Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Attack of the Cloners

In a couple of posts last week (here and here), Kyle Munkittrick joined in on the recent blogospherical cloning debate, taking particular aim at our post on the subject.

There’s a good deal of sloppiness in Mr. Munkittrick’s posts to nitpick (e.g., the Bioethics Council’s claim that “genetic uniqueness is an important source of our sense of who we are and how we regard ourselves” is far from “genetic determinism”; people can act like arrogant narcissists without necessarily being arrogant narcissists, just as sometimes good people do bad things; the term “neoconservative” is stretched to the point of meaninglessness; and so forth). But there are also crucial flaws in the central points of his posts, and (you guessed it) they point towards common flaws in transhumanist arguments.

Reproductive Equivalence
First, Mr. Munkittrick seeks to defend cloning by drawing a moral equivalence between it and other means of reproduction (both assisted and unassisted), and arguing in particular that the genetic relationship between parent and child does not matter:
Cloning is a method of reproduction just like IVF and PGD and rutting in the back seat and the rhythm method.... IVF, adoption, surrogate parenting, and egg/sperm donation all also alter the genetic make up of the child from unassisted reproduction and produce no ill effects on parent/child relation.
He argues further that the notion that the genetic relationship does matter was made up by critics of cloning. Twisting (or perhaps misunderstanding) something Adam Keiper quoted, he quips and challenges:
I am almost certain that human beings were endowed with a “sense of life” [as a] “never-before-enacted possibility” before Mendel, Watson, Crick, and Collins, but I might be wrong!... Where is the evidence people identify with their genetics? Anyone?
Well, for starters, try the quote from Bryan Caplan that Mr. Munkittrick’s post is ostensibly defending:
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.
That sure sounds like identifying with your genetics. It’s more than just a little odd that Munkittrick, in trying to defend Caplan’s wish to clone himself, ignores the stated source of that desire.

A Sober Look at Assisted Reproduction
Believing that the nature of the biological relationship between parents and children is essentially irrelevant, Mr. Munkittrick writes that cloning would be similar to other kinds of assisted reproductive technology (ART) in producing “no ill effects on [the] parent/child relation.” But he’s wrong about the track record of existing ART.

Cheryl Miller’s New Atlantis essay “Donated Generation” examines the profound and pronounced social and psychological effects of ART on the children it is used to create. Her essay rebuts the simplistic assumption that there are no moral differences between different means of human reproduction. And it highlights a contradiction similar to the one in Mr. Munkittrick’s post — denying the importance of biological relationships even while defending them:
To [author Elizabeth] Marquardt, donor conception is inherently problematic, no matter how openly or lovingly it’s done, since it intentionally separates children from at least one of their biological parents. Take the often-made comparison to adoption, she says. In both cases, children are separated from their biological parents. Adoption, however, is an extreme situation — one that recognizes the loss to the child. “In adoption, your adoptive parents were not the ones who caused this loss — the people who raised you were not the ones who intentionally divided you from your mother and father,” she explains. “In donor conception, the people raising you are also the ones who decided before you were even conceived that these relationships should not matter to you.” Here Marquardt sees a curious contradiction at the heart of donor conception: Love makes a family, we’re told, but parents choose donor conception because they want a child biologically connected to them. If biology matters to parents, Marquardt asks, why wouldn’t it also matter to children? (Emphasis added.)
The same point applies just as well to the cloning debate, but even more so to an argument like Caplan’s: He advocates cloning specifically because a genetic relationship between himself and the child does matter a great deal. Moreover, he at least implicitly advocates cloning over and above existing methods because of the supposedly profound new possibilities allowed by creating a child with the exact same genes as himself.

If these profound possibilities matter so much to Caplan, why wouldn’t they also matter to his child? And, in (partial) defense of Steve Sailer’s post, why wouldn’t it matter to Caplan’s wife that she would not share that “sublime bond” of genetic identity? If, as Caplan hopes, some stronger relationship between a clone and his or her genetic parent indeed would exist, then, all else being equal, wouldn’t Caplan feel a stronger connection with his own clone than with a clone of his wife, or with a child sharing both their genes? So when Mr. Munkittrick claims, “To somehow assume that a clone of Bryan Caplan would be ‘Bryan’s’ child while the other kids were both [his and his wife’s] is vulgar and preposterous,” doesn’t this mean that the assumption is in large part Caplan’s own?

The Unbearable Lightness of Cloning
What is the source of this tension? If Mr. Caplan thinks this relationship matters enough to motivate the pursuit of cloning, then why does Mr. Munkittrick defend Caplan on the grounds that the relationship doesn’t (or shouldn’t) matter at all? Striking as it is, this is a surprisingly common move in transhumanist argument. Consider the prevalence of defenses of enhancement that begin with words like, “But we already do/have x.” For example:

In defense of steroids in sports, the argument that we already enhance through better sporting equipment and training;
In defense of enhancing the brain by implanting computer chips, Ray Kurzweil’s argument, “We already do that now. If you are a Parkinson’s patient you can have a pea-size computer put in to replace the biological.”;
Or even in response to the general question, “[W]hy should public money be spent to produce an eventual race of posthumans?,” Kurzweil’s reply, “We already have people walking around who have computers in their brains”;
In defense of sex with robots: “We already have the ability to have sex with a variety of machines and to have sex in virtual environments”; etc.

The underlying pattern is to describe the potentially novel good of some new enhancement, but then rebuff potential criticism of that good by claiming that the enhancement actually won’t be very different from anything we already have. But this move towards and then back away from the difference and significance of an enhancement also undercuts the original positive arguments for it: In this case, if we have no evidence that cloning is cheaper or safer than other assisted reproductive technologies, and we’re also to believe that it is not morally different from other technologies in either its means or ends, then what reason do we have for pursuing it at all?


  1. I believe that you, Ms. Miller, and Marquardt paint with too broad a brush when you pose the (rhetorical) question, "If biology matters to parents,... why wouldn’t it also matter to children?"

    When a parent-to-be considers the prospect of having children (through any means), they don't make their choice based purely on feelings of 'closeness.' They also consider it through the lens of reproduction. Simply put, parenthood provides value for the parent through its deeply meaningful capacity to preserve some part of the parent through time. Much of this is memetic, that is, the preservation of values and worldviews, but a significant share is in the genetic data as well.

    Remember, this is not a reciprocated value for the children- it's one of the things that makes the parent/child relationship basically asymmetrical.

    Mr. Munkittrick may be just as guilty of imprecision, but that doesn't mean there is no defensible position here. Seen through the reproductive lens, one can justify value in reproductive choice for the parents without accepting a morally meaningful change in the position of the child.

  2. I wasn't arguing that there is no defensible position of cloning, simply that Mr. Munkittrick's defense of Bryan Caplan's argument undermines itself.

    You've presented a distinct defense of cloning, but it doesn't seem to stand up either. First of all, using the terms in which you've presented it, your argument only holds if reproduction is seen entirely through the "reproductive lens" of passing on values — yet you acknowledge from the outset that this is just one among many reasons people decide to have children.

    Second, while it's true that what's at stake in passing along values is different for parents than for children, it is not at all the case that there is a relationship in one direction but not the other, or that the parents' desires to pass along their values have no moral bearing on the lives of the children. (Have you seen The Godfather?)

    To get a little more philosophical about it, imagine a case in which a man decides to clone himself without any desire for "closeness" with the clone, but simply with the desire to create a person who is identical to himself not only in genetics, but also in personality and beliefs, ensuring the highest possible degree of "preservation of values and worldview." Is this not a valid decision under the rubric of "reproductive choice" that is nonetheless a profoundly "morally meaningful change in the position of the child"?

    The central point I'm getting at is not that cloning is indefensible (though there are other good reasons not presented here to think that it is), but that there's no way to defend it by arguing that it's good for parents but has no effect on the children. You're going to have to argue that it's good for the children too, or at least acceptable from a societal standpoint.


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