Sunday, May 13, 2012

On Human Cloning

About a month ago, I became slightly obsessed about the issue of human cloning. I meant to write a blog post about it to let out some steam, but, as you can see, it took me a while. And not only is the post longer than I expected it to be, it is also totally off-topic for this blog.

So feel free to ignore this post, jump to the comments and chime in with your favorite clone movie/book, or just read the TL;DR below:

If human cloning ever becomes possible, clones will not be copies of people or soulless drones as some sci-fi may lead you to think, but individual human beings that can be thought of as someone that is similar to a twin (same DNA as another individual) + IVF (artificial implantation) + time delay (needs 9 months gestation after successful implantation).

Well ok, this isn't exactly accurate, of course, but closer to the truth than what you tend to see in sci-fi. For more information on cloning, including why that's not a perfect analogy, read on!

Intro & Backstory

I majored in Molecular & Cell Biology and currently work at at biotech startup, so I was excited to see biotechnology featured in Golden Eagle's A-to-Z series. In the comment thread, there were a couple comments of the cloning-is-scary variety, and while I did wonder whether those sentiments were based on a scientific understanding of cloning or just because it feels icky and unknown, I gave those commenters the benefit of the doubt.

Fast forward a week, and cloning is the subject of S.L. Hennesy's A-to-Z challenge: I for Ishiguro and The Island (finally read Never Let Me Go! And The Island is a fun film but omg the science is AWFUL). S.L. asks good questions about cloning, but a few of the responses revealed serious misunderstandings of what cloning actually means. (You may or may not have noticed my tweets on this subject.)

I noticed that some people were expressing opinions of cloning based on misrepresentations in the media rather than on cloning as a real science, so that's what prompted me to write this post. I'm hoping that a discussion of what human cloning is in biotechnology (as opposed to science fiction) can educate those interested in the subject as well as dispel common myths.

What is cloning?

When it comes to cloning, there are two types: therapeutic and reproductive. Therapeutic cloning is the cloning of tissues and organs through embryonic stem cells for research or medical use. Reproductive cloning is the cloning of a human being and is the topic of this post.

Here's how cloning works: take a donor egg and remove the nucleus (which contains most of the egg's original DNA), then fuse it with a cell (which contains new DNA) from the DNA donor. This process is called somatic cell nuclear transfer. Implant the resulting embryo into the womb of a surrogate mother, wait 9 months, and if all goes according to plan, you'll have a live, healthy, beautiful baby clone! (Not possible at this time, but you never know!)

What is a clone?

This baby will have pretty much the same genetic profile as the DNA donor (other than mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited through the egg). And really, this in itself should not be cause for alarm; I'm sure you know at least one pair of monozygotic (aka identical) twins, and just because they share DNA doesn't mean they're exactly the same in every way.

The fact that the embryo is artificially implanted would not be unique to cloning, either. In IVF (in vitro fertilization), embryos are conceived artificially in a lab, then implanted in the womb. After that, the embryo goes through gestation and birth just like everyone else.

The main difference that separates clones from twins or IVF babies is the process: asexual vs. sexual reproduction. I'll discuss the implications of this later in my post, but it can be useful to consider your clone as someone like an identical twin sibling who's younger than you by decades and likely to turn out very differently from you.

Now that we've gone over what cloning is, let's talk about a few common myths regarding human cloning:

1. Clones don't have souls!

If you think twins and people born through IVF have souls, then clones would have souls. Clones would have individuality, consciousness, personality, agency. They would not be an exact copy of the DNA donor because they would grow up in a totally different environment, and people are products of both nature and nurture (genes and external influences/environment). And whether the way you came to be was human-assisted or not should have no bearing on whether you are considered a human being.

This "clones don't have souls" sentiment makes me angry because saying a group of people have no souls is a way of dehumanizing them and stripping them of their human rights, which allows some people to feel they are justified in doing terrible things to them (see later point re: organ farms).

And if you happen to believe that people with less than 100% non-artificial origins are soulless, then I've got a newsflash for you — the soulless are already among us! And I think Louise Brown would have something to say about that.

(Side note: Honestly, everyone has their own idea of what constitutes as a soul, which makes it rather difficult to talk about in a meaningful way. According to neuroscience the concept of soul is irrelevant since it is unnecessary for a workable understanding of the mind, not to mention completely unsupported by evidence, which means it doesn't exist as far as science is concerned. But I know most people are very attached to the concept of souls — I suppose it's generally used as a term for empathy or identity or humanity, among its many possible definitions — so the reason I can't stand "clones have no souls" isn't because I think souls are real and clones have them, but because it's a dehumanizing rhetoric with no scientific basis whatsoever.)

2. I'd love to have clones to do all my work for me!

Ok, when people say this it means they are referring to sci-fi!clones and not science!clones. (Stealing the exclamation notation from Krispy, hehe.)

If cloning ever becomes possible, the clones will be born as babies 9 months after successful implantation, which means your clone will be ages younger than you (um, not implying that you're old or anything). Which means you'd have to wait a while for your clone to grow up and develop useful skills, and once that happens your clone might even demand compensation for doing your work (oh the horror!). Your clone won't be an extension of you and it would be absolutely inhuman to treat your clone as a slave (which is how people tend to want to treat their sci-fi!clones — by giving him or her all the undesirable tasks).

Plus, experiences that your clone has will not magically transfer to you — the two of you are separate, individual people, which means you can't get your clones to do your reading or exercising for you since it won't do you any good. But you might be able to bribe him or her into doing laundry. If you're nice about it.

3. We can copy ourselves and live forever!

A clone is not a full replicate of you, just an individual who happens to share your DNA profile. You will not be able to gain immortality through cloning any more than you can gain immortality through a twin. Your clone will have different experiences and memories and opinions and attitudes than you do, rather than be a copy of everything that makes you you.

You may think that memory transfer technology (something that doesn't exist at the moment) would take care of this problem, but even if it ever became possible, another person walking around with your memories would at most keep you alive from the perspective of other people. Once you die, you're dead, and it won't much matter if someone is there to pretend to be you or not (though some people may feel better if they can groom a clone to succeed them when they die). Ultimately, though, your consciousness will not magically transfer to your clone no matter how badly you wish it were possible.

4. Cloning = evil: evil dictators will create evil armies of evil clones!

Cloning is a tool, and as such it is neither good nor evil in itself. Clones would be just like any other human being — they wouldn't be evil just because they're clones, despite what certain sci-fi would have you think.

As for an evil clone army, clones would not submit to the will of the DNA donor just because they happen to share DNA. Conditioning would be a much better way to get the desired response, which means brainwashing existing people for your evil army would be significantly more practical than creating clones AND having to brainwash them.

And if you're a evil dictator, cloning yourself would just be a bad idea. Too easy for people to pretend not to notice when a clone kills you and takes your place, despite the age difference. Your clone will probably do a better job, too.

5. Clones are unnatural and subhuman!

"Test tube babies," aka children conceived in petri dishes during IVF, are not considered subhuman for not being conceived in a fallopian tube. Neither are individuals who share a DNA profile with another person. Why should a clone be treated as anything other than a regular human being? In most cases it wouldn't be immediately obvious if someone you meet is a clone. Even if the clone is being raised by the DNA donor, we all know people who look exactly like one of their parents even though they weren't cloned.

But it is true that people might be prejudiced against any clones that may come to be in the future and mistreat them out of ignorance. This is why it's important people have the right information, so that if cloning becomes a viable technology in the future, clones are afforded the rights they deserve.

And with that thought, I'll transition into some issues or considerations concerning the implications of cloning.

1. Clones would be born as or forced to become organ donors 

Sci-fi seems fond of this idea (see The Island, Never Let Me Go), but there are already children born as donors for their siblings even without cloning. Clones should not be treated any differently — people cannot be legally forced to donate their organs or tissues against their will, even if they're a perfect match for someone. (Yup, totally thinking of Jodi Picoult's My Sister's Keeper.) This is called basic human rights, and I fail to see why it would not apply to clones like it would apply to any other person. Saying they have no souls and so it's ok to take their organs against their will is just total bullshit.

Reading Never Let Me Go was a particularly upsetting experience for me since I was in the middle of writing this post. [SPOILER-ISH WARNING] It made me so angry that the people in that world really thought clones didn't have souls and that it was ok to treat them as walking organ farms! @#$%#& I can't even.... [END SPOILER]

2. Designer babies and rampant narcissism

It's pretty unlikely that celebrities will turn to DNA donation since there isn't exactly an issue of rampant celeb egg or sperm donors. So there probably won't be too many designer babies in that sense. And even if you did get your hands on your idea of the perfect DNA (people being cloned without their consent may be an issue as well), the clone baby most likely will not turn out the same or achieve similar success as his or her genetic twin, since environment/experiences has a huge hand in how someone turns out.

As for saying that cloning yourself is narcissistic, well, if you think of it that way, so (in a sense) is propagating your own DNA through sexual reproduction. I don't really think it's an issue since people will be narcissistic with or without cloning, and if a gazillionaire feels like spending money on cloning, that's a personal choice. Much like deciding whether to have kids or not.

3. The clone may suffer psychologically

First of all, clones may grow up with intense pressure to be like their DNA donor. Those expectations can be stifling and negatively affect their psychological well-being. But honestly, even without clones there are overbearing, dictator parents who think they deserve absolute control over every aspect their children's lives. If people are giving clones that much undeserved pressure, it probably means they're uneducated about cloning and are selfish jerks who don't truly love their child. Clones, like children, are not copies or accessories or slaves to your expectations or ways for you to live out your fantasies vicariously!

Clones may also face prejudice from people who insist they are sub-human and soulless, and they may have to fight for equal treatment and their full human rights. This is why people need to be educated about clones so they don't face that kind of oppression if they ever come into our world. We have more than enough inequality to fight already.

Another issue that is not as avoidable: clones who are raised by their DNA donors would face complicated family relationships. A clone is more of a twin sibling than a son or daughter, so if a clone is raised by his or her genetic twin, the DNA donor would be socially a parent but genetically a sibling, and the grandparents would really be the genetic parents. That can kind of mess with your head, so it might not be a good idea for people to raise their own clones.

4. Cloning results in less genetic fitness than sexual reproduction

This is a major way clones would differ from twins and IVF babies. All babies today — including both fraternal and identical twins and IVF babies — are conceived through the fusion of an egg and a sperm. This is sexual reproduction, and it confers several advantages on the offspring of a population due to increased genetic variation, which is important for the evolution, disease- and parasite-resistance, and general well-being of a species as a whole. (Please keep it to yourself if you don't believe in evolution, because otherwise my head will explode.)

This means that while a few clones here or there would be ok, it would be a bad idea for Homo sapiens if cloning became the norm. Given the current biological landscape and our place in it, sexual reproduction is a way better evolutionary strategy than asexual reproduction.

5. Cloning is an inefficient process that's not well-understood

I think this is the biggest argument against cloning. To date there have been no proven human clones, and the process of cloning is a difficult, risky, even dangerous one that involves a large number of eggs, much trial and error, and the creation (and destruction) of many embryos. The technology is simply not advanced enough, and given that the process of researching said technology would result in the death of a large number of embryos and fetuses, it's unlikely that people will be enthusiastic about human cloning.

The issues I've listed above are relevant for IVF as well. IVF is a risky procedure that results in a low number of live births despite the large number of embryos that are generated and implanted. So what happens to the embryos that don't make it to birth? Sometimes the excess embryos are frozen, sometimes donated to scientific research, sometimes destroyed in the lab, sometimes aborted in favor of a sibling.

I agree that the ethics of creating and destroying embryos is controversial, but it wouldn't be unique to cloning (see therapeutic cloning in addition to IVF, and maybe even abortion in general). But there are issues unique to reproductive cloning that makes pursuing human cloning even more controversial, and one of them is our lack of understanding regarding the effects of using a somatic (non-reproductive) cell as the genetic material for an egg. In the past, cloned animals have suffered from a number of serious developmental abnormalities or shortened lifespans (we'll skip details about shortened telomeres and epigenetics). Until scientists have perfected the technique with animals, it would be best not to attempt cloning due to the high chances of bringing into the world a baby with serious abnormalities that will significantly affect his or her quality of life. And if we can't get it right with animals, then yeah, not a good idea to try it on human beings.

Why this rant?

Cloning comes with a lot of issues and I'm not saying it's awesome and we should all immediately embrace it. It's a dangerous process with complex consequences (probably why it's currently banned in many countries). Cloning won't be possible without significant scientific advancement, and it may not be something that's in our best interests to pursue due to the likelihood of serious complications for the first clones. But I hope that the controversy would be fueled not by misunderstandings of what cloning and clones are, but because of real and valid social/scientific/ethical implications.

It's not cloning itself I feel strongly about — I have no stake in whether cloning ever becomes possible, although I think it would be a great technological breakthrough if it ever becomes a safe and reliable process. But I'm pretty sure our society's not ready for clones, and given the serious biological, psychological, and societal problems that are likely to plague clones due to our general lack of knowledge and understanding, I'm glad, for the sake of those hypothetical clones, that they don't yet exist. Maybe one day, if we move past those issues... but I don't even know if that's even possible.

What I do feel strongly about is ignorant attitudes toward science and technology in general. It bothers me when people choose pure emotion or superstition over facts or reason in a discussion involving science. I think it's important for us as a society to think critically and logically about these issues because it can have strong ramifications for our future. I understand most people aren't scientists, and that's ok, but it makes me sad when people hold a fearful, suspicious, or dismissive attitude toward science and technology out of misunderstanding. And if this attitude is the norm, it will hold us back from future advancement and breakthroughs in science and technology that can improve our standard of living.

So I guess part of the reason I wrote this post, in addition to venting my thoughts and feelings, was to dispel some common misconceptions and introduce more science to the discussion on clones in the writing blogosphere. (Even though I'm fashionably — er, terribly — late. Sorry about that!) Plus, I learned a lot!

(Random side note: writing this post made me realize that although most sci-fi novels and movies get a lot of things wrong about cloning, at least they're starting to portray clones as people with thoughts and feelings and agency and individuality and humanity, so YAY for that! Though they should still get their science right.)

Anyway, now that I've (hopefully) gotten this clone thing out of my system, in my next post I'll write more generally about my thoughts on science in MG/YA speculative fiction, so stay tuned for that!

Did you learn anything new from this post? Got any thoughts on what I've said? Or if you prefer to go the non-controversial route, what's your favorite book or movie featuring clones? (I realize some of these may be spoiler-y, so consider putting warnings for the spoiler-sensitive!)

Further Reading / Sources


  1. "It bothers me when people choose pure emotion or superstition over facts or reason in a discussion involving science."

    YES. A million times yes. Why does science cause people to have such kneejerk reactions? Are they afraid it will be too complicated? Do scientists not do a good enough job reaching out to the "laymen"? I'm a layman when it comes to science myself, but at least I know scientists and have probably a better than average grasp of how this stuff is supposed to work. It's fascinating and frustrating that science is so poorly represented in pop culture and the media.

    Also, wow, I had a basic understanding of cloning before, but this was really clear and concise and explained a lot I didn't know. Great post! (And you're allowed to go off topic on your own blog!)

  2. Um, this post is amazeballs. I've got no horses in this race, but it was fascinating to read about. Seriously.

    Question for further discussion: Is the kind of cloning that we see in scifi -- i.e., get some DNA, put it in a machine, and pop out a full-grown human pretty much instantaneously -- completely impossible? I mean, can we make/manipulate molecules into whatever we want? (Related: replicators from Star Trek.) Because I guess that's the only way to get a scifi-style clone: turn air molecules into skin/organ/blood molecules.

  3. I'm so glad you enjoyed the post, Lura! It started as a way for me to vent about people's attitudes toward cloning and science, but then I learned so much researching for this post and wanted to share it, so it's awesome to hear you found it informative. :)

    I think part of the reason people don't like to think about science is because it's so much easier to say "well that just sounds wrong" than to have to try to understand a new concept or get used to thinking differently. I know how hard it can be to reject or even modify long-held beliefs despite facts and evidence that contradict them, so sometimes people dismiss science because it tells them something they don't want to hear. If people have to tell themselves that their personal opinion is more valid than any scientific finding in order to hold on to their worldview, it's in their best interest not to give science too much credit. I think this is really sad, but it's hard to fight human nature.

    Anyway, thank you for your comment -- good to know we're of the same mind regarding science! :)

  4. Yay, I'm so glad you liked the post! I was expecting most people to be like, "Uh, overly long post filled with scientific jargon? SKIP!" so I really appreciate that you read and commented. :)

    As for your question -- I'm pretty sure it's not possible in the way you've described. I did some googling and found this blog post on Star Trek transporters:
    So yeah, given the insane amount of energy you'd need to assemble enough mass to make a grown-up, assuming all the other technologies became possible (even the ones that break the laws of physics), I'd say it's very unlikely that sci-fi clones will ever become possible.

    But thanks for bringing this up! I did come across some information on sci-fi transporters when I was researching clones, but it was cool to learn more about it. :)

  5. Ooh, fascinating! Never watched Star Trek so it's cool to hear about how they dealt with science and science fiction and the issues that go with those. :)

  6. Thanks for the interesting blog post. I read it yesterday, and was thinking that I haven't heard someone mention their clone in quite a while, maybe even years. And then, today, someone mentioned waiting for their clone to come in the mail. I bit my tongue but thought of you!

  7. Glad you didn't find the post boring! And yeah, funny how that clone comment happened to come the day after you read my post! :)

  8. Very good post. I have been planning on writing a book about clones - more along the lines of someone who has been born as a clone younger than the person with original DNA, and discovers this fact through the novel. So it has been very useful to read this science behind this.

    Can I please check: you could, at the minimum, be one year younger than the person whose DNA was taken? I have assumed the person would then be the equivalent to a twin in terms of looks and of course a person in their own right with all associated thoughts and feelings, which is the interesting part to explore, I think.
    It is tempting to associate this with memory transfer which again is something I am considering for the plot - not possible as you say but this is where the 'fiction' line comes in perhaps?
    and the careful balance between the science and the fiction in science fiction is ever the issue.
    You have given me a lot to think about in how responsibly one address that science.

  9. So glad you found it helpful, Viklit! :)

    Yup, if cloning is possible, then it's possible for the clone to be just a year younger than the DNA donor. One novel you may consider checking out is Kathryn Lasky's Star Split, which is about a girl and her clone who grew up separately and had no idea the other existed until a chance meetup. Her clone is around 1 year younger, I think. I loved the way Lasky portrayed the two girls as having both similarities and differences. Even though they have the same DNA, they grew up in very different circumstances, and that was reflected by their personalities, ways they expressed themselves, the way they thought. At the same time, they shared a common interest in rock climbing. And in the author's note at the back, she explains the science behind her novel, talking about cloning and genetic engineering and such. This, in my opinion, is an example of cloning handled brilliantly by a writer, so definitely worth a read. I know the premise is similar to yours, but I'm pretty sure your plots are very different, in case that worries you. :P

    As for the memory transfer, I'm kind of wary of the idea of using it in conjunction with cloning because of movies like The Island. There is just absolutely no way that Lincoln Six Echo would have memories from his DNA donor for no reason at all like that. That said, you certainly can give your sci-fi world a memory transplant machine that's able to transfer memories from one person to another (yeah, not possible now, but it can work through magic science :P). But the existence of such a machine would probably affect how society works in your world (would this become the new lie detector? will people use it to forget unhappy memories a la Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? or is the machine hidden away in the lab of a mad scientist?) so you may want to explore the ramifications. But yeah, there's not going to be any automatic memory transfer from donor to clone.

    Anyway, glad my post prompted more reflection! I always love thought-provoking posts from other bloggers, so I'm glad when I'm able to do that for others as well. :)

  10. Thanks for your great reply and for the rec :) I will definitely read the book it'll help to see how someone else has handled it.

    I agree re memory transfer - it would have to be a 'machine/procedure' type explanation and actually I would want it not to work very well so the clone is absolutely convinced these memories are not hers, they are the donors, but she is not the donor, and she is an individual person with a past she wants to remember. And some of the plot would be finding out her own past and realising that identity. I would have to see how it works - I wouldn't want it to be too a) ridiculous or b) impossible but making it sound possible in that bad science way!

  11. Glad to help! :) Your premise/plot sounds awesome. Kudos to you for making the effort to make things work. Best of luck! :D

  12. This was very illuminating. I honestly have not given much thought to cloning because it just seems so far off in a future I probably won't see. You bring up good points though, especially about the discrimination clones will face in society. Like you, I'm glad they do not exist at the moment.

  13. Yeah, it's sad the way the media has contributed to so many misunderstandings about what clones are or would be like. There's definitely not the same type of strange reactions to people conceived through IVF. But I think it'd be pretty hard to identify clones as clones just by looking (depending on how famous/recognizable the DNA donor is), so hopefully they'd mostly be ok.

    One interesting example of cloning in fiction is Feed by M.T. Anderson. It takes place in a futuristic society, and the main character has a friend who is rich, tall, not handsome, and very popular. Then halfway through the book you find out that his friend is a clone of Abraham Lincoln, lol.