Seeing Double Triple: cloning

Brenda Cooper @ 30-06-2009

Welcome to the second instalment of Today’s Tomorrows here at Futurismic. I am entirely too busy lately, and I could use at least ten more hours in every day… or maybe a copy of myself. So that’s the way I stalked this month’s topic: Cloning.

As usual, I’ll start off with current news, then I’ll talk about what I expect in the future, and go on to explore the topic in science fiction.

The most recent headline-level news is about five cloned puppies. They are clones of a dog who helped search for survivors in the aftermath of 9/11 in New York City, cloned by BioArts International as the result of a contest to fine the most “cloneworthy” dog. In pictures, the contest-winner looks ecstatic. On a personal level, I totally understand this; there are a few dogs I’d love to have at my side again. Of course, cloning is really simply starting with same raw material, and does not bring back the dead. But the emotional pull here is powerful.

A few months ago, the world’s first cloned camel appeared in Dubai. It’s not a stretch for a culture that builds islands and erects phenomenal buildings to also clone valuable animals. The ironic bit here is that the cloned camel, Injaz, is a clone of an animal that was slaughtered for her meat a few months ago. Which leads us to news from this week about a general dust-up in the press since EU ministers are possibly allowing cloned animals into the food supply. I guess I’m hopeful none of them will be Injaz.

In yet more 2009 news, the extinct Ibex was cloned. Not quite as hard as Jurassic Park, but I’ve heard quite a bit of buzz about cloning other extinct species, including beasts frozen in icebergs for centuries.

Also in this year’s news, there has been talk of illicit human cloning. And on a more licit front, work proceeds in many venues on human organ cloning. One basic idea here is that if I need a kidney or some bone marrow, getting it by taking some of my genetic material and growing my own organ gets around the complications of acceptance and lifelong drug therapy associated with donated organs. More controversial, other experiments proceed on what boils down to organs grown in test tubes. Vat of kidneys, anybody? On the even weirder search for more organs via cloning, we have interspecies organ transplant preparations underway. With the unexpected by-product of rather cute mini-pigs.

Cloning is a definite hot potato on the social ethics front. Almost every article I found was negative, or at best, carefully neutral, when discussing human cloning. The mix is no better when discussing cloned food animals. It gets brighter, but still gray at best, when talks revolve around pet animals. Overall, research of opinion articles leads to a strong sense of a wary public, complete with fringe elements who might just get violent about the topic. We need a lot more discussion about this before we’re ready to do anything more complex than the occasional cute puppy cloning. However, I’m pretty sure we won’t have enough time to talk this through. I’m fairly sure that human cloning has either already happened, or is at least already being attempted in more than one venue. I mean, you gotta wonder where those nearly identical North Koreans who march in step so well come from, right?

Well, no. Not yet. If there are human clones, they probably aren’t adults. Cloning is only slightly compelling as a science. It’s difficult. Back in 2001, Greg Bear wrote an excellent article for us at Futurist.com titled, “Why Clones Fail – It’s Hard to Make a Human.”

This isn’t next year’s news in a big way – more like the articles I’ve produced above. But in a decade? By then we may have cloned rabies-resistant dogs in China (beats the current practice of clubbing healthy dogs in fear of rabies hands-down), the ability to clone our own pets for a fee more like a few thousand dollars (which is what we pay top breeders now), and maybe the first few limited organ transplant capabilities. That’s what will be in the open anyway. I think we will be cautious about legal permission for human cloning for a long time, and I suspect that’s a good thing.

So what has science fiction had to say? Well, I guess we can start with the whole Clone Wars bit in Star Wars – it’s been on the big screen for a long time. In fact, it’s pretty much been everywhere; we’ve enjoyed writing about cloned humans for a long time because it’s such delicious ground for human social commentary. Remember Brave New World? This is one of our great warning books, standing beside 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 as science fiction which has passed into mainstream ownership and affected how we think about certain topics for years.

One more contemporary work worth looking at is David Brin’s Kil’n People. Brin’s dittos aren’t quite clones, but he’s examining a lot of the actual issues we’ll need to look at about human cloning and consciousness.

SF starlet Mary Robinette Kowal has a newly-minted and tender cloning story, “The Consciousness Problem,” in the August 2009 issue of Asimov’s. It’s well worth a read. I read it at a workshop a while back, and just re-read it a moment ago. It’s so good that I planned to have this article coincide with its release. Bless Sheila Williams for choosing to drop it in early in my series, since cloning is a pretty fascinating topic.

So, chime in. What are your favorite cloning stories? What current science issues did I miss? This topic could fill a book, so I know this is a scratch at the surface at best.

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3 Responses to “Seeing Double Triple: cloning”

  1. Sharon E. Dreyer says:

    Cloning is and always will be a subject of great debate. Are we trying to “play God” or are we simply trying to improve life for the human race? Great article that causes one to contemplate cloning more closely. Check out my first and recently released novel, Long Journey to Rneadal. This exciting tale is a romantic action adventure in space and is more about the characters than the technology.

  2. George C. says:

    Hmmmm. Other than cloning organs, or growing (presumably) braindead clones for organs, it seems to me most cloning would be done for sentiment. I want my dog back, or my cat, or my kid. That last one raises some sticky issues. It’s not the same kid, but it is a second chance to raise that child. Here’s another side of it — suppose someone offers to buy someone’s genes because they want a kid who’s a genius at (whatever). This is only a few steps beyond the genius sperm bank idea.

    I suspect you may be right about human cloning being already done or in process. All that’s needed is money and privacy, and plenty of people have both. Again, though, it would have to be a matter of sentiment.

    Clone food animals? Why bother? Is one animal that much better than the next? There are easier, cheaper ways to create food animals. We’ve been doing it for a very long time. Would cloning be better? I suspect not.

  3. Brenda Cooper says:

    We humans seem to like to do science to prove we can. So that might be an additional driver to sentiment. The cloning to resurrect extinct species is interesting.
    Dubai appears to be cloning camels to recreate animals that did well at their tasks, but I’m a bit of a skeptic there. Good breeding programs generally create healthier animals than cloning does based on articles I’ve skimmed. I don’t know if anyone has done good science about that.