Scottish scientists have cloned a sheep named Dolly. Wouldn't it have been funnier if they had cloned a llama named Dolly? I guess it just didn't occur to them. I swear to God that scientists are funny people. You just have to get to know them first. I remember one day in the lab, I was loading extracts onto the Kuderna-Danish apparatus when my supervisor came in to ask me something. I pointed to the apparatus and said, "Please! Can't you see I'm trying to concentrate?" That was so funny we almost laughed! Both of us just stood there for several seconds, almost laughing.

Was I talking about cloning--that spooky, creepy, monster-movie technology that is controlled by a bunch of cyborg eggheads who have no contact with real human beings and who are likely to try to misuse the incalculable power of nature to wreak revenge on all the kids who mistreated them in high school? Actually, no, I was talking about cloning--the technology that humans have been practicing for thousands of years."

A clone is an organism that is genetically identical to its parent. Tobacco plants are routinely propagated from individual parent cells. If you have ever propagated a houseplant by rooting a cutting, you have essentially created a clone. If you have ever dug up a piece of a hop vine rhizome to plant in your garden, or if you have ever planted asparagus crowns, or if you have ever cut a piece of grape vine and rooted it in a glass of water, you have created a plant genetically identical to its parent. The same thing happens when you cut up a potato and plant the eyed sections. If you have ever propagated daffodils by dividing the bulbs, what you have is an organism genetically identical to its parent. Clones one and all.

I suppose there could be distinctions drawn defining a clone as an organism arising from a single cell, but that distinction is really irrelevant to my argument. We've been creating what amount to clones for thousands of years. The only difference now is that somebody has done it with a mammal and so we can see that we could do it to ourselves. The technology is getting a little close to home now. And now we ask what humans have always asked when confronted with the unknown.

"What's going to happen to MEEEEEEEEE?"

Nothing, really. True, we're monkeying around with a powerful technology comparable to the atomic bomb, and if misused it could exterminate the human race; but to you individually, nothing bad is going to happen to you in the immediate future due to cloning.

Exterminate the human race, did I say? Yup. But we have to be really really stupid and make all the right mistakes in the right order. And I notice that the government has convened a commission to make recommendations concerning the regulation of cloning technology. Yeah, that'll work. The wise and mighty beltway gang is going to keep us safe. Mind you, these are the same guys who can't balance the federal checkbook, so if you feel doomed now, well, you were just as doomed yesterday.

Nobody seems to have noticed that we have a long history of manipulating the genes of God's creations. Obviously, the almighty being infinitely old, is getting a little dotty and we had to make adjustments to his handiwork. Cloning technology is just one new tool our civilization can use in its ongoing revision of its inventory of domesticated plants and animals. Where interbreeding and hybridization and the like allow us to mix, enhance or diminish traits, thus changing a species; cloning allows us to propagate creatures while eliminating the possibility of changing the species. A species with a rare-but-desirable trait could be propagated cheaply and easily without the necessity of generations of breeding to eliminate traits which would mask the desired trait.

Suppose you notice one of your sheep has purple wool and you want to raise a whole flock of purple sheep. The old way, you have to breed the purple ewe with a normal ram and hope that at least one of the offspring is purple. Then you breed the offspring with other sheep and keep records and work out a lot of probabilities and statistics to help you guess when and where a purple sheep is likely to arise. It could take you ten or more sheep generations before you achieved your flock of Highland Purples.

With cloning, you get your purple flock in a year or so.

Genetic manipulation is complicated and unpredictable. Cloning is the opposite. With cloning you know in advance, with absolute precision, the result of your work. No mystery. No monsters. No mutants. The best surprise is no surprise. Gee whiz, sounds like there's no downside. What's all this doom and gloom, then that I was talking about before? Did I or did I not say something about the possible extermination of the human race?

Look at the record of our handiwork and you'll see the downside. Our milk cows are fragile monsters. Our breeding experiments have twisted their genes in such a way that the produce vast quantities of milk, much much more than they need to feed their own offspring, so much in fact that they have to be milked regularly to avoid health problems. Good for us, bad for them. We have engineered them into biological robots that produce milk. Any animal qualities they retain from their wild ancestors are incidental to our requirements. They are no longer proper animals. Most of our domesticated species could not survive and indeed many can not even procreate without the assistance of humans. As animals, our domesticated species are more often than not pathetic, doomed species who live only so long as human agri-industry requires that they live.

The principle that works against our domesticated animals is genetic diversity, or the lack of it in this case. In our eagerness to bring desired traits to the surface, we breed animals with their close relatives. This practice, while achieving the desired effect, also allows for the expression of less desirable recessive traits. Go to a fancy dog show and ask the dog-owners about the congenital health problems associated with each breed. You'll be convinced.

Let's go back to the purple sheep example. Wouldn't you be tempted to breed the purple ewe with a brother in hopes of increasing the chances of getting a purple offspring? Wouldn't you then be tempted to breed the siblings of that mating with one another in your eagerness to get the valuable purple sheep? Don't lie to me, you greedy bastard. You're darned tootin' you'd do it. The practice of cloning reduces that temptation.

So that means cloning is good right?

As with most things, that means cloning is good and bad. What happens when animal breeders, answering what they believe to be the demands of the market, raise herds made entirely of clones? And what if agri-industry eventually settles on a small number of "ideal" clone varieties. For example, what if they have one ideal clone milk cow and only one ideal clone beef steer. You might have a heard of clone beef cattle stretching to the horizon, but the genetic diversity of that herd is zero. Suppose a bovine disease comes sweeping across the country. In a genetically diverse population, the individuals will have varying degrees of resistance to the disease. In your clone population, they're either all resistant or all not resistant to the same degree. They'll either all die or all not die. And if your herd dies, all you have to replace it with is more identical clones, which will be just as unanimous in their vulnerability.

This is an extreme example for the sake of illustration; but even if agri-science settles on twenty or thirty clone varieties of beef cattle, it's still too many eggs in too few baskets. From the standpoint of genetic diversity, that would be the equivalent of having a population of only twenty or thirty individuals. A population biologist will tell you that ain't enough. Such a practice could reduce the national herd to a small handful of gene sets and put us at grave economic risk even to the point of famine.

Can't happen here, you say? Well, if it happened in Ireland it can happen here. The potato famine provides an excellent model of a disease wiping out a handful of vulnerable clone species. If every potato sprout in your field is the identical twin of every other potato sprout in your field, and that's the way it's always been done, each plant has the same strengths and the same weaknesses. Science's answer is to coat our potatoes in poison. That works well enough, but by choosing that solution we just create another man-dependent species and raise the cost of raising our crops, not to mention the fact that our food is as a matter of routine COATED WITH POISON (damn it). Makes work for us environmental chemists, though.

Taking the ultimate step and cloning ourselves is a huge error in judgement and such a sin will be punished by mother nature. Cloning a species halts the mechanism by which evolution operates. A reliance on cloning as a method of reproduction eliminates a population's ability to respond to changes in environment. A clone population of anything will not be able to to respond to evolutionary pressure, changes in climate, plagues, what have you. Only "wild" human populations and their mutts and wolves will survive the next ice age. Clone human populations genetically optimized to live in air conditioned windowless buildings will die off along with their toy poodles.

Anyway, that's how the matter stacks up. Cloning can be a valuable economic tool, but the human tendency to overdo a good thing and our eagerness to "maximize" everything in sight makes cloning a dangerous technology. Consider our food production and distribution infrastructure. Look at the way American business relies on communications satellites which are completely beyond their control. Look how our energy needs come from centralized plants through distribution bottlenecks. We are likely to do the same thing with cloning. It has in the past been in our nature to create optimal-but-fragile conditions and make ourselves dangerously dependent on those conditions.

Let's think really hard before we do that to ourselves at the reproductive level.


Matters Literary | Arkansas Traveler's home page