When it comes to media coverage of science, there are two distinct species of headline. The first is that all-too-common trumpeting of great scientific breakthroughs that aren’t: Common Cold Cured! or Human Genome Reveals God’s Plan. These headlines, for many and diverse reasons, are way overstated, wishful thinking, or just plain wrong.
The second type of headline has a stronger footing in reality, and can provoke both sadness and perplexity. Take, for example, last week’s blaring headlines on the longterm punishment of yet another baseball star, Manny Ramirez, based on evidence of his use of banned performance enhancement drugs (sadness because here’s another would-be hall-of-famer we’d convinced ourselves was naturally superhuman; and confusion because he’s been doing all the things an exciting elite athlete is supposed to do for us, so is his taking steroids really wrong?)
Just to mix some science, religion, and ethics in a test-tube for a minute, let’s do an experiment and hybridize these two recent species of headline and ask, Would Manny Ramirez’s Clone Also Use Steroids?
The answer is: almost certainly not, although we can’t know for sure. But the interesting part, the part that sheds some scientific and ethical light on these issues, is why we can’t know.
Most Americans are against human cloning and most are against the use of steroids in sports. But I think this is because neither these people, nor anyone else for that matter, yet understands what the results and implications of these phenomena entail; as these become clearer, things will change, and I bet that the number of folks against these practices will decrease and over time may well even become a minority.
Now, our experiment.
A clone is an exact genetic copy of an organism. Take, say, the DNA from the nuclei in any cell of Mr. Ramirez (virtually all our cells have the same DNA). Stick that DNA into a new egg, fertilize the egg to start the dance of development, implant the new mini-Manny in a mommy, and after nine months, shazam!—you have a cloned Ramirez. Kind of. But not really: Manny I and II are not even as similar as identical twins (who we all know are different anyway), for a bunch of reasons.
Old, Tired DNA
Until I read Holmes Rolston’s Genes, Genesis, and God, I always thought of and taught DNA as “the blueprint” of an organism, the inert plan of things to be built. But Rolston, a one-time Appalachian preacher and current distinguished professor (who sounds like the former and writes like the latter and who has won the renowned Templeton Prize) shows brilliantly how DNA is actually dynamic, interactive, and evolving.
So, Manny’s DNA that we would use for cloning has already experienced Manny’s 37 years and is therefore old and tired and very different than Manny’s original DNA; meaning Manny II in some ways will start life in his late forties.
Even if both Mannys’ DNAs were absolutely identical, Manny II’s DNA has a different life than Manny I’s from the moment it is taken from the latter’s cells. Much of what happens in the developing egg early on—the timing, speed, degree of events—depends on information molecules produced by mom and stored in the egg. The experiences (stress, sickness, happiness, medications) of mini-Manny’s mom interact with his DNA and thus affect his future experience, self, and personality.
Manny II’s DNA’s experiences and environment, like all of ours, can affect the actual expression of his genes in terms of timing and amount later in his life, which in turn affect him and who he is and what he does, which in turn affect his environment, which in turn affect his genes… It’s almost laughable, then, to think Manny II would use steroids, especially as a baseball player, because the chances that he would even play baseball (or any sport professionally), or be “the same person as” Manny I (if we were to clone him today) are about nil. Who knows if Manny II would even be alive 37 years after his birth. Perhaps he’d be a Yankee, even.
Okay, this was a just-for-fun thought experiment, and we’ve only discussed a tiny fraction of just a bit of the science among the many issues human cloning raises, but our experiment does give us some striking things to think about. For example, the idea of cloning one great slugger from another—in line with the popularized horror visions of Brave New World (make clones of entire social classes) or Boys from Brazil (clone another Hitler)—isn’t in the cards. And our experiment takes the air out of the clone-the-dead-child-and-expect-to-grow-another-just-like-her plan (one of the oft-mentioned scenarios for the use of cloning).
The kinds of questions arising now around cloning also change: If there is no such thing as a Boys from Brazil clone, why bother cloning someone in the first place? Or, if cloning is another approach to the apparently never-ending quest for humans to be able to reproduce when they can’t in other ways, why is it different than the other “non-natural” approaches Americans already use en masse?
Scholars of religion like Michael Broyde in Marriage, Sex, and Family in Judaism, using ideas like those raised in our experiment, have already been asking these questions and coming up with some surprising answers, promising intriguing new headlines to come.