I’m My Own Grandpaw

In addition to cribbing my schtick about Punxatawney Yasser on Thursday (it was probably a case of great minds thinking alike…), normally-sensible James Taranto went off on a rant yesterday–he seems to be a Kassian queasitarian.

On one issue, however, Fukuyama is right and the libertarians are nuts. That issue is reproductive cloning, the manufacture of babies that are genetically identical to an already living human being. Libertarians pooh-pooh objections to reproductive cloning on the grounds that, as blogger Josh Chafetz suggests, a clone is no different from an identical twin.

But this is fatuous. A pair of identical twins are siblings, equally situated toward each other. By contrast, if a man clones himself, he is the “father” to his clone, responsible for his care and upbringing. Libertarians say there’s no need to outlaw reproductive cloning because it’s unlikely very many people will want to practice it. That’s probably true, but those who would are probably those we would least want to. After all, what kind of egomaniac wants to raise a carbon copy of himself?

Well, that might be true. But the fact that some of us don’t think that someone would make a good parent hasn’t, heretofore, resulted in state sanctions against it. Mr. Taranto is entitled to his opinion as to whether people who want to clone are definitionally unfit parents, but I can’t see any basis in law for it.

To understand what’s wrong with reproductive cloning, consider the proscription against incest–a remarkably resilient taboo, having survived the sexual revolution unscathed. Even libertarians, who defend the right of consenting adults to do everything from prostitution to polygamy and snorting coke to freezing dead relatives’ heads, have never, so far as we know, championed a man’s “right” to sleep with his adult daughter.

Well, actually some have…

And what’s his problem with freezing dead relative’s heads? Why is it all right to burn them, or let them rot, but not freeze them? Oh, I know. It makes him “queasy.”

Incest horrifies us because it violates the boundaries that define the most fundamental human relationships, those on which both social cohesion and individual happiness depend. The relationship between parent and child, or brother and sister, is fraught enough without introducing the elements of sexual possessiveness and jealousy that a love affair entails. If children result from an incestuous union, the family tree becomes a horrific tangle, in which parents are also aunts, uncles or grandparents.

No, James.

Incest horrifies us because we’ve been bred to have it horrify us. It’s called an evolutionary adaptation. For the reasons you state, but more importantly, for reasons of the probability of genetic unhappiness resulting from inbreeding, those earlier humans (and their non-human ancestors) who mated with siblings, parents, and children were less successful than those who didn’t. The folks (and pre-folks) with a natural repugnance to incest had a better chance of passing on their genes, so most people (and other animals) alive today have a more-or-less strong version of that genetic trait.

The implication of this is that a natural revulsion developed in more natural times might not necessarily be valid in the modern world, in which we have more control over our genetics, just as religious dietary proscriptions developed by nomadic desert peoples might have little utility in a world of health inspectors and refrigeration.

Feelings are generally just our genes’ way of getting us to do what they want us to. We’ve overcome them in the past (by, for example, teaching that rape is wrong and developing systems of morality in general), and there’s nothing holy about the anti-incest feelings, or anti-cloning feelings, either. We have to evaluate the morality of it in the context of our value system–we cannot just “go with our gut.”

Cloning raises a similar set of problems. Suppose a couple decide to produce a “son” by cloning the husband. Who are the resulting child’s parents? The man and his wife, who are raising the child? Or the man’s parents, whose coupling produced the boy’s genes? Suppose instead of cloning himself, the man clones his father. Suddenly he’s his own grandpa.

Now he’s confusing two separate concepts–genetics and legality.

Many people have legal children who share none of their genes (it’s called adoption). Many people have people who share some or all of their genes for whom they have no legal responsibility whatsoever (e.g., identical twins, or an anonymous sperm donor). Certainly the law is going to have to catch up here, as it did with things like surrogate motherhood, or in-vitro fertilization, but surely he’s joking if he thinks that a man cloning his father, and raising the son, literally makes him a legal grandfather of himself.

Parentage and responsibility to raise children is determined not solely by genetics, but by intent and action. Mr. Taranto needs to untangle these concepts in his mind before he’ll be able to discourse on them usefully.

If that’s not enough to make you queasy, consider this scenario: A 30-year-old couple produce a “daughter” who is a clone of the wife. Two decades pass, the girl grows up, and her middle-aged “father”–with whom she has no genetic kinship–suddenly finds himself face to face with a young woman who is not just hauntingly similar but identical to the woman with whom he fell in love when he was young.

No, not literally identical. Even identical twins aren’t literally identical, in the sense that there are no physical or personality differences between them. Genes aren’t a blueprint–they’re a recipe. The cook (in this case the environment of the womb, and the environment in which the child is brought to maturity) can have a lot of influence over the final product, even if the recipe is followed. Twins are identical because they are produced identically. But it would be surprising (at least to me) if a child bred in a different womb, and raised by different parents in different times, would be the same person as her genetically-identical mother. I don’t know about Mr. Taranto, but I fall in love with people for much more than their physical attributes.

But even it she were literally identical, it is certainly fodder for an entertaining soap opera, but assuming that a woman is foolish enough to engage in such an endeavor with her husband, why should the state prohibit it? I still await an answer other than the state of Mr. Taranto’s stomach.

Reproductive cloning is a monstrous proposition, for reasons that have little to do with the debates over genetic engineering and over the cloning of embryos for medical research. Responsible advocates of scientific progress would do well to be relentless about making this distinction.

I agree that the distinction should be made–there are certainly vastly different ethical issues involved in the two cases. But I simply fail to see it as the intrinsic monstrosity that Mr. Taranto does. Now I suppose that I’ll make him queasy.

But the fact remains that, when the state chooses to interfere with people’s freedom, we need a more compelling reason than “yuck.” I haven’t yet heard one from either Mr. Taranto, or Professor Kass.