Here’s a man who lives a life

23 01 2013

I’m a big fan of science, and an increasingly big fan of science fiction.

I do, however, prefer that, on a practical level, we note the difference between the two.

There’s a lot to be said for speculation—one of the roots of political science is an extended speculation on the construction of a just society—but while I am not opposed to speculation informing practice, the substitution of what-if thinking for practical thought (phronēsis) in politics results in farce, disaster, or farcical disaster.

So too in science.

Wondering about a clean and inexhaustible source of energy can lead to experiments which point the way to cleaner and longer-lasting energy sources; it can also lead to non-replicable claims about desktop cold fusion. The difference between the two is the work.

You have to do the work, work which includes observation, experimentation, and rigorous theorizing. You don’t have to know everything at the outset—that’s one of the uses of experimentation—but to go from brain-storm to science you have to test your ideas.

This is all a very roundabout way of saying that cloning to make Neandertals is a bad idea.

Biologist George Church thinks synthesizing a Neandertal would be a good idea, mainly because it would diversify the “monoculture” of the Homo sapiens.

My first response is: this is just dumb. The genome of H. sapiens is syncretic, containing DNA from, yes, Neandertals, Denisovans, and possibly other archaic species, as well as microbial species. Given all of the varieties of life on this planet, I guess you could make the case for a lack of variety among humans, but calling us a “monoculture” seems rather to stretch the meaning of the term.

My second response is: this is just dumb. Church assumes a greater efficiency for cloning complex species than currently exists. Yes, cows and dogs and cats and frogs have all been cloned, but over 90 percent of all cloning attempts fail. Human pregnancy is notably inefficient—only 20-40% of all fertilized eggs result in a live birth—so it is tough to see why one would trumpet a lab process which is even more scattershot than what happens in nature.

Furthermore, those clones which are successfully produced nonetheless tend to be less healthy than the results of sexual reproduction.

Finally, all cloned animals require a surrogate mother in which to gestate. Given the low success rates of clones birthed by members of their own species, what are the chances that an H. sapiens woman would be able to bring a Neandertal clone to term—and without harming herself in the process?

I’m not against cloning, for the record. The replication of DNA segments and microbial life forms is a standard part of lab practice, and replicated tissues organs could conceivably have a role in regenerative medicine.

But—and this is my third response—advocating human and near-human cloning is at this point scientifically irresponsible. The furthest cloning has advanced in primates is the cloning of monkey embryos, that is, there has been no successful reproductive cloning of a primate.

To repeat: there has been no successful reproductive cloning of our closest genetic relatives. And Church thinks we could clone a Neandertal, easy-peasy?

No.

There are all kinds of ethical questions about cloning, of course, but in the form of bio-ethics I practice, one undergirded by the necessity of phronēsis, the first question I ask is: Is this already happening? Is this close to happening?

If the answer is No, then I turn my attention to those practices for which the answer is Yes.

Cloning is in-between: It is already happening in some species, but the process is so fraught that the inefficiencies themselves should warn scientists off of any attempts on humans. Still, as an in-between practice, it is worth considering the ethics of human cloning.

But Neandertal cloning? Not even close.

None of this means that Church can’t speculate away on the possibilities. He just shouldn’t kid himself that he’s engaging in science rather than science fiction.

(h/t: Tyler Cowen)

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3 responses

23 01 2013
dmfant

I don’t feel safe in this world no more, I don’t want to die in a nuclear war. I want to sail away to a distant shore and make like an apeman.,,,
http://onpoint.wbur.org/2013/01/23/synthetic-biology

23 01 2013
absurdbeats

Oh, criminy, I don’t know if I can bear to listen to that.

So, so many other uses to which synthetic biology could be put. . . .

23 01 2013
geekhiker

On the other hand, there is a hecku’va science-fiction story there. Such as a world in which neanderthals are readily cloned, and used as domestic servants, and exploring the ethics of that…

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