I know you saw the news almost a year ago about the successful cloning of human embryos by a company in California. I’m pretty sure we talked about it at the time. Unlike the claims a few years ago by Korean researchers, which turned out to be fraudulent, this one seems genuine.
What I’ve thought more about, though, is something from the news stories reporting that advance. I was struck by a comment from Samuel Wood, the chief executive of the company, whose own skin cells had been used in the cloning experiment. Did you happen to see it? Asked what it was like to look at embryos that were replicas of himself, Wood said, I have to admit, it’s a very strange feeling. It is very difficult to look at an embryo and realize it is what you were a few decades ago. It is you, in a way.’
Looking the other day through some material I’d filed away, I happened upon that comment again. It’s fascinating”but also disturbing”on several different levels. You and I have talked before about why it is that so many people find it hard to think of an embryo as a human being in its earliest stage of development. I don’t think I’ve ever had a really good explanation to offer you.
In some ways, of course, it’s surely quite understandable: An embryo is hidden from our sight. Even a pregnant woman is for a time unaware of the embryo’s existence within her body. And when technology does enable us to look at an embryo, it doesn’t look much like the human beings with whom we rub shoulders day after day. So it may take a certain imaginative power to see the embryo for what it already is”one of us.
All the more reason to be struck by Samuel Wood’s insight. Indeed, there’s more than a hint of awe in his sense that the embryo at which he looks is what he was a few decades ago. I’m not sure that he’s been reading the Psalms of late, but what he says echoes in some ways the well-known words of Psalm 139: Thy eyes beheld my unformed substance; in thy book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. Since I first read Wood’s words, I’ve quoted his comment to several people on different occasions, and it always has an impact. What it gives is something better than an argument”more like an imaginative insight.
But Wood’s statement interested me on another level as well. He invites us to reflect not just about what an embryo is but also about what it means to clone a human being. There are, after all, two separate questions here: how we should treat embryos, and whether we ought to produce cloned embryos. Neither is more important or more significant than the other; they’re related but different issues.
It’s good”a sign of some moral insight”that Wood should find it strange and difficult to look at an embryo that is a clone of himself. Proponents of cloning often accuse their opponents of practicing a kind of genetic determinism. And it’s true that, if we cloned you, that cloned person”despite being your genetic twin”would be a different person from you, having grown up in a different environment, at a different moment in time.
And yet . . . and yet . . . we would find it hard not to think that we already knew in some ways who the new person was and what she was like. Wood no doubt knows”maybe, for all I know, repeats”the arguments against genetic determinism. But his insight goes deeper. What does he say? It is you, in a way. To suppose that cloning does not raise deep concerns for our understanding of personal identity is to close our eyes to what Wood sees when he looks into the microscope.
But that leaves one more level of concern for me”and, in some ways, this is the one I’d most want you to think about. It relates to the whole of life, not just to what we might say about embryos or about cloning. Wood was moved to reflect both about the mystery of embryonic life and about the weirdness of cloning. He’s not only moved to reflect; in some ways he seems troubled by what he sees. Troubled even, perhaps, by what he has helped to do.
Does he, though, show any signs of stopping? Or even slowing down? Or perhaps pausing? Not so far as I can tell. Why, I don’t know. I’d be interested in your own speculations on that question. Partly, I guess, there’s money to be made here”and that has a way of discouraging one from pausing.
I suspect, though, that it’s not just the old profit motive (how easy that is to bash) that keeps Wood going. He probably believes that what he and his company are doing is a good thing”good, that is, for humanity. No doubt at some level it could be good for the medical history of humanity. But what about the moral history? No, he keeps going”and lots of us do likewise in other circumstances of life”because we have nearly lost the capacity to say no to anything that seems to promise progress.
We can look in the microscope and see the truth; yet that truth is idle. It doesn’t really shape us”especially if it seems to demand that we stop. What does it profit a man, Kierkegaard writes, if he goes further and further and it must be said of him: he never stops going further; when it must also be said of him: there was nothing that made him pause?
There’s a topic for you and your friends to talk about: the moral meaning of a pause.
Gilbert Meilaender holds the Duesenberg Chair in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University.