Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Clones and individuality

A study to be published in the journal Social Science and Medicine has concluded that human clones would have a sense of individuality. Which is so stunningly obvious that you wonder why they bothered to write a paper on it at all. Apart from the fact of being genetically identical to their donor, a human clone is an ordinary human being. And ordinary human beings tend to see themselves as individuals. Unless you're the sort of person who radically doubts other people's consciousness, and sees everyone around them as an unconscious zombie, there's really no reason to think that clones would be any different.

Unfortunately, far too many people's ideas about cloning seem to be set by bad 70's Science Fiction than the reality. There are reasons not to clone people at the moment - basically, we haven't figured out how to do it properly yet - but worries over individuality aren't one of them.


Identical twins are basically naturally occurring clones, and they generally don't seem to have a problem considering themselves as individuals.

Posted by Anonymous : 7/18/2006 05:33:00 PM

Issues of consciouness and zombiehood have nothing to do with whatever "seeing oneself as an individual" is all about. Full-person copies which reproduce all the memories and accumulated effects of nuture would be just as conscious etc. as anyone else etc. but would plausibly raise issues about individuality etc. (why should I care to warn you about that on-coming truck if I can instantaneously fabricate a full-person replacement for you? Why should you care if I do or do not? And so on). Such cases are a far cry indeed from the delayed identical twins that idealizations of contemporary cloning procedures promise (i/s's implicit good point) but (i) again, the difference has got nothing to do with consciousness/zombiehood (contrary to your sloppy bad point) and (ii) we don't in fact know (and it certainly isn't obvious) that, say, ramped up production of identical lines,say one of your genetic blueprint every week or month from here on out might not end up doing some of the same damage to senses of individuality that the full-person copies probably would. i/s's final remark that "worries over individuality" aren't appropriate is therefore utterly wrong-headed. The study i/s links to whose methodology consists of interviewing lots of identical twins and asking them their feelings about themselves is at best vindicates that cloniing at the rate of current identical twin production probablyy wouldn;t be a problem. But that's not the only case to consider.... I hope the full paper acknowledged the study's evident limitations...

Posted by Anonymous : 7/18/2006 05:38:00 PM

For the love of G*d, don't let this technology fall into Clark or Brash's hands. An eternal succession of them...

Then again, we could regain some useful All Blacks of the past.


Posted by Anonymous : 7/18/2006 06:38:00 PM

Stephen: the point I was trying to make by mentoning zombiehood wasn't about how clones would see themselves, but about how we see others. The reason we tend not to think everyone around us is a zombie is by induction - in the absence of explicit evidence to the contrary, we assume that other people have minds which are qualitatively pretty much the same as our own. They might not like chocolate, they might like George Bush or Don Brash, but (if you'll excuse the Cartesian theatre) generally the same sorts of things go on in their heads as go on in ours. And this pretty obviously covers a sense of individuality. If we bothered to stop and think about it, we would no more doubt that a random person on the street lacked a sense of individuality than we would doubt that they were conscious or could feel pain. But one of the problems with the cloning debate is that people don't stop and think about it, and instead reguritate crap from bad SF. Which is pretty much the category your fears over mass production fall into, BTW. Without wanting to get bogged down in the practicalities or anything else, the blunt fact there is that you would be producing people who were normal in every respect. Now, normal people can get psychologically fucked up by all sorts of things and in all sorts of ways, but I find it difficult to see how having a lot of other people with your genome around would do anything much at all - other than perhaps cause angst over who you could possibly have kids with.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 7/19/2006 01:45:00 AM

Thanks for the clarification... I don't think it's bad science fiction to worry about impacts of regularized mass production tho'.. You may be right that the only problem with having 100's of critters around with your genome but with different nurture start-dates would pose no more problems than a very large family would. But I'm not so sure that's so... particularly when you locate that possibility within wider cultural trends: people could sell rights to produce clones of themselves to companies - and then everyone can get themselves a cute Kidman-genome kid, etc.. Put that together with the almost inevitable clone bodies kept alive (perhaps with genes for cortical development damped somehow - a la some of the possible tech for future meat supply animals that won't raise animal rightsy concerns) for organs for you.... and what one starts to get - even without much in the way of science fiction really (no full-person copying etc) - is a kind of culture of multiplicity and instrumentality emerging to possibly replace a culture of individual uniqueness and non-instrumentality. I'm actually not *sure* that parents with four kids with the same genome only different start-dates, that they planned out in that way, wouldn't subtlely treat the first two say as throw-away drafts of some sort no matter how hard they treid. And if you imagine not that scenario but a a broader cultural shift emphasizing disposability/draft-hood, e.g.

"With life you get no dress rehearsal. With Better-Life(TM) you do. Clone your kids with us today not for a better tomorrow for your family but for a better family."

In general, then, I think it's at least possible that the whole complex of attitudes involved in being able to love and value each other in a very different way from the way we can value objects turns on the importance of seeing ourselves and others as importantly unique. Ordinary twins etc. are far too haphazardly produced to threaten any of that, and different nurture pulls them part almost immediately in any case so uniqueness is restored. But if you regularize even twin-production let alone genuine mass-production so that people can intelligibly start regarding the co-genetic as the same - one as the draft of the other that the parents are just practicing on (perhaps they don't kill the draft, or even just lobotomize it and keep its body alive for the spare parts for the good versions, they might just neglect it after a bit, channeling all important resources to the good version once they're sure they know what they're doing) then I think that uniqueness takes a serious hit and some pretty central aspects of ourselves could come unglued over a 100 years or so of that.

Section 4 of this paper of mine that came out last year has some noodling in this direction, inspired by SF, but usefully so I believe.

Posted by Anonymous : 7/19/2006 03:51:00 AM

Changing how conception occurs is not creating "mass production" of kids. For most of us conception is the easy bit.

I don't agree that cloning is properly thought of as "conception" - it's intentional non-conceptive, asexual reproduction isn't it? But set that aside...
I agree that natural resource limitations would probably minimize the number of cases of the exact sort I described. Not too many people can afford (on all sorts of levels) to raise 4 kids hence not 4 versions of one kid (even if they can all be genetically Nicole Kidman!). Still, a few people would, and after a general period of society getting used to the idea of thinking of individuals as particular year/month vintages of on-going budding genome-lines ("I recommend the August '99 Kidmans as particularly flavorful..."), I suspect that even the relatively poor would start to feel tempted if not to run genomes in parallel then at least to dispose of any kids they've screwed up in favor of a do-over with a new vintage. And the point is that sensibilities would have changed by then so either nobody would see anything wrong with that sort of do-over or, perhaps like elective abortion now, plenty of peoople would see something wrong with it, but lots wouldn't and everyone would admit and be impressed by the genetic zero-sum that ending the first draft and starting over would represent....

Your claim that parents might start treating some kids as "expendable" because of how they were conceived is silly in more ways than I can express.

Well you can *say* this and I hope you're right, but in general the more copiable/reproducible something is, the less valuable any particular instance of it is (Child insurance schemes covering the full replacement and rearing costs should your current version receive signifcant injury, mental or physical etc. could be offered.).

Your whole "what if they produce a new clone a month" argument is a straw man - who the hell is going to raise all those kids?

It would have to be someone pretty rich that's for sure! But the wider cultural impacts would be diverse I think and affect even the poorest. I don't think it's setting up a "straw man" to just think through the possibilities in some detail. Rather, it's focussing on a few possible bright sides (whatever they are - that we'll never run out of Kidman's? clone-body organ-banks?) in abstraction from wider contexts and considerations that's fundamentally made of straw I believe.

Parents of identical twins show no evidence of treating one as "expendable". Parents of adopted kids transcend genetics. Every analogy we can find fails to support your claims.

I think the unintentional (and non-repeatable, again) character of current twins etc. prevents them from driving any special worries about individuality, and the relevance of adopted kids escapes me (adopt-a-kidman-clone is part of my best-guess picture...). The best case for you, Icehawk, is humungous families: mustn't I be suggesting that people with 10-15 kids see a few as dispensable you might say?

Well...people in conditions of incredible scarcity (before 1800 in the west...half the world right now) do seem to see things exactly that way. You tend to have 15 kids when you are expecting to lose 1/3 of them to disease etc. and when you want to give yourself many chances in the lottery of having someone in the family "make it" and be able to come back and support the rest (And you maybe kill or sell a good few of your female kids when push comes to shove and resources are short...). Under those fairly normal conditions for human beings arguably one has rather little attachment to individuals, rather one is just treating kids like crops (many of which you expect to fail etc.) and as potential assets/surecs of labor not these grand burdens ("so much work...") you've described. Western living standards since about 1800 allow for entirely new standards of parenting and conceptions of strong individuality to evolve, perhaps reaching some sort of apex about now as fertility rates are sub-replacement.... Clone-culture stands some chance of being an important vector to reintroduce something that's related to the (horrifying) pre-modern conception in important respects but perhaps more damaging in other respects.

What's the genome got to do with it? Serious question. Are you *sure* that no parents of four kids do that now? Why are you sure?

I'm *not* sure, see above. And of course some people "really want a boy" and do their best to ignore their first two female children, and so on... people suck, it's true. Still, clones seem to change the game fundamentally, creating grand new ways for people to suck. What's the genome got to do with it? (Good pop song title BTW) Well, all sorts of people who wouldn't have the guts, as it were, to neglect a child who they think of rightly as being a completely new individual might feel considerably less compunction with what they see (and their culture also sees) as the practice version of the final version to be run 2 years later.

"People who care about their first draft kids? What a pack of pre-genetically-literate squares! Look at the calendar, it's 2050! Haven't you heard, individuality isn't a performance notion anymore? We're gene-tank armies-of-me now. Next you'll be insisting that music has to be played, rather than endlessly tinkered-with (and drafts thrown away) in the studio! What a luddite! What a pre-post-humanist prude...."

Posted by Anonymous : 7/19/2006 10:41:00 PM

Interesting. For some generations now, humans have been increasingly defying Darwinian evolution, become an essentially post-biological creature. Our gene pool is still subject to continued change.

In some aspects for the worse...defects that would not have survived youth now do, and propagate to the next generations. Yet at the same time, disparate and historically separate human genomic sub-types are increasingly mixing resulting in normally more robust offspring.

It is my intuitive feeling that at some point humans will have to take full charge of our genetic destiny. The random shufflings of our random matings will no longer be acceptable. What we think of as normal now, may at some future time be regarded as barbaric and backward. As we regard the trepanning practises of medieval doctors. The thought of this does not sit confortably with me. On the other hand one of my children was born with a major genetic defect...it is something you learn to accept...but not something you would wish upon anyone you love. The great sadness it causes me is that you can on close observation see that she is actually a perfectly normal person, with very normal human perceptions and feelings...but trapped in a body that perpetually betrays her. Yet I also can empathise with those who say we should not meddle in these things, that nature should be allowed to run it's course, that the genetically different should be accepted just as we accept other human diversity.

On balance I think that as we come to understand genetic technologies better, then the risks will be better managed, and our currently realistic apprehensions about it will diminish. The best analogy is electricity. At one time people feared it, lightening was a violent and dangerous thing, or a few very strange people meddled with strange jars that stored enough charge to draw a spark and mildly shock. Nowadays, we employ electricity ubiquitously. Our understanding of it has given us an unprecendented mastery, a fabulous tool that we no longer fear. Much the same I think will happen with genetics....with time we will master it and truly progress beyond the limits of evolution.

Posted by Anonymous : 7/19/2006 11:15:00 PM

So sorry to hear about your daughter... that sounds completely heart-breaking. I hope myself to be able to draw a line between gene-therapy and (yikes) the full-genome readouts on the unborn that will surely be routine in 20 years time and that'll allow parents to decide whether to continue pregnancies with micro-genetic issues (just as they currently do with the macro-genetic glitch that is Downs syndrome) on the one hand and duplication/clones on the other hand. But it ain't easy, and tales such as yours (and of friends of mine who have very very seriously autistic children, no language or toilet skills...) suggest that the trauma to some people's lives in this general area is *so massive* that for better or worse, as you suggest, we're going to err on the side of letting people try to control their own destinies by their own lights with any tool we can get to them, and just deal with wherever we collectively end up. Perhaps precisely because that seems certain to happen and what *that* means ultimately seems so radical I suspect that keeping the clone-genie in the bottle might be important. Since we ultimately *are* up for recoding ourselves and for direct genetic self-design we shouldn't want to press the generic/mutiplicity/stochasticization button too.

Again, so sorry to hear about your child. :(

Posted by Anonymous : 7/20/2006 12:12:00 AM