents. Take the often-made comparison to adoption, she says. In both cases, children are separated from their biological parents. Adoption, however, is an extreme situation — one that recognizes the loss to the child. “In adoption, your adoptive parents were not the ones who caused this loss — the people who raised you were not the ones who intentionally divided you from your mother and father,” she explains. “In donor conception, the people raising you are also the ones who decided before you were even conceived that these relationships should not matter to you.” Here Marquardt sees a curious contradiction at the heart of donor conception: Love makes a family, we’re told, but parents choose donor conception because they want a child biologically connected to them. If biology matters to parents, Marquardt asks, why wouldn’t it also matter to children? (Emphasis added.)

The same point applies just as well to the cloning debate, but even more so to an argument like Caplan’s: He advocates cloning specifically because a genetic relationship between himself and the child does matter a great deal. Moreover, he at least implicitly advocates cloning over and above existing methods because of the supposedly profound new possibilities allowed by creating a child with the exact same genes as himself.
If these profound possibilities matter so much to Caplan, why wouldn’t they also matter to his child? And, in (partial) defense of Steve Sailer’s post, why wouldn’t it matter to Caplan’s wife that she would not share that “sublime bond” of genetic identity? If, as Caplan hopes, some stronger relationship between a clone and his or her genetic parent indeed would exist, then, all else being equal, wouldn’t Caplan feel a stronger connection with his own clone than with a clone of his wife, or with a child sharing both their genes? So when Mr. Munkittrick claims, “To somehow assume that a clone of Bryan Caplan would be ‘Bryan’s’ child while the other kids were both [his and his wife’s] is vulgar and preposterous,” doesn’t this mean that the assumption is in large part Caplan’s own?
The Unbearable Lightness of Cloning
What is the source of this tension? If Mr. Caplan thinks this relationship matters enough to motivate the pursuit of cloning, then why does Mr. Munkittrick defend Caplan on the grounds that the relationship doesn’t (or shouldn’t) matter at all? Striking as it is, this is a surprisingly common move in transhumanist argument. Consider the prevalence of defenses of enhancement that begin with words like, “But we already do/have x.” For example:

In defense of steroids in sports, the argument that we already enhance through better sporting equipment and training;
In defense of enhancing the brain by implanting computer chips, Ray Kurzweil’s argument, “We already do that now. If you are a Parkinson’s patient you can have a pea-size computer put in to replace the biological.”;
Or even in response to the general question, “[W]hy should public money be spent to produce an eventual race of posthumans?,” Kurzweil’s reply, “We already have people walking around who have computers in their brains”;
In defense of sex with robots: “We already have the ability to have sex with a variety of machines and to have sex in virtual environments”; etc.

The underlying pattern is to describe the potentially novel good of some new enhancement, but then rebuff potential criticism of that good by claiming that the enhancement actually won’t be very different from anything we already have. But this move towards and then back away from the difference and significance of an enhancement also undercuts the original positive arguments for it: In this case, if we have no evidence that cloning is cheaper or safer than other assisted reproductive technologies, and we’re also to believe that it is not morally different from other technologies in either its means or ends, then what reason do we have for pursuing it at all?

The Other Paradox of Choice

Should we regulate?
In a recent post here on Futurisms responding to a CNN interview about the pending “gamepocalypse,” I described some common moves that futurists make, including a kind of predictive overreach. But the CNN interview demonstrates another futurist trope. The basic formula of “this new thing will come, and it’ll change everything” must be followed by “but there will be some inevitable downsides,” which must in turn be followed by … well, in the case of the CNN interview, this exchange follows:
CNN: Should we create regulations to keep [those downsides] from happening?

[Carnegie Mellon professor Jesse Schell:] That’s hard for me to imagine. These things are going to creep up on us one by one, and it’s going to be up to what can people take, and what can people tolerate?
Schell also notes that “We all have choices to make about what aspects of our privacy we want to give away.”
Its use in the context of gaming shows just how inadequate (even silly) is the rights-versus-regulation framework into which so many people want to force many of our most important public ethical discussions. We’re talking about computer games, folks. Blood or money would have to be flowing in the streets before any sensible defenders of liberal democracy would call for governmental regulation (and predictions of such dire consequences are usually bandied about when people do call for regulation). But once the question of regulation has been raised and dismissed, that’s pretty much the end of the discussion. Thereafter, the assumption is libertarian: If government isn’t the way to go, everything else is just a matter of unrestrained personal preference.
The Other Paradox of Choice
What’s missing from this picture is what the next step should really be. Once we’ve all agreed that some particular activity is basically within the realm of individual rights and beyond the realm of governmental regulation, the debate should shift away from the legal and turn to the good and bad of the activity itself. This is a blessing of liberal democracy: we’re free to decide what choices we want to make, and so discussing which ones are good or bad for us becomes our privilege and our responsibility.
And yet the self-avowed defenders of choices, rights, and freedom all too often ignore (or even shout down) any serious discussion about how we should make those choices and exercise those freedoms. They tend to pooh-pooh moral considerations.
There’s a well-known “paradox of choice” in which the more we have to choose from, the harder it is to make a choice or be satisfied with it. But there seems to be another odd paradox of choice: the more vigorously someone preaches about rights and choices, the more tyrannical that person will consider any public conversation about how best to exercise those rights and make those choices.
Yeah, Well, You Know, That’s Just Like, Uh, Your Opinion, Man
Perhaps another example is in order. In a recent post here, Adam Keiper noted the shallowness of some recent discussion about the issue of cloning. In particular, he noted the question posed by libertarian blogger Tyler Cowen to his readers: “If you don’t like [Bryan Caplan’s] proposal for a cloned son, I will ask why you think your preferred degree of genetic similarity — between you and your next kid — is right and Bryan’s is wrong.” As Adam noted, this quantitative distillation is preposterously reductive. But it isn’t just that.
The phrase “preferred degree” here is derogative, even sneering: pity (maybe fear) the fool who thinks his choices are right. Such choices, as mere preferences, come to seem completely arbitrary and weightless. The paradox lies in the libertarian’s simultaneous belief that choice is of utmost importance — even that it is constitutive of our identities as free agents.
Just at the level of attitude, this dismissiveness comes across as a less easygoing version of The Dude. But in the realm of serious discussion, it reveals a tension about the natures of agency, individuality, freedom, and choice that is inherent to libertarianism, and unfortunately present in too many of our public debates about matters of great ethical import.

The Life of the Clone (and the Narcissism of the Cloner)

Bryan Caplan is an economics professor at George Mason University and a contributor to a group blog about economics. He and his co-bloggers are intelligent libertarian economists, and their blog is often clarifying on important questions of policy and economic theory. It is deservedly popular for its erudition and wit.

On moral matters, though, Mr. Caplan sometimes muddles things. Like a few other prominent libertarian econobloggers, Mr. Caplan is interested in futuristic technologies, and he has written several posts about bioethical questions, including a handful in the past few months that misunderstand and misrepresent essays by Leon Kass. (I may revisit those in a future post here.) Mr. Caplan was apparently reading those Kass essays to bone up on arguments about cloning, a subject he addresses in a forthcoming book called Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. Yesterday, Mr. Caplan invited his readers to tell him whether or not he should include the following passage in the book:

I confess that I take anti-cloning arguments personally. Not only do they insult the identical twin sons I already have; they insult a son I hope I live to meet. Yes, I wish to clone myself and raise the baby as my son. Seriously. I want to experience the sublime bond I’m sure we’d share. I’m confident that he’d be delighted, too, because I would love to be raised by me. I’m not pushing others to clone themselves. I’m not asking anyone else to pay for my dream. I just want government to leave me and the cloning business alone. Is that too much to ask?

Before examining Mr. Caplan’s confession directly, let’s look at some of the reactions it provoked. Below his post are some six dozen responses; a few say that the paragraph makes Mr. Caplan sound “crazy,” but several defend and even praise it. (There’s also an amusing comment from Will Wilkinson.) Tyler Cowen, the libertarian über-econoblogger (and another George Mason prof), invited his own readers to comment, and introduced his own spin:

If you don’t like [Mr. Caplan’s] proposal for a cloned son, I will ask why you think your preferred degree of genetic similarity — between you and your next kid — is right and Bryan’s is wrong.

In a follow-up today, Cowen chastised his own readers for the content of their comments about Caplan, and Mr. Caplan briefly responded. Meanwhile, Brad DeLong charged Mr. Caplan with misogyny (a frivolous accusation that Mr. DeLong’s own commenters shot down), and Steve Sailer chimed in with some provocative questions in his inimitable way.

Let’s examine what Mr. Caplan wrote. He begins by saying that he takes “anti-cloning arguments personally,” in part because “they insult the identical twin sons I already have.”

Without having seen the rest of Mr. Caplan’s book, we cannot know just what “anti-cloning arguments” he is referring to. But from context, we can infer that he has in mind an argument that human clones would somehow be lesser beings simply because their genetic duplicates exist. Certainly no one responsible or thoughtful has made so crude an argument. I invite Mr. Caplan to state plainly whose arguments he has in mind — specifically which “anti-cloning arguments” insult his twin sons — but until he does, I suggest he’s invoking a straw man.

Perhaps Mr. Caplan simply misunderstands some of the arguments that opponents of cloning actually make, like this objection that appeared in a thorough and balanced report on cloning from the President’s Council on Bioethics eight years ago:

Of course, our genetic makeup does not by itself determine our identities. But our genetic uniqueness is an important source of our sense of who we are and how we regard ourselves. It is an emblem of independence and individuality. It endows us with a sense of life as a never-before-enacted possibility. Knowing and feeling that nobody has previously possessed our particular gift of natural characteristics, we go forward as genetically unique individuals into relatively indeterminate futures.

These new and unique genetic identities are rooted in the natural procreative process. A cloned child, by contrast, is at risk of living out a life overshadowed in important ways by the life of the “original” — general appearance being only the most obvious. Indeed, one of the reasons some people are interested in cloning is that the technique promises to produce in each case a particular individual whose traits and characteristics are already known. And however much or little one’s genotype actually shapes one’s natural capacities, it could mean a great deal to an individual’s experience of life and the expectations that those who cloned him or her might have. The cloned child may be constantly compared to “the original,” and may consciously or unconsciously hold himself or herself up to the genetic twin that came before. If the two individuals turned out to lead similar lives, the cloned person’s achievements may be seen as derivative. If, as is perhaps more likely, the cloned person departed from the life of his or her progenitor, this very fact could be a source of constant scrutiny, especially in circumstances in which parents produced their cloned child to become something in particular. Living up to parental hopes and expectations is frequently a burden for children; it could be a far greater burden for a cloned individual. The shadow of the cloned child’s “original” might be hard for the child to escape, as would parental attitudes that sought in the child’s very existence to replicate, imitate, or replace the “original.”

The Council’s report then specifically addresses the question of twins. The following points are pretty obvious, but Mr. Caplan seems to think that opponents of cloning don’t understand them (while it is not clear that he appreciates them himself):

It may reasonably be argued that genetic individuality is not an indispensable human good, since identical twins share a common genotype and seem not to be harmed by it. But this argument misses the context and environment into which even a single human clone would be born. Identical twins have as progenitors two biological parents and are born together, before either one has developed and shown what his or her potential — natural or otherwise — may be. Each is largely free of the burden of measuring up to or even knowing in advance the genetic traits of the other, because both begin life together and neither is yet known to the world. But a clone is a genetic near-copy of a person who is already living or has already lived. This might constrain the clone’s sense of self in ways that differ in kind from the experience of identical twins. Everything about the predecessor — from physical height and facial appearance, balding patterns and inherited diseases, to temperament and native talents, to shape of life and length of days, and even cause of death — will appear before the expectant eyes of the cloned person, always with at least the nagging concern that there, notwithstanding the grace of God, go I. The crucial matter, again, is not simply the truth regarding the extent to which genetic identity actually shapes us — though it surely does shape us to some extent. What matters is the cloned individual’s perception of the significance of the “precedent life” and the way that perception cramps and limits a sense of self and independence.

Those passages also offer a fairly firm reply to Tyler Cowen’s challenge. Mr. Cowen asks why one “degree of genetic similarity” is preferable to another. But that reductive abstraction — thinking about this question in terms of percentages of genes — is downright bizarre. As the Council passages makes clear, the debate over cloning isn’t fundamentally about genes; it is about human beings, about complicated family and generational relationships, about selfhood, identity, and social contexts.

What, in the end, are we to make of Mr. Caplan’s desire? He says that he has two reasons for wishing “to clone myself and raise the baby as my son.” The first is selfish: “I want to experience the sublime bond I’m sure we’d share.” His certitude that the bond would be “sublime” is nothing more than an assumption elevated to faith.

His second reason for wanting to clone himself poses as a kind of generosity:

I’m confident that he’d be delighted, too, because I would love to be raised by me.

That sentence is a gem. Its logic is dubious (just because today’s Mr. Caplan says he would wish to have himself as a parent doesn’t mean that a clone born decades later would enjoy the professor’s parenting) and it reveals tremendous self-regard (Mr. Caplan considers his parenting talents so excellent that he knows he would enjoy being on the receiving end of them if it were but possible).

And there you have it. The staunchest public advocates of cloning-to-produce-children have argued that it might someday help infertile couples produce biologically related children. But Mr. Caplan’s example shows us that there are people who desire to clone themselves for the shallowest of reasons — the sheer pleasure of interacting with a duplicate, and the somewhat paradoxical belief that a person could have raised himself better than his parents did. It is hard to know which is more breathtaking: the callous disregard for the independently lived life of the cloned child, or the extreme narcissism so unabashedly on display.