Perhaps you missed it in the crunch of midterms, but the Brave New World arrived a few weeks ago.
There it was on the front page of the October 24 New York Times: "Scientist Clones Human Embryos." What had once been science fiction was now fact. Newsweek devoted six pages to the topic, and Time put cloning on its cover, asking: "Where Do We Draw the Line?"
Unfortunately, the hype was mixed with a good deal of confusion. The scientists in question had not succeeded in mass-producing viable embryos from a single embryo's DNA, as the Times suggested. Their experiment, in fact, was remarkably simple. Using an abnormally fertilized egg which had begun the normal process of development by dividing into two cells, they simply separated the cells and allowed each to develop on its own. In effect, the scientists reproduced the process which, in the womb, leads to the development of identical twins.
It was the concept of cloning, not the reality, to which the media and the public reacted. It conjured up visions of baby factories, mass-produced humanity, a world populated by carbon-copy people. The reaction was overwhelmingly negative: A Time survey showed that 75% of those polled believed that human cloning is not a good thing, and 77% want cloning research to be temporarily halted or banned altogether.
When I first heard the story, though, the reaction I saw was quite different. A few days after the story in the Times, I was watching a "Nightline" Program on the issue. Those around me at the Quincy Grill listened to the descriptions of the cloning process without a word, but when a statement from the Vatican calling the technique "perverse" flashed on the screen, there were groans.
These divergent responses say something significant about how science is perceived in its own community and in the larger public arena. Human "cloning" is a concept that has been for so long solely in the realm of science fiction that it's hard for us to separate real possibilities from fantastic speculation.
Frightened ethicists often tout Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" as a nightmarish blueprint of where science could lead us. Huxley envisioned a world of factory-produced human beings, engineered and brainwashed to fill society's different needs.
The sci-fi revulsion at cloning has continued to the present day. Even a show as technologically hip as "Star Trek: The Next Generation" ran an episode where the crew of the Enterprise defended their individuality by destroying clones of themselves made from stolen tissue.
With such influences gnawing at the popular mind, it's hard for people to respond to the concept of cloning in a dispassionate way.
Many of Time's poll questions bordered on the silly: "Would you like to have been a clone?"(Eighty-six percent said no.) In one of Newsweek's related stories, titled "How Will the Clone Feel?", an ethicist waxes metaphysical: "What would it mean if I ran into one of me in the grocery store some day? What makes me me?"
Unfortunately for would-be philosophers, none of these are questions not already raised by the existence of identical twins. Twins coexists peacefully without losing their identities or going insane. Cloning would only replicate a situation that already exists. One wonders what the protester photographed in Time with the sign "I Like Just One of Me" would have done if she had been born an identical twin.
Many Harvard students are studying to be the doctors and scientists of tomorrow. Certainly, they should be concerned with the issues of modern science and with the impact their future work might have. Why has there been no outcry, no wave of hysteria about the prospect of this brave new world?
In part, the relatively calm, reaction may be a reflection of the pervasiveness of the scientific mindset. Robert J. Stillman, director of the program under which the experiment took place, was quoted in Newsweek as saying he wondered why "people have not been able to separate the what if from what we actually did." Behind Stillman's statement is a faith that pure science can, in fact, be distinguished from its application. Perhaps because scientists are used to working with abstractions, they are able to draw a fairly definite line between theory and practice.
The backlash against cloning, however, shows that such distinctions are less easily made by the general public. This is a telling sing of the state of modern science. As science more and more specialized, cutting-edge research recedes ever further from the understanding of the average person. Science seems to be growing ever more powerful and yet we have less and less understanding, and thus control, of it.
It is all too easy to demonize the unknown, and scientists like Stillman suffer the consequences. He and his team had no desire to mass-produce babies; they were simply extending their research in the field of in-vitro fertilization, using every means at their disposal to help couples who are unable to have children. Yet they found themselves condemned on all sides. Japanese doctors called their experiment "unthinkable," and the Vatican accused them of opening the door to "a tunnel of madness."
But what about the customers of these scientists? The boom in in-vitro fertilization has only occurred because some couples will go to any lengths to conceive a child. If would-be parents stopped at natural barriers, Stillman and his team probably never would have split embryos in the first place--it certainly would not have made the cover of Time.
While the public screams about the immorality of cloning research, they forget that for cloning to occur, someone must want to be cloned. Time's survey asked whether those polled would consider cloning an embryo they had conceived; 90% said no. That, more than any law that could be put on the books, would prevent the practice from becoming common. Rather than asking, as Time and Newsweek did, "What if this technology allowed someone to give birth to her own twin?", we should ask, "Would anyone actually want to do such a thing?"
Either people do not realize that they ultimately control the application of a technology, or that knowledge is not enough for them. The answer, instead, seems to be to stifle the scientists who dare to open this moral can of worms. More than three-quarters of those polled by Time want the U.S. government to intervene in cloning research. And in Germany, Stillman could have been sent to prison for up to five years for his experiment.
Perhaps this is the true vision of our brave new world: one in which the masses live in fear of a science which they do not understand, where scientists must constantly work under the shadow of public opinion, chained by restrictive laws. The real danger apparent in the cloning debate is not that it will really give us made-to-order human beings, but that it will create a backlash against science that could have impacts in every field.
Scientists are not without scruples. Stillman and his colleagues deliberately used unviable embryos for their experiment. But they emerged from their cloistered laboratory to find themselves defending their work on "Larry King Live." In this brave new world, we may soon see a time when students of science are required to take not courses in ethics, but in public relations.