Posts Tagged ‘Cloning’

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Why we should resurrect Neanderthals

Monday, 10 November, 2008

The recent announcement that scientists had cloned a mouse that had been dead and frozen for 16 years has been raised hope that extinct species may be cloned and brought back to life ála Jurassic Park. The first species on the agenda is currently the woolly mammoth, but being that I love ethically troubling science, I say the first species we should be aiming to bring back are our long-lost brothers and sisters, the Neanderthals. While these may not be found frozen any time soon, enough DNA is considered to be potentially available that the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in partnership with 454 Life Sciences, has been working on sequencing the full genome for Neanderthals. Once complete, it would clearly be possible (though maybe not technically feasible as yet) to construct a physical Neanderthal nucleus, and from that produce a living Neanderthal (who would need to grow up from baby to adult, of course).

Neanderthals are an extinct species of hominin, which were driven to extinction some time around 20-25,000 years ago. Modern humans, Homo sapiens, and Neanderthals, Homo neanderthalensis, are generally accepted to be sister species, evolving from a speciation (splitting of one species into two) of the our common ancestor between 150,000-350,000 years ago. The speciation event can’t be pinned to any specific year, as interbreeding between the two species may have occurred for many millenia, and may have always been possible.

Neanderthals, also physically distinct enough to be classed as a separate species, would still very similar to modern humans. Francisco Ayala and Camilo Cela-Conde write of the difference between Neanderthals and humans:

“If we leave behind last century’s romantic view of Neanderthals as brutes, clumsy and deformed, and instead we dressed them up in any of our neighbor’s clothes, would we pick a Neanderthal out among a group of human beings? Maybe not. But would that make him one of us?” Ayala and Cela-Conde (2007), Human Evolution, Oxford University Press, p 314

Such ‘romantic’ view of another species are hardly surprising, given the common caricature of even other races within our species as brutish simpletons. While racism may be on its death bed, and we would think it horrid to insult somebody by calling them a ‘Nigger’, speciesism is still as rife as ever, and we would hardly think it especially offensive to denigrate another with the label ‘Neanderthal’.

And this is the reason why I think Neanderthals should be brought back. Currently, we have expanded the circle of protection from ourselves to others of our group and then to strangers outside our group (other races, other religions), and will continue to expand it (as Peter Singer, borrowing from W.H. Lecky, has argued). But I don’t think we will ever see unanimous equality between species until we actually can see another species similar enough to humans for this species barrier of ethics to be broken down.

It is a well known effect that discrimination decreases as diversity increases, but currently we have no diversity among our genus. We modern humans are the only species in our genus, so it is then hardly surprising that many humans are extremely intolerant and bigoted towards other species. What would their reaction be, then, when confronted with a young Neanderthal child? Will they consider the child to be less than human for not belonging to the superior species, just as a girl child was in the past considered a lesser human for belonging to the superior gender? Or will they realise that their species is not superior, and that other species are their moral equals.

Evidence suggests that Neanderthals had culture, religion, art and, vitally, language. A key factor in removing any bigotry is for the group being discriminated against to be able to speak out against such behaviour (noting that the ability to speak vocally is not required, as deaf and dumb humans would no doubt have me emphasize). Therefore, it seems likely that Neanderthals will be in the best position to argue against speciesism, being a member of another species.

There are three common argument for humans to have rights. First is that human are unique, exceptional among other life forms, and (sometimes) the sacred creation of a divine being. And, this argument goes, any human being is therefore deserving of rights just for being human. As I’ve argued previously, this argument is blatant bigotry, and therefore combating this viewpoint is one important reason for bringing Neanderthals back*.

Second, a being is said to deserve rights if it can understand the concept of responsibility. Of course, this doesn’t let humans infants have any rights, so these people usually just fall back on the above mentioned view, and say that it is enough to be a member of a species with the concept of responsibility (why species? why not genus, or family?). Anyway, it appears that this will be a moot point, as it would be likely that Neanderthals would have had some concept of moral responsibility if they had language and formed groups with religions and cultural traditions.

adult_male_neanderthalLastly, and the view I favour, is that rights are political representations of our responsibility towards other autonomous sentient beings. If a being is capable of valuing its life, it can then consent to life or death, and therefore only with this consent can its life be permanently and irreversibly ended. From this, therefore, I conclude that this being has a right to life. Likewise if a being is capable of valuing being free of pain, we give a right to not be tortured or suffer unnecessarily. Under this viewpoint, not only would Neanderthals have almost all the rights of humans, but many of these rights could also be extended to other animals, especially the great apes.

It may be, then, that speciesism will always remain, or at least until we can develop human-level artificial intelligence or encounter human-level alien life. But even without this moral imperative seeming likely to be successful, the field of evolutionary anthropology would be accelerated tremendously by examining the difference between Neanderthals and humans.

By the way, for a fictional account of this, I have been made aware that a series of novels by Jasper Fforde has mention of bringing Neanderthals back via science, and the subsequent Neanderthal rights movement.

*A minor group of scientists is of the opinion that Neanderthals are merely a sub-species of humans, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis (with us being in the sub-species Homo sapiens sapiens). With a living Neanderthal to examine, their viewpoint might be pushed – for emotional reasons – into popular acceptance, or even be found to be true. This would undermine any efforts to combat speciesism, as it would merely pull Neanderthals into the circle of our species rather than move the circle out to take in another species. To count this, I’d suggest cloning other species of genus Homo, such as our direct ancestors H. erectus or H. heidelbergensis, but the relatively recent demise of the Neanderthals makes gathering the requisite DNA much more feasible, and the similarities between Neanderthals and modern humans are enough to make it more likely that we would end up accepting Neanderthals as persons, if not as fellow human beings.

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We’re in the game!

Thursday, 18 September, 2008

Australia is now in the human cloning business. Therapeutic cloning, that is. Researchers working with Sydney IVF have received this country’s first license to clone human embryos. Sure, they could go to prison if they let the embryos pass the blastocyst stage, but it’s progress nonetheless.

As a comparison, Britain allowed the first group to create human clones in 2004, and in the US private companies have always been allowed to create human clones for therapeutic purposes, and did so first in 2001. So we’re a little way behind, but one never knows where the breakthroughs will occur.

Oi oi oi, Aussie Aussie Aussie!

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Mitotic cell growth is not organismal cloning

Friday, 20 June, 2008

Well, very technically I guess it is, but it’s very misleading in common parlance. Somebody should tell the BBC, who on Wednesday this week published a story about how cloning has ‘cured’ cancer, with the quotes around cure (despite the fact the patient was cured) but not around cloning (despite the fact that cloning is misleading). The story begins with this statement:

Scientists claim they have cured advanced skin cancer for the first time using the patient’s own cells cloned outside the body.

Well, I don’t know about you but I looked through the story and I couldn’t find any reference to what I was looking for: therapeutic cloning. The closest, which is nowhere near, was this part:

From a sample of the man’s white blood cells, they were able to select CD4+ T cells which had been specifically primed to attack a chemical found on the surface of melanoma cells. These were then multiplied in the laboratory, and put back in their billions to see if they could mount an effective attack on the tumours.

It’s just cells grown by boring old mitosis. Technically, this is cloning because it is producing a set of progeny cells genetically identical to the original cell – i.e. cellular cloning. But when most people think of cloning, they think of organismal cloning: the creating of other animals with the same DNA (and those who don’t know much about biotech will think this is like creating a person who is completely identical, not just genetically identical).

Therapeutic cloning refers to creating an identical organism, an embryo, and harvesting cells from that embryo for therapeutic use.

So, I think it’s somewhat misleading to say a “cloning cure” without qualifying it, especially when we are awaiting the time when humans will be cured from therapeutic cloning (or at least, waiting for this news to be released). At least The Telegraph wasn’t guilty.

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To be cloned without consent

Monday, 19 May, 2008

You may notice that on my “About the Author” page, I have said that I approve of “the use of reproductive cloning, even without the consent of the person being cloned”. I think that stance may need some clarification. After all, isn’t your genome your property? Actually, I don’t think it is.

You only own the current representation of your genome – your body. Your body is yours, and you should be able to control it in any way you want (meaning, you should be able to prevent people from taking genetic samples from your body). That is akin to owning a particular book, or DVD. But you don’t actually own the rights to that book or DVD – buying a copy of the textbook Gray’s Anatomy or the DVD boxset for Grey’s Anatomy only gives you control over that copy, but the rights to make additional copies is not yours.

Now, understandably we humans do have the right to make additional copies of our genes without having to pay royalties (nonetheless, over a fifth of the human genome is patented in the US, but these patents are not recognised internationally). After all, it is a fundamental human right that we can choose to reproduce – to have children – and that involves making a copy of some of our genes and some of our partner’s genes. Technically, a child is an unauthorised copy of patented material, so could theoretically be an infringement. However, it is widely considered unfair for some human genes to be owned by a private company. I agree – the human genome should not belong to anyone. It should be available to all. Thus, the comparison between a genome and a book works best when considering public domain books, such as the King James Bible, which are not owned by anyone.

Most would accept the idea that the human genome – the consensus sequence of our species – should not belong to any one person. But, what of my genome in particular – surely that can be argued to be mine under an extension of my body? I don’t think so.

Consider the case of identical twins. This is a special case of two bodies, but a single genetic constitution. It is already accepted that one twin can reproduce – copy some of their genes – without the consent of the other twin. Genetically, however, the twin would not be the uncle or aunt of the child, but also their genetic parent. But we do not scream about this act violating a person’s control over their own reproduction.

Of course, this only makes sense; all of our genes, unique mutations aside, come from our parents, and we do not morally require their consent to copy their genes. So, if one twin wanted to clone themselves – copy all of their genes instead of just some – would there be any grounds for complaint by the other twin (general qualms about cloning aside)? I’d say not, because there can’t be any significant distinction between passing on some genetic material to a child and passing on all (or almost all) genetic material to a child. Therefore, it could hardly be said that the right to one’s own body extends to the right over one’s genetic makeup, as such an interpretation would run contrary to how we treat natural reproduction, especially with regards to identical twins.

To summarise:

  • An individual does not own their genetic code – if they did, identical twins would have to share their control over their reproduction (and they do not, under our current legal system)
  • An individual’s genetic code is not owned by anyone else – if they did, that individual would not have reproductive freedom (and they do have this freedom, under our current legal system)
  • Nobody owns the genetic code of anyone – therefore cloning does not require anyone’s consent (though I admit it would be kind to ask first)

The fact of the matter is that you have control over yourself and your identity, but not your genetic code. The human genome is a commons for all humanity, and each and every version of it belongs to nobody. The clone of you would not be you, nor is cloning doing anything to you or your rights, and so I see no grounds for complaint if you were to be cloned without your consent (or if your cloned cloned themselves again without asking you, which amounts to the same thing anyway).

However, this does depend how your genetic material was obtained. An agreement will likely exist ensuring that your genetic data cannot be redistributed without your permission. However, this will not apply to to genetic material left in the environment. After all, we do not need a person’s consent to clean up their hair or skin left around the house or at work. It wouldn’t enforceable even if we did. So there is the real potential for somebody to obtain your genetic material and reproduce it.

But don’t worry – there isn’t much point to surreptitious cloning, because I’m sure that those who can afford cloning, but are to unkind to ask, will not want a copy of your genome seeing as they could likely afford something better.

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Wednesday’s Words of Worry

Wednesday, 9 April, 2008

I’m getting back to the idea of quoting very influential and commonly used quotes for these things, so I’ve gone to Leon Kass and his oft-quoted work “The Wisdom of Repugnance” for this Wednesday’s Words of Worry:

“We are repelled by the prospect of cloning human beings not because of the strangeness or novelty of the undertaking, but because we intuit and feel, immediately and without argument, the violation of things that we rightfully hold dear. Repugnance, here as elsewhere, revolts against the excesses of human willfulness, warning us not to transgress what is unspeakably profound. Indeed, in this age in which everything is held to be permissible so long as it is freely done, in which our given human nature no longer commands respect, in which our bodies are regarded as mere instruments of our autonomous rational wills, repugnance may be the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central core of our humanity. Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.” – Kass, L. R. (1997). “THE WISDOM OF REPUGNANCE. (Cover story).” New Republic 216(22): 17-26.

Note especially that Kass uses the phrase “things that we rightfully hold dear”. It is of course obvious that we should protect that which we rightfully hold dear. It must be right to value such a thing, so that thing must truly be valuable. However, Kass provides no evidence at all for us to use repugnance in order to determine which things are right to hold dear and which things are not. Disgust could, after all, just be a result of pure prejudice (such as being disgusted at homosexuality or mixed-race couples). Therefore, repugnance is not helpful at all, because it still requires us to turn to some other means to find out what is right and what is wrong.

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Good news from down under!

Tuesday, 8 April, 2008

The Australian Capital Territory has just ruled to allow therapeutic cloning. Which is of course sensible, because that brings it up to where the Federal Government was at in late ’06 – and most states have already done that. So, let’s just see what researchers at one of Australia’s greatest universities, the Australian National University, start doing with this relaxation in regulations.

Obligatory bad news – cybrids (even human-human cybrids) and hybrids specifically prohibited.

If you’re really geeky (like me), you can read the minutes of the proceedings of the Legislative Assembly of the Australian Capital Territory for the 8th of April here.

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Alan Billing on ‘playing God’

Thursday, 3 April, 2008

Rev. Dr Alan Billings did a short piece on the BBC a couple of days ago (31st of March) about the currently contentious issues in bioethics in Britain. Here is a short clipping:

As far as playing God is concerned, that, it seems to me, is precisely what the human vocation under God is. The parable of Adam and Eve sums it up. When they eat the forbidden fruit, their eyes are opened and they become like God, able to discern good and evil. They are then tipped out of the Garden to make their way in the world without God’s visible presence, making ethical decisions on the basis of this faculty for moral discernment – their reason. Living east of Eden necessitates our playing God in that sense all the time – and that includes making difficult decisions about medical research.

Brilliantly worded. Although I find all theological objections carry little weight, it is at least very refreshing to see that some theologians can think rationally.

This is the conclusion:

If Christians have been unsettled by this debate they might care to reflect on this. There was once an occasion when Jesus was told by religious authority that if he healed on the Sabbath he would break the law of God. He ignored the advice, because coming to the rescue of the sick is both a moral imperative and the fulfilling of the law.

Now, just email this program or this blog entry or something to every Christian person you know that is anti-life (rejects certain medical treatments like stem cells or therapeutic cloning). We need to change the minds of lots of people!