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I cannot be cloned

The identity of clones and what it tells us about the self

Clones

If I clone myself what relation does the clone have to me? And what does this tell me about what makes me – me? My clone is not my self. It will be different in personality, cognition, as well as its place in space-time. This difference can help us to assert, away from the materialistic picture of identity, that we are not simply our genes. This should impact our moral and social thinking about the dangers of cloning, which remain troublesome, writes Kathinka Evers.

 

Ever since Ian Wilmut’s team of British embryologists cloned a sheep called Dolly in 1997, there has been a heated debate amongst scientists, politicians and the general public about whether or not cloning should be allowed. One of the most frequently expressed worries, in particular to the possibility of cloning human beings, is that it would produce “xerox copies” of living organisms - identical creatures. Fearfully, one envisions an army of indistinguishable individuals: homo xerox. Yet what this means, and the nature of these cloned “identities”, is often left unspecified.

This concern is based on a misunderstanding of the type of identity-relation which cloning involves: It is based on the false belief that cloning produces individuals that are totally identical, physically as well as mentally. The fear of armies of identical individuals will seem unreal and lose its power once the true nature of cloning has been understood.

From a philosophical point of view, the assumption that cloning would produce “identical individuals” is not immediately intelligible because the concept “identity” is ambiguous.  

A classical philosophical distinction differentiates numerical identity (the relation of that object to all others) from qualitative identity (based on the qualities of the object). An old query is whether qualitative identity entails numerical identity: can objects which have all their properties in common be numerically distinct? Are qualitatively identical (‘indiscernible’) objects numerically identical? And are numerically identical objects also indiscernible?

The fear of armies of identical individuals will seem unreal and lose its power once the true nature of cloning has been understood.

Leibniz raised both these questions, and answered them with ‘Leibniz’ s Law’. Really this is two laws, two logical principles of identity, which can be described as follows:[

Firstly, the identity of indiscernibles: if x and y are identical they have all their properties in common. In a formulation without plural terms: whatever is true of A is true of whatever is identical to A.  Let’s call this qualitative identity “indiscernibility” and use it to look at cloning. The proposition under analysis is: P - A clone is an organism that is identical to another organism.

Notice firstly that two organisms are mentioned in P, ruling out numerical identity. So P must be asserting the indiscernibility of clones. But “indiscernibility” in what sense? By Leibniz’s Law it is not possible for two things to differ numerically only, there must be a qualitative distinction between them. Distinct objects must have some feature which the other does not possess, by virtue of which they are distinct. Accordingly, clones cannot be strictly indiscernible.

Nor are they. Clones are living organisms occupying a unique place in space and time. Their lives form unique spatio-temporal sequences, and by virtue thereof every clone has a part of its identity which nothing else can possibly share. The belief that clones are indiscernible must consequently be given a more modest interpretation.

This naturally introduces another distinction separating relational from intrinsic properties. Relational properties constitute an object’s identity relative to its environment. The intrinsic properties of an object are those which it possesses independently of other things - the object’s identity in itself. Clearly, clones cannot be indiscernible in all their relational properties because every spatio-temporal object has a unique in relationship to its environment. But are clones intrinsically indiscernible?

The question should be understood empirically because this is where the heart of this controversy lies. People are concerned that clones will, in fact, be identical to another; that they will not be ‘individuated’.

But how are organisms individuated? This question arises in genetics, physiology, perception, cognition, and personality.

(a) Supposedly clones are genetically indiscernible from their counterpart. Yet they are not perfect copies: clones will never be completely genetically identical because mitochondrial DNA, which accounts for approximately 1% of the DNA in the cell, will be distinctive. But how similar will a clone and a DNA-donor, or distinct clones derived from the same source of donor cells, be beyond their genetic structures? Who, or what, someone or something is, is a far more complex subject than mere genetics. Ian Wilmut strongly emphasised that an individual is made up of a lot more than genes. Likewise, Ruth Hubbard writes: “Dolly is not a true copy, or clone, of the original ewe. Dolly is, indeed, a nuclear DNA clone, but there is more to life than DNA, even for sheep.”

(b) Physiological individuation. An organism’s genetic structure partly determines its physiology, at least at the moment of conception and (unless the environment has altered things in the meantime) birth. However, just as there is more to life than DNA, there is more to our physiology than our DNA is able to determine. Our physiology is profoundly influenced by our environment and by our experiences, already in the womb. Every minor event influences the future individual.

Clones need not resemble one another anymore than twins do, and twins — even the so-called “identical” ones — can exhibit impressive dissimilarities. They must, as a matter of fact, differ inasmuch as their environments and experiences do. The actual neurological structure of their brains will also be distinguishable because neurological development is in part a function of experience. Distinct individuals from the same donor’s cells could likewise develop in profoundly dissimilar circumstances, and resemble one another far less than twins.

Distinct individuals from the same donor’s cells could likewise develop in profoundly dissimilar circumstances, and resemble one another far less than twins.

(c) Perceptual and cognitive individuation. Even if genetically indiscernible individuals (whether they be twins, clones with the same source of donor cells, or clone and DNA-donor) are born simultaneously from the same womb and grow up together, their will be distinct bodies with different perspectives and mental states.

(d) Personality. Clones will have personalities of their own. Our personality is partly formed by environment: upbringing, education, culture, era, and so forth. Twins have different personalities, and clones need not have more in common. They may well have less in common, if, say, they do not grow up together. And the generation gap that would typically exist between the clone and the DNA-donor would certainly produce different personalities.

Scientific progress constantly creates new and unfamiliar situations that call our traditional concepts into question and may seem to outstrip our moral sensibility and judgment. Classical notions, accustomed attitudes or ways of life seem threatened. In view of the strong human need for security and familiarity and fear of the unknown, this may go a long way towards explaining why so many people are spontaneously uncomfortable with cloning. Yet our philosophical tools and sensibilities are not inapplicable to new scientific advances. Indeed, an important part of the conceptual apparatus that we need to address the identity aspect of cloning comes to us from 17th century philosophy: Leibniz’s Law. You and your clone would stand in a relationship of similarity, not identity. Meeting your clone, might help you realise the importance of learning and experience in making you you. You are simply so much more than your genes and the clone would not be a threat to your individuality. The impact of cultural imprints on the developing brain's architecture is gigantic (Evers 2020) and enhances the uniqueness of each individual.

Whether cloning is a blessing or a curse, it is not a method by which egocentric humans can duplicate themselves, nor a way of producing armies of indistinguishable individuals. Each clone would have properties that neither its DNA-donor, nor other clones with the same source of donor cells, could possibly share. This is a matter both of logic, and of empirical fact. There are certainly dangers accompanying cloning: social, moral, and maybe genetic, but the fact that clones are genetically very similar seems to me to be among the least of our worries.

 

 

 

 

References

Brem, G. (1997). Presentation at the XXXVIth Meeting of the Group of Advisers on the Ethical Implications of Biotechnology, the European Commission.

Evers K. (1999). The Identity of Clones, Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, 24(1): 67–76.

Evers, K. (2020) The Culture-Bound Brain: Epigenetic proaction revisited. Theoria, https://doi.org/10.1111/theo.12264

Feinsilber, M. (1997). ‘Sheep boggles the human mind,’ Washington Post, April 6.

Gorovitz, S. (1982). Doctors Dilemmas, Oxford University Press, India.
Hubbard, R. (1997). ‘Irreplaceable ewe,’ The Nation, March 24.

Leibniz, G.W. (1686). Discours de Métaphysique.

Silver, L. (1997). ‘Who says Mother Nature knows best?’ Focus, The Sunday Times, March


Wertz, D. (1997). ‘Cloning humans: Is it ethical?’ The Gene Letter, Vol. 1, Issue 5, March. Wilmut, I. et al. (1997). ‘Viable offspring derived from fetal and mammalian cells,’ Nature 385, 810–811.


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The fact that a clone would not be identical - in social or even in some very minor genetic ways - does not making this technology any less radical or potentially dangerous. Sexual reproduction is a way in which species can avoid genetic disorders, create different versions of the type. We are interfering with processes which have developed over millions of years with only a tiny knowledge of what we are doing, and almost zero knowledge of the consequences.