Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Life of the Clone (and the Narcissism of the Cloner)

Bryan Caplan is an economics professor at George Mason University and a contributor to a group blog about economics. He and his co-bloggers are intelligent libertarian economists, and their blog is often clarifying on important questions of policy and economic theory. It is deservedly popular for its erudition and wit.

On moral matters, though, Mr. Caplan sometimes muddles things. Like a few other prominent libertarian econobloggers, Mr. Caplan is interested in futuristic technologies, and he has written several posts about bioethical questions, including a handful in the past few months that misunderstand and misrepresent essays by Leon Kass. (I may revisit those in a future post here.) Mr. Caplan was apparently reading those Kass essays to bone up on arguments about cloning, a subject he addresses in a forthcoming book called Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. Yesterday, Mr. Caplan invited his readers to tell him whether or not he should include the following passage in the book:

I confess that I take anti-cloning arguments personally. Not only do they insult the identical twin sons I already have; they insult a son I hope I live to meet. Yes, I wish to clone myself and raise the baby as my son. Seriously. I want to experience the sublime bond I’m sure we’d share. I’m confident that he’d be delighted, too, because I would love to be raised by me. I’m not pushing others to clone themselves. I’m not asking anyone else to pay for my dream. I just want government to leave me and the cloning business alone. Is that too much to ask?

Before examining Mr. Caplan’s confession directly, let’s look at some of the reactions it provoked. Below his post are some six dozen responses; a few say that the paragraph makes Mr. Caplan sound “crazy,” but several defend and even praise it. (There’s also an amusing comment from Will Wilkinson.) Tyler Cowen, the libertarian über-econoblogger (and another George Mason prof), invited his own readers to comment, and introduced his own spin:

If you don’t like [Mr. Caplan’s] proposal for a cloned son, I will ask why you think your preferred degree of genetic similarity — between you and your next kid — is right and Bryan’s is wrong.

In a follow-up today, Cowen chastised his own readers for the content of their comments about Caplan, and Mr. Caplan briefly responded. Meanwhile, Brad DeLong charged Mr. Caplan with misogyny (a frivolous accusation that Mr. DeLong’s own commenters shot down), and Steve Sailer chimed in with some provocative questions in his inimitable way.

Let’s examine what Mr. Caplan wrote. He begins by saying that he takes “anti-cloning arguments personally,” in part because “they insult the identical twin sons I already have.”

Without having seen the rest of Mr. Caplan’s book, we cannot know just what “anti-cloning arguments” he is referring to. But from context, we can infer that he has in mind an argument that human clones would somehow be lesser beings simply because their genetic duplicates exist. Certainly no one responsible or thoughtful has made so crude an argument. I invite Mr. Caplan to state plainly whose arguments he has in mind — specifically which “anti-cloning arguments” insult his twin sons — but until he does, I suggest he’s invoking a straw man.

Perhaps Mr. Caplan simply misunderstands some of the arguments that opponents of cloning actually make, like this objection that appeared in a thorough and balanced report on cloning from the President’s Council on Bioethics eight years ago:

Of course, our genetic makeup does not by itself determine our identities. But our genetic uniqueness is an important source of our sense of who we are and how we regard ourselves. It is an emblem of independence and individuality. It endows us with a sense of life as a never-before-enacted possibility. Knowing and feeling that nobody has previously possessed our particular gift of natural characteristics, we go forward as genetically unique individuals into relatively indeterminate futures.

These new and unique genetic identities are rooted in the natural procreative process. A cloned child, by contrast, is at risk of living out a life overshadowed in important ways by the life of the “original” — general appearance being only the most obvious. Indeed, one of the reasons some people are interested in cloning is that the technique promises to produce in each case a particular individual whose traits and characteristics are already known. And however much or little one’s genotype actually shapes one’s natural capacities, it could mean a great deal to an individual’s experience of life and the expectations that those who cloned him or her might have. The cloned child may be constantly compared to “the original,” and may consciously or unconsciously hold himself or herself up to the genetic twin that came before. If the two individuals turned out to lead similar lives, the cloned person’s achievements may be seen as derivative. If, as is perhaps more likely, the cloned person departed from the life of his or her progenitor, this very fact could be a source of constant scrutiny, especially in circumstances in which parents produced their cloned child to become something in particular. Living up to parental hopes and expectations is frequently a burden for children; it could be a far greater burden for a cloned individual. The shadow of the cloned child’s “original” might be hard for the child to escape, as would parental attitudes that sought in the child's very existence to replicate, imitate, or replace the “original.”

The Council’s report then specifically addresses the question of twins. The following points are pretty obvious, but Mr. Caplan seems to think that opponents of cloning don’t understand them (while it is not clear that he appreciates them himself):

It may reasonably be argued that genetic individuality is not an indispensable human good, since identical twins share a common genotype and seem not to be harmed by it. But this argument misses the context and environment into which even a single human clone would be born. Identical twins have as progenitors two biological parents and are born together, before either one has developed and shown what his or her potential — natural or otherwise — may be. Each is largely free of the burden of measuring up to or even knowing in advance the genetic traits of the other, because both begin life together and neither is yet known to the world. But a clone is a genetic near-copy of a person who is already living or has already lived. This might constrain the clone’s sense of self in ways that differ in kind from the experience of identical twins. Everything about the predecessor — from physical height and facial appearance, balding patterns and inherited diseases, to temperament and native talents, to shape of life and length of days, and even cause of death — will appear before the expectant eyes of the cloned person, always with at least the nagging concern that there, notwithstanding the grace of God, go I. The crucial matter, again, is not simply the truth regarding the extent to which genetic identity actually shapes us — though it surely does shape us to some extent. What matters is the cloned individual’s perception of the significance of the “precedent life” and the way that perception cramps and limits a sense of self and independence.

Those passages also offer a fairly firm reply to Tyler Cowen’s challenge. Mr. Cowen asks why one “degree of genetic similarity” is preferable to another. But that reductive abstraction — thinking about this question in terms of percentages of genes — is downright bizarre. As the Council passages makes clear, the debate over cloning isn’t fundamentally about genes; it is about human beings, about complicated family and generational relationships, about selfhood, identity, and social contexts.

What, in the end, are we to make of Mr. Caplan’s desire? He says that he has two reasons for wishing “to clone myself and raise the baby as my son.” The first is selfish: “I want to experience the sublime bond I’m sure we’d share.” His certitude that the bond would be “sublime” is nothing more than an assumption elevated to faith.

His second reason for wanting to clone himself poses as a kind of generosity:

I’m confident that he’d be delighted, too, because I would love to be raised by me.

That sentence is a gem. Its logic is dubious (just because today’s Mr. Caplan says he would wish to have himself as a parent doesn’t mean that a clone born decades later would enjoy the professor’s parenting) and it reveals tremendous self-regard (Mr. Caplan considers his parenting talents so excellent that he knows he would enjoy being on the receiving end of them if it were but possible).

And there you have it. The staunchest public advocates of cloning-to-produce-children have argued that it might someday help infertile couples produce biologically related children. But Mr. Caplan’s example shows us that there are people who desire to clone themselves for the shallowest of reasons — the sheer pleasure of interacting with a duplicate, and the somewhat paradoxical belief that a person could have raised himself better than his parents did. It is hard to know which is more breathtaking: the callous disregard for the independently lived life of the cloned child, or the extreme narcissism so unabashedly on display.


  1. The arguments against cloning are conflated with critiques of Caplan's showmanship. A refutation of the case against cloninghere.

  2. Thanks, Kyle. We respond to you here and here.


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