Some Misconceptions about Cloning, the Brain, and Immortality

by David L. Perry, Ph.D.

(Published in the San Jose Mercury News on 13 December 1999 under the title, "Genetic Engineering Gives Us Challenges, Not Immortality.")

It's a gutsy thing to predict what the coming century will portend for humanity, as Vinod Khosla attempted to do ("Voices of Our Time," San Jose Mercury News, 8 November 1999). But I fear that he left his readers with a number of misconceptions.

Khosla wrote, "We will really have to struggle in the next 100 years (though by 2100 this issue will be completely resolved) with the issue of what is a 'human being.'"

As Lee Silver points out in his book, Remaking Eden, our ability to alter the human genome does indicate that we'll have to rethink the meaning of "human being." But it also suggests that the issue is unlikely to be "resolved" cleanly, but will instead be subject to ongoing revision.

Moreover, even if we were to agree on a genetic definition of "human being," that wouldn't answer the more interesting question of which beings ought to have full moral status. Consider contemporary disagreements about whether early human embryos, permanently unconscious individuals, or some intelligent non-human critters like apes or dolphins ought to be treated as persons.

Khosla also wrote, "Since we will have clones, we will have the technology for eternal life . . . "

But that's simply not true. If I were cloned, my clone would be my (nearly) identical twin, but he would have his own mind/soul. It might be very much like my mind/soul, but it would not be identical to mine. I would still experience life through my body only.

Of course, people do speak of "living on" in a figurative sense through their children, and perhaps they will come to say that about their clones as well. But a belief in eternal life implies that we will continue to have conscious experience even after our bodies stop working. That's something that neither our children nor our clones can guarantee for us. Whatever happens to our minds/souls after death is irrelevant to whether we have children or clones.

Khosla continued, ". . . we will have the ability to duplicate every aspect of the human being to the point where even the closest relations of the 'original human' will be not be able to distinguish between the original and the 'Xerox copy.'"

Unlikely. Our genetic code changes in slight but important ways as we age, partly through random mutations in countless cell divisions. Thus my genetic code today--which might become the raw material for my clone--is not even a "Xerox copy" of the genetic code I had as an early embryo. And if my genetic code today were cloned, that code would undergo a different process of change in the developing clone, in part due to chemical interactions with the mother, who would not be the same woman as my mother. My clone would probably look a lot like me, but it wouldn't be my "Xerox copy." And it certainly wouldn't think or act exactly like me, since we would need identical brains to have identical minds, and its brain would be exposed to very different environmental influences than mine.

Khosla added, ". . . since the human brain with all its knowledge, behaviors, history and eccentricities will be completely downloadable and transportable in a network, the definition of the 'e-human' will be a big social issue."

First, it is doubtful that neuroscientists will be able by 2100 to replicate all of the physicial processes of the human brain. Khosla underestimates the enormous complexity of our brains, their myriad "wiring" permutations and chemical interactions.

Second, philosopher John Searle has argued convincingly that consciousness cannot simply be reduced to or explained by brain processes or information. Thus, even if we were able to replicate a brain or download (copy) its stored information, we wouldn't necessarily be able to replicate a mind. Nor would "downloading" the functional patterns of my brain necessarily allow my mind to be transferred, no matter how attractive that might become as my body ages! The entity that received such a download might gain a mind as a result, in which case it (he?) would deserve the same sort of moral respect that we grant human beings--a point hinted at by Khosla. But like a clone, its/his mind would be distinct from my mind.

In short, none of the technological advances to which Khosla points will be able to make human beings immortal. There are indeed profound questions emerging from our increasing knowledge of the human brain and genome, but for the most part they are not the questions that Khosla raises.

David Perry is Director of Ethics Programs at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and Lecturer in Religious Studies, Santa Clara University.  None of his views should be construed necessarily to represent those of the Ethics Center or SCU.

Go to Dr. Perry's CV.