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Human cloning may soon be reality

Fear and ignorance will not help us deal with the ethical impact of science

  • Choe Jae-chun, Seoul
  • Korea
  • April 18, 2012
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Developments in the life sciences have forced us to think as never before about the meaning of life from new perspectives.

Human cloning is a real possibility now, despite lively debate over the ethical implications. Buzz is growing around claims by two independent research groups, each of which claim that they have already produced, or will shortly produce, a cloned human baby.

We have no choice but to face this reality head on.

The life of every organism has an end. Most religions accept the ephemeral nature of life but teach us how to gain eternal life.

But the ephemeral nature of earthly life is only an organism’s viewpoint. Life at the genetic level is perpetual, as organisms are designed by genes to duplicate as many copies as possible.

Life on this planet began with the birth of DNA billions of years ago. That DNA has continued to form a variety of “bodies” ever since. DNA exists in the bodies of everything from ants to ginkgo lizards to you and me; it will continue to duplicate as it has done in the distant past.

Genes do not dictate every move and breath we take, but anything that is not written on our DNA cannot suddenly spring up in us.

Christians define the soul through its relationship with God, but I must argue that the human soul too has to be a biological phenomenon. I am not saying that the soul is a direct expression of DNA, because even identical twins with perfectly identical genes do not possess identical souls. Twins may be genetically identical but never biologically identical. The same is true of clones. The soul cannot be cloned.

Personally, I worry much more about gene manipulation than cloning. Gene manipulation poses real and immediate dangers to the stability of our societies. The temptation to switch bad genes with supposedly good ones will become irresistible.

There is, however, no problem with people trying to equip themselves with better genes. The problem is that gene substitution will work in a completely opposite direction from what sexual reproduction tries to achieve. While sexual reproduction increases genetic diversity, the gene substitution will reduce genetic diversity of the population as a whole.

Therefore, a new ethics is needed for this Brave New World we live in now. Morality is part of human nature because we live in societies. One of the most powerful theories for the evolution of society is the theory of reciprocal altruism. Morality is in essence reciprocity.

We tend to think that the world is becoming immoral, perhaps because we have not been able to establish and implement a new ethical standard suitable for a new era. We should not pour new wine into old bottles.

Recent progress in the life sciences throws at us too many uneasy problems. Fear and ignorance will not help us solve them. Efforts to learn more about the problems and dialogue between science and other philosophical disciplines are the only options we have.

Choe Jae-chun is a professor of eco-science at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
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