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What is it about animal cloning that makes us jumpy?

The mere mention of ‘cloning’ is almost guaranteed to make most people sit up and look warily at the speaker; perhaps wondering why fellow humans these days find it difficult to shy away from ‘taboos’. As a species, human beings are very familiar with other species e.g. animals; at least we believe that we are so familiar with them that we can reasonably survey the consequences of whatever we do to them, directly and indirectly.

There is however a fair amount of uncertainty in our minds about just what we know about animals, or indeed about all of the “natural environment”. A few voices are brave enough to point out, “hey, we don’t even know very much about ourselves, let alone about any other species!”.

All of this would be academic, except that under the guise of progress, we are making such far-reaching changes to ourselves and our environment that there is probably a good chance that we, along with everything else, might well become unrecognisable a few short centuries from now.

If this scenario seems far-fetched, we only need to look back 10 centuries, to see how much better living on earth appears to have become, so much so that we are living longer and longer with successive earth-lives. The consensus seems to be that the changes we brought about have been generally good and desirable. Have we stopped to think that there is also a good chance that the changes we bring about may not always be good?

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So, intellectual science has delivered much by way of value to us; but in situations like cloning, we are subliminally anxious lest some genie escapes the bottle! And it is right that we should be anxious, as there is then the slight possibility that we might be able to apply the brakes to this bus hurtling downhill.

As with most debates of an ethical nature, there is no shortage of people willing to hijack the discourse for their own ends, or sometimes for no other apparent reason than to be gratuitously hysterical. Such individuals or groups are happy to appropriate any label that they feel lends weight to their position; so for example there are plenty of people frantically searching their books of faith, while others exploit the weight of the apparatus of government, while still others hide behind “economic benefits” for their carte blanche approval for these activities.

Random quote:

“Pretend that every single person you meet has a sign around his or her neck that says — ‘Make me feel important.'”

— Mary Kay Ash

But let’s try and unpick the various issues involved:

  1. Cloning is a method of replicating forms of plants and animals that we have found to be successful, or that have met some of our self-determined criteria.
  2. Detailed analysis of the clones, as far as our current knowledge and equipment enable us, suggest to us that there is no significant difference between the clones and the forms of the same species that had not been cloned.
  3. There are strong prospects of major benefits, especially of a human welfare and economic nature, in the foreseeable future, if cloning is continued and in fact widened as much as possible. For example, something needs to be done to help feed the burgeoning population of the earth, and cloning appears to present one of the attractive options.
  4. But history also tells us that unintended consequences are not uncommon, where and when human beings have consciously or unconsciously changed the natural order. “Innocent ignorance” of those consequences have never protected individuals or large groups from the suffering precipitated by those unintended consequences.
  5. Cloning is not the norm in Nature, it is the exception. In fact, whenever genetic material is exactly replicated in the natural environment, it can be seen as further evidence of the diversity inherent in Nature, rather than indicating the opposite!
  6. If, as science has repeatedly acknowledged over the ages, the cycles and habits of Nature represent the ultimate in sustainability, then we tinker with the processes involved in those cycles and patterns at our peril. This is not suggesting that science stands still. Quit the contrary; scientific advance in the right direction and under the right terms are surely self-evidently required. And the right direction is clearly indicated by patiently and properly studying the cycles and patterns of Nature.

My view is that in the specific case of drinking milk from cloned cows, or eating meat from such clones, there are unlikely to be any significant short-term problems attributable solely to the fact that the animal was cloned. This of course is not addressing the serious animal welfare issues that are being documented in these situations; I am only addressing the immediate human (public) health concerns that people seem anxious about. Perhaps more importantly, there is also the aspect of the medium to long term consequences, about which we know precious little!

But if we are not to persist in our “buy (enjoy) now, pay later” mentality, proper scientific protocol would require us to slow down, “make haste slowly”, until we are absolutely sure of the terrain in front. The repercussions of rushing ahead without adequate understanding of the consequences of what we are doing are truly frightening, if history is to teach us anything at all.

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