The psychology of cloning

Updated Thursday, 3rd August 2006
Richard Stevens, senior lecturer (previously head) of the Department of Psychology at The Open University, considers cloning from the psychological perspective

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Richard Stevens

Cloning is a very curious issue that people get so uptight about. In a sense, the whole process of reproduction is a kind of cloning - it's just that you're mixing the genes of two people, and with cloning you're not doing that - you're just having the genes from one person. So it doesn't seem to me particularly striking in a way.

People's fears seem to me rather unjustified and I think a lot of the fears around cloning stem from the inappropriate or mistaken notion that somehow one is cloning the person you are as an adult which is of course not the case at all. All you're doing is passing on your genetic make-up, and all those features which make you into a human being - a complex function of interactions between your genetic potential and environmental influence, through the course of your lifetime - they're not going to be part of that cloning process.

You're only going to have the basic genetic make-up, which is hardly that different from giving to a child a shuffling of genes from two parents.

So, from a psychological, standpoint cloning doesn't seem to me to raise that dramatic an issue. It might possibly raise issues from a biological standpoint because of course sexual reproduction has all sorts of advantages and has had advantages in evolutionary terms. It avoids in-breeding of various kinds.

I think sexual reproduction gives a lot more diversity - at least the genotypical mixtures that are around among individuals. So there may be problems on that score, but I don't really see it's a fundamentally radical step.

Cloning to me is not a big deal, it's not a big issue. It was quite an exciting thing when it was done from a technical point of view, but from a moral point of view and a practical point of view I don't think it's that relevant.

Why do we react so strongly against the idea of cloning?

Well, I think people often have the wrong notion of what cloning means. They think of it as reproducing someone like themselves after twenty or whatever years which is not the way it's going to be. All that's being reproduced here is your genotype, not your phenotype, not the person you've actually become. So I think, the reason people react strongly to it, is because they don't really understand it.

When they grow up, could they potentially be very similar to the adult they were cloned from - could they have the same addictive traits, for example?

Well you have that situation with identical twins now anyway. I mean identical twins are clones essentially and because identical twins are concurrent, they're actually the same age and subjected to fairly similar environments. They'd be in the same historical periods, the same cultural context, maybe the same family. So, identical twins would, if you like, represent an extreme place of cloning and I don't think anyone who's an identical twin thinks it's a major problem. In fact, one may often argue there are certain advantages in being an identical twin, and having that kind of closeness that can come from that relationship.

So again I don't think that there's a radical new issue coming in here with cloning, except in so far as people misunderstand what cloning is. If they really understand what cloning is, it doesn't seem to me that radical a shift.

What do you feel about the notion that someone who's been cloned wouldn't have a soul?

Well that's nonsense. This is what I mean about the misunderstandings. First of all, I'm not sure about this notion of soul - if anyone has a soul. But, if people do have souls, I see no reason why a cloned person shouldn’t have a soul. I mean, we're not talking about anything radically new, we're just saying that you would have a genotype coming from one person, rather than in the normal case of sexual reproduction, genotypes from two individuals and a mixture or shuffling of genes. So, if there's any souls involved, you're still going to get the souls from the one genotype. You don't require two parents to get a soul, even if there is such a thing as a soul.

Can you see a time in the future when people are going to give up having children through natural methods - a time when people go down to the clinic to get their baby, to choose the characteristics of their future child?

It would be very deleterious if they did so because it is the whole feature of sexual reproduction which is extraordinary and the reason why it has been selected for in evolutionary terms is because of its production of individual diversity. Every child is utterly unique because it represents a novel shuffling of genes, even when they're siblings. It's a new shuffling from the genes of the two parents. If you are cloning, you're not getting that, you're not introducing that diversity. So I wouldn't have thought that many people would elect this method, unless you're extremely narcissistic and thought you had genetic qualities that no other individual possessed, or was likely to possess. And if they did choose to have a child this way, on a small scale it would make very little difference. On a large scale it could make a radical difference because there's a great value in producing the diversity that comes from sexual reproduction.

What would it be like to know that diseases could be stopped through stem cell therapy and fears of illness eradicated?

I don't know the technicalities of this but if we take this as a hypothetical scenario, well, that'd be very nice I guess. There might be an increased life span. Or, because you might eradicate illness, you may still have the normal life span, it just means that more people would attain that life span. The fact that more people attain the life span means of course you're going to get an increased population density, which is already an enormous problem that the world faces. It's doubling in twenty seven years now when it used to take two thousand years to double or longer.

This is a radical problem facing humanity at the moment and this would obviously exacerbate that problem. If you then say if the stem cell therapy can actually increase longevity, which there's some evidence that at least certain forms of genetic interference may do, then you introduce radical new issues. There's a lovely book by Tom Kirkwood called Time of Our Lives and he has a little fictional scenario at the end of that which is set in the future where you can live as long as you like essentially. The system that they developed was if you decide to have a child, you may be allowed to have one child, if you have more than one child, you then have to opt to die, voluntarily, in order to take yourself out of the system. There are various rituals associated and attached to that, and it’s a very interesting notion. But, clearly, some kind of social mechanism would need to come in to counteract that.

Is there any real danger that someone could take advantage of human cloning to create an elite?

People are creating elites all the time. I actually do think genetic factors play a very substantial role in determining what people's behaviour and capacity is like. But nevertheless, it's quite clear that environmental influences also play a very major role in a complex interactive process. At the moment we have every capacity to interfere with the environmental influences, and people do create an elite in this way by sending their children to the right kind of schools, by giving their children the right kind of advantages. And of course there are always people who can break through that pattern but nevertheless it's a problem for society.

Is it morally wrong to pursue this type of research?

Interesting question. I think the issue is whether or not you apply it and the restrictions from regulations around applying it. I can't see that, at this stage, and I wouldn't personally want to say it was morally wrong to pursue it, but I do think it's worth keeping an eye on it, and it's worth thinking about what kind of restrictions may be necessary. I think in the immediate moment there's not really an issue. We're anticipating what might happen in thirty or forty years’ time really.

Is it ethical to destroy embryos?

To take cells from embryos and to use them for therapeutic purposes is a totally different issue from either cloning or from genetic engineering. It may be a form of cloning, but it seems to me quite a legitimate one, because it's a partial form which in a sense is to rectify anomalies rather than to create special advantages for people. I guess that's what it's mostly used for isn't it, to avoid diseases of various kinds. Presumably the embryos used would not be maturing into individuals anyway. I don't think there's anything particularly sacred over human tissue.

Some people do regard the destruction of embryos as morally wrong, but I personally wouldn't regard human tissue as any more sacred than tissue from other mammals, for example chimpanzees. What becomes sacred I think is the individual, when the individual's created, but until the individual's created, just the tissue itself seems to me neither here nor there. Any more than giving one's blood - in a sense you're giving something sacred but it's quite easy to give that without a problem."




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