The Clone Wars
Libertarians have long been critical of systematic distortions of science from the left. But just as censorship is the tribute tyranny pays to truth, distortion is the tribute paranoia pays to reason. In other words, when someone relies on even bad science, he implicitly admits the value of scientific discourse, and at least in principle, acknowledges that a better scientific argument could trump his own.
The current trend on the right is infinitely more dangerous, because it doesn’t merely warp science, it rejects science as a dangerous affront to nature. The intellectual version of this aversion comes from the likes of Francis Fukuyama, whose recent book Our Posthuman Future argues that biotechnology is a bigger threat to humanity than all the aerosol cans ever produced. The dumb version comes, unsurprisingly enough, from George W. Bush, who seems intent on banning anything that makes him squeamish. And lots of things make him squeamish. I’ll consider each set of arguments in turn.
People in the Fukuyama/George Will corner seem, ironically enough, to have adopted their own version of the environmental left’s “precautionary principle.” The principle states — and I’m caricaturing only slightly — that we should ban anything with an ugly worst-case-scenario, no matter how unlikely that scenario is, and without regard to the magnitude of the potential benefits. This is even more ludicrous when wielded by biotech opponents on the right than by environmental Cassandras. The latter at least have the prospect of ecological apocalypse to frighten us with. The best the former can muster to counter the prospect of conquering horrific illnesses are lame arguments like: “Fathers will get all hot for the nubile young clones of their wives,” and “Societies composed of people with 200-year lifespans will be too static and stodgy.” Well hey, why not emulate sci-fi classic Logan’s Run and terminate everyone over thirty? That would certainly stir things up. Our society would doubtless be as vibrant then as it was in the days before we started tampering with nature via such unholy life-extending concoctions as penicillin. There are, of course, real dangers of people accidentally harmed by genetic therapies. But it’s unclear how those therapies will be perfected if research is quashed in advance, if people are coercively prevented from taking risks.
The truly strange thing about arguments from this quarter, which seems to regard itself as deeply spiritual, is the level of genetic fetishism they display. In response to an argument offered by Virginia Postrel on her popular blog The Scene, National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru says that he rejects cloning not because “potential humans” have the same rights as actual humans (which would be a stupid argument: we don’t yet lock up “potential criminals”) but because a blastocyst “already is oneâ??itâ??s a member of the human species, and all humans are persons.” Huh? Why?
I can understand the arguments of pro-lifers who regard relatively developed embryos — say twenty weeks and on — as human. I am utterly baffled when the same claim is made about barely differentiated cells. To paraphrase Tina Turner, what’s species got to do with it? An alien robot which could communicate, make use of abstract concepts, and respect the dignity of other beings with the same capacities, would be no less entitled to rights than you or I. A genetic human without a brain, with lungs and heart kept pumping artificially, would have no more moral rights than a turnip. To suppose otherwise is to adopt the utterly strange view that moral value is an emergent property of protein base-pair strings. If that isn’t crass materialism, I don’t know what is.
Fukuyama makes the same error, though in a less palpably absurd way. He correctly observes that human rights are closely tied to human nature, but then associates that nature not with our capacity for reason, but with our genetic structure. Observing that women and minorities were finally granted rights on the basis of a common humanity, Fukuyama fears that new genetic minorities will be deprived those rights, seen as not-quite-human. But his own example produces an obvious rejoinder: our ancestors expanded the moral community because they realized that the very real genetic differences between races or genders were insignificant compared with the similarities in our minds. Why does he suppose that our descendants will be any less discerning?
If this is the “intellectual” part of the anti-cloning front, you can probably guess the quality of the dumb portion. Let’s go through a small snippet of Bush’s recent speech calling for a ban on experimental cloning for research purposes. Bush says: “Life is a creation, not a commodity.” At the risk of repeating myself: Huh? I wasn’t aware the two were mutually exclusive. Neither, I imagine, were farmers. Note to Bush’s speechwriters: soundbites are more effective when they make at least a little bit of sense on a second reading.
“Our children are gifts to be loved and protected, not products to be designed and manufactured.” First of all, this is an utterly disingenuous thing to say in opposition to “therapeutic” or “research” cloning, which has nothing to do with designing or manufacturing children. But it’s much more bizarre than that, because I can’t think of a more effective way of loving and protecting children (or adults) than attempting to grant them longer lifespans, to spare them the disabilities caused by serious genetic defects, and to develop treatments for the ailments they may develop later in life. Apparently, Bush’s idea of “protecting” and “loving” people entails condemning them to suffering and premature death. I hope he never decides to turn his idiosyncratic form of affection my way.
“Allowing cloning would be taking a significant step toward a society in which human beings are grown for spare body parts, and children are engineered to custom specifications; and thatâ??s not acceptable.” First of all, it would be perfectly acceptable (assuming the bodies were grown without full brains), and Bush never offers any reason beyond his personal sense that it’s icky to think otherwise. But even you share Bush’s ick-response, his statement is misleading. Growing brainless bodies for their organs would be a monstrously inefficient way of going about it: by the time such a thing were a real possibility, it would almost certainly be equally possible to just grow the individual organs. More importantly, the premise that not banning therapeutic cloning would somehow lead to unrestricted cloning is thoroughly risible. Not all “slippery slope” arguments are fallacious, of course. The creeping expansion of state power has been this century’s most obvious Crisco-coated incline. But surely future politicians will be as capable as Bush (alas!) of maintaining a ban on reproductive cloning, even if theraputic cloning is allowed. Perhaps he’s afraid that once people see the tremendous benefits produced by biotechnology, improving and saving lives will suddenly seem a whole lot more important than the “ick factor.”
IF YOU AGREE THAT SUPRESSING SCIENCE IS BAD POLITICS, ADD YOUR NAME TO THIS PETITION!