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.