Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Events That Will Change Everything: To Clone or not to Clone

…Ah, but man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?—Robert Browning

In the June 2010 issue of Scientific American, an article called “12 Events that will Change Everything” discusses the likelihood by 2050 of naturally occurring and human-made events that may dramatically change our world and how we perceive it and ourselves. Authors ranked each event on a scale from “very unlikely” to “almost certain”. Events spanned from the wondrous and “less likely” discovery of extra dimensions and first encounter with alien intelligence (Hey! Isn’t that ME? Big grin) to the “more likely” possibility of machine self-awareness, the polar meltdown and the “almost certain” 7.8 magnitude pacific earthquake (Better move to high ground, Margaret!).

The cloning of a human was rated “likely” and creation of life “almost certain”.

In a post entitled “Designer Organisms Promise New Life…at What Cost?” I discussed how researchers in the emerging field of synthetic biology (called synbio) envision microbes customized with artificial genes to let them turn sunlight into fuel, clean up industrial waste or monitor patients for the first signs of disease. Ways to combat global warming include a new species of bacteria that can break down cellulose to produce ethanol or soak up carbon dioxide.

Carole Lartigue, Hamilton Smith and others of the Craig Venter Institute have made a bacterial genome from scratch and even turned one type of microbe into another, reports David Biello in Scientific American (June 2010). Other researchers have created an entirely new organelle, the synthosome, to make enzymes for synthetic biology. David Rejeski, director of the science, technology and innovation program at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington, D.C., predicts that synthetic biology will have as great an impact as the industrial revolution did over a hundred years ago. Synthetic biology “is going to fundamentally change the way we make everything for the next 100 years,” he said. Biological engineer Drew Endy of Stanford University adds, “We will have a balance of partnership with the rest of life on the planet in a way that is very different from the way we now interact with nature.” While this statement could thrill for its endless possibilities of hope; it poses some alarm for the infinite ways that such interaction could be abused. Our track record for respecting nature hasn’t been very good up to now and I cringe at the possibilities for further abuse out of self-interest.

The implications of our ability to create life are manifold. The creation of designer genomes and life in general have justifiably provoked heated debate about the ethics involved. Science fiction stories abound with examples of how lofty ideals, altruism and innocent curiosity collide with human insecurities, power-mongering, and greed. Check out Hayden Trenholm’s Defining Diana or my own short story, Julia’s Gift.

Which brings me to the “likely” event of human cloning. You’ve all heard of the birth of Dolly the cloned sheep in 1996. Despite the extremely difficult process and the obvious ethical and moral issues, scientists remain eager to clone a human. They’ve already cloned human embryos, but none has yet developed past the morula stage. Scientists agree that incredible challenges remain in the reprogramming, culturing or handling of embryos, never mind other potential glitches that prevent a cloned human to come to term. Scientists are also looking beyond Homo sapien to cloning the Neandertal. Bringing a cloned extinct species to term in a modern species is even more challenging than normal cloning, considering mismatches in womb environment and gestation. So, why do it? What is the motivation and the benefit to humankind and the planet?

What the article doesn’t ask is why clone humans at all? I can think of no clear benefit of cloning human beings. Other than to satisfy an urge to immortalize oneself, it does not make sense ecologically, spiritually or socially. To clone oneself is to express selfishness and promote stagnation. Cloning robs us of our very humanity: to be an individual, to live and to die naturally and give way to others. Self-cloning represents a significant step backward in our evolution.

Who will be cloned and for what purpose? Who will do the cloning? What rights will the clone have vs. the original? Science fiction stories have already traveled that ground and back again, making excellent commentary. While the list is almost endless, beginning with Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”, and Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”, to Bladerunner and Star Wars and the highly disturbing “Boys of Brazil”, I want to focus on one motion picture that illustrates my discussion: “Aeon Flux

It is now 2415, four hundred years after a virus wiped out most of civilization. The walled society of Bregna appears utopian—clean and organized, beautiful, rich and spacious; but beneath the laughter and contentment, stirs an uneasy disquiet. Bregnans are losing sleep, having bad dreams, and are plagued by memories that don’t belong to them. Rebels challenge the regime, run by Trevor Goodchild, and among them is a highly competent and ruthless assassin, Aeon Flux (Charlize Theron). Aeon, and all those in Bregna, is in fact a 400 year-old copy of someone before the virus.

“Some call Bregna the perfect society,” Aeon tells us in the opening scenes of the motion picture, “Some call it the height of human civilization…but others know better…We are haunted by sorrows we cannot name. People disappear and our government denies these crimes…But there are rebels who…fight for the disappeared.”

The film’s clean organic high-tech look faithfully captures the “sense of biotech gone wild” by exploring several paradigms inherent in a society that lives deliberately in the absence of nature’s chaos. Indeed, the lack of connectivity resonates throughout the motion picture in its exploration of friendship, family, loyalty, and purpose. Aeon champions moral ethics and single-handedly destroys the relicor, the suppository of the clone DNA, pursuing honor at the expense of loyalty (to Goodchild) and heralding in a new age of “mortality”.

At the end of Kusama’s movie, Aeon challenges Trevor’s assertion that cloning is their only answer for survival: “We’re meant to die. That’s what makes anything about us matter…[otherwise] we’re ghosts.” The movie ends as it begins, with Aeon’s narrative: “Now we can move forward. To live once for real and then give way to people who might do it better…to live only once but with hope.”

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

'Perfect societies' in movies always have faults, like Logan's Run in which people are killed before 30. It seems like perfection always has to be paid in some way.

SF Girl said...

That's so true, Jean-Luc... I was going to mention the motion picture "Island", which tells a plausable story about what could happen when people without ethics or morals use cloning for self-interest and greed... Did you see the film?

Ganeshkumar12 said...

What a lovely introduction and an interesting alternative - well done
עוזרת בית


Jean-Luc Picard said...

I don't recall that. Is it an old film?

SF Girl said...

You didn't see it? It's pretty recent. Whatshisname and watshername are in it... LOL! ... ok... lemme check...

It played in 2005 and starred Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson. The plot is awesome... some say it's a take on Logan's Run, but that misses the whole point of the premise of the movie. I highly recommend it and will eventually provide an in-depth review here ... someday... :)

Go rent it, Jean-Luc.

dulce base said...

I was also going to mention the motion picture "island" but you brought up some good view points.