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Clone me up, Scotty: A brief satirical history of cloning and ethical progress

Julian Savulescu

The 90s was a terrifying decade. Boris Yeltsin with his finger on the button. Fortunately he was too drunk some of the time to move. The Spice Girls. And Y2K. I bought plenty of water.

Civilisation came to the brink in 1997 when Ian Wilmut managed to play God and clone a mammal, a sheep called Dolly. International chaos ensued. The German Prime Minister said it would lead to “xeroxing people.” The European Parliament beat its breast, proclaiming cloning an affront to human dignity. It proudly asserted that every human being had a right to genetic individuality (let’s conveniently forget that 1/300 live births involve clones or identical twins that lack genetic individuality).

The spectre of Saddam Houssein loomed large, creating vast armies of clones of himself. (Thank you Uncle Sam for ridding the world of that menace and his diabolical weapons of mass destruction. Oopsy. There were no WMDs. No matter. Minor point of detail. I am pretty sure Saddam would have mastered cloning and created clone armies, several million strong, invading the world. Thanks be to the Lord for speaking to our Saviour, G.W. It would have been armageddon.)

Civilised countries were galvanised into action into a Coalition of the Willing on the war on cloning. Millions of dollars were spent on commissions, inquiries, debating, writing articles on the evils of cloning and enacting legislation that would forever forbid the crime against humanity of cloning a human being. Even famous philosophers like Jurgen Habermas jumped on the clonist bandwagon. Just to make sure human dignity was absolutely protected many countries, like Germany (sporting its reinvented ethical leadership colours), also created crippling legislation restricting research using embryonic stem cells created by the destruction of human embryos, despite having abortion available on demand. (My favourite episode of The Simpsons is where the Protestants and Catholics eventually make up and Flanders says, “Now we can concentrate on the real enemy: gay marriage and stem cells.”)

People seemed oblivious to the reality that clones could easily be created by splitting a human embryo using existing reproductive techniques. It was simple, safe and easy. If you froze one twin and implanted it later, the clones would be, God forbid, different ages. One might “live in the shadow of the other.” Like Prince Charles and the Queen. Or it might not. Like the clone of a fetus about to miscarry. Or it might be an organ factory for the other. Or not. To my knowledge nobody has bothered to do embryo splitting intentionally, though Italian Severino Antinori, in the national huff-and-puff tradition of “Bunga Bunga” Berlusconi and Benito Mussolini, did threaten to do it at one point. But I digress again …

Our ethical angst about the prospect of cloning human beings and destroying human embryos for research evaporated in the new millennium with scientific manna from heaven: the creation of induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells. These promised to solve all the ethical problems because they create the much needed pluripotent stem cells without creating embryos. Finally we could sleep soundly at night.

Everything was going on happily. Shinya Yamanaka received the Nobel Prize for turning water into wine and creating iPS cells from skin cells, bypassing the embryo. Roger Gurdon joined him for cloning a frog decades before. (The Nobel Committee passed poor Ian Wilmut by – cloning frogs is ok but cloning a mammal, well, that is way too close to cloning a human being. Same for James Thomson, who produced human embryonic stem cells – nasty stuff that destroying embryos for stem cells. No Nobel for you.)

IPS cell research has been chugging along smoothly, with treatments for blindness and new heart tissue being created. That is, until a couple of days ago, when Professor Rene Anand reported creating a brain “organoid.” This was small human brain, roughly equivalent to that of a 5 week fetus, from iPS cells. This would be used to develop disease models for Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases. Professor Anand proudly announced that it raised no ethical issues.

Well, I discussed a few issues in my recent blog. But one issue has been conspicuously absent from public discussion. What Anand has done is take an individual’s skin cell. Call him Jim. Anand has used iPS cell technology to revert that cell to an immature state (fortunately not reaching the state of an embryo) and push it into developing into a brain.

But wait – isn’t that cloning? Hasn’t Anand cloned Jim’s brain? Hasn’t he cloned Jim, in just the sense all these laws and proclamations were meant to forbid?

Ah, not so quick, Savulescu. He has just cloned Jim’s brain, not Jim, you might retort. There is a big difference, mercifully.

But is there? Is there a difference between cloning you and cloning your brain?

Imagine you have metastatic lung cancer that is going to kill you but it has spared your brain. Your identical twin has brain cancer that is going to kill him, but his body is intact. Very clever neurosurgeons offer to transplant your brain into your twin’s body, with the brain removed. Your twin kindly agreed to this before he fell unconscious. You accept the offer.

Who would wake up from the anaesthetic? You or your twin? It would be you, in your twin’s former body. You should look forward to your cure – at least you will have some kind of life though moving the new arms and legs might be slightly different.

What this example shows is that you are instantiated in your mental states, which are contained in your brain. In a sense, you are your brain.

So cloning Jim’s brain, as Professor Anand claims to have done, appears to be cloning Jim, in just the sense that we dread.

And, since this clever process uses iPS cells, it escapes all the laws banning cloning of embryos.

Strangely, there has been comparative silence to the cloning of a human brain compared to the cloning of a sheep back in 1997. Maybe our scientific literacy has fallen.

Is this the apocalypse, through the backdoor? Well, go back to you and your lung cancer. If instead of the twin transplant, doctors offered to use iPS cells to clone your brain, should you be relieved? Would you survive in some sense in this new brain, as you did before in your twin’s body?

Of course not. You are not identical in terms of personal identity with your identical twin (when his or her brain is intact). A clone of your DNA, or even of your brain, is not a clone of you as a person. A clone of your brain is not necessarily a clone of your mind.

A clone of you would require a complete copy of all your mental states, everything about your personality, memories, ambitions, hopes, loves and desires. Even cloning a brain using iPS cell technology cannot achieve that. (What would do it is “cerebral syncoiding” – see Arnie’s vastly underrated sci fi classic Sixth Day.)

So, the cloning we all so feared actually has nothing to do with the kind of cloning people should fear: cloning a human mind. Even cloning a brain does not necessarily clone a mind, or a person.

Where does all this leave us? What should we think about cloning debate and cloning human brains?

Personally, I would welcome someone cloning my mind. I could be writing this, while also going off surfing, which I would enjoy much more. But maybe neither would be me? Maybe I would cease to exist, replaced by two interlopers?

There is only thing left to say.

Clone me up, Scotty.

Take me to another galaxy. Anywhere out of this world.

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1 Comment on this post

  1. It is past midnight in Ontario, Canada, and I just discovered Julian Savulescu for the first time. I enjoyed the entire “Satirical History of Cloning.” Based on my multiple near death experiences, when I could see my body, and separate my energy package, from a third place meters away, “the everything I am, a mind equipped with all my faculties and memories – The ME” – Sincerely, it took decades to speak about such reality, in writing. I did search and investigate since I was fourteen years old, to see if science would ever accept the truth, that the brain is just a major organ, while the mind is the individual, let’s call it “the mental cosmic fingerprint” of who we are. As you wrote, the mind has absolutely nothing to do with the human body once it is out of it. I know it for sure, and I wrote about it intensively in “The Mind of a Poetess,” a 440 page book. In fact, I covered it in poetry also, and I played with it, just as you did in this satire.

    Thank you for clarifying reality: “A clone of you would require a complete copy of all your mental states, everything about your personality, memories, ambitions, hopes, loves and desires. Even cloning a brain using iPS cell technology cannot achieve that. What would do it is cerebral syncoiding.”

    On Google I see many articles written by you and about you. Similar, on YouTube I see many of your speeches, plus books on Amazon. I intend to read, watch, learn and enjoy.
    Thank you for sharing the scientific intelligence so much needed.


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