Today the Los Angeles Times published my Op-Ed piece on cloning, as part of a "Perspectives on Cloning" that featured myself as "pro" and Patrick Dixon as "con." We were each given 750 words but did not see each other's piece first.

They posted it on the wire but here is a copy FYI.


P.S. We have received dozens of orders for the God debate tape so I wanted to let you know that they probably will not go out until next week with most of our staff out this week for the holidays.

A British Panel's Cloning Recommendation Tests the Moral Limits of Science

By Michael Shermer

In the climactic scene of Robert Wise's 1951 science fiction film classic, "The Day the Earth Stood Still," the space alien Klaatu (who goes by the earthly name "Mr. Carpenter" in this Jesus allegory), is killed by a fear-mongering government agency, then resurrected by his robot charge Gort.

Astonished by the power of this foreign technology, Patricia Neal's Mary Magdalene-like character inquires whether control over life and death is possible. Klaatu assures her that such powers belong only to the "Almighty Spirit," and that his life extension is good only "for a limited period" the duration of which "no one can tell." Telling indeed. In Edmund North's original script Gort resurrects Klaatu without limitation. But the movie industry's Breen Censorship Board told the producers: "Only God can do that."

This Promethean theme of limiting knowledge is a common one not only in science fiction, but in science fact. For every mythic Icarus who flew too close to the sun there are real life scientists who got their wings clipped for daring to push their frontiers too far. Birth control? Only God can do that. Life extension? Only God can do that. Euthanasia? Only God can do that.

We should not be surprised, then, that when a British government advisory commission last week encouraged the legalization of research into cloning human tissues and organs for therapeutic uses, they were met with fierce opposition from both religious and secular groups. Cloning? Only God can do that.

What precisely did this Human Genetics Advisory Commission recommend? From the Luddite wails of doom and gloom we heard, one would think they suggested a scheme of harvesting body parts from cloned adults, ala the film "Coma." On the contrary. The recommendations could not have been more cautiously worded: "we believe that it would not be right at this stage to rule out limited research using such techniques, which could be of great benefit to seriously ill people."

To technophobes who resist any venture into forbidden knowledge (while simultaneously partaking of every medical breakthrough that benefits them personally), such cautious forays into the future are the slippery slope into the scientistic hell where vultures will peck at us for eternity. But let's step back for a moment. What do we have to fear? The mass hysteria and moral panic surrounding cloning is nothing more than the historically common rejection of new technologies, coupled to the additional angst produced when medical advances fly too close to religion's sun. "Only God can do that" say the religious Luddites. "Only Nature can do that" cry the secular Luddites.

In fact, nature is already cloning humans. They're called twins. Why aren't moralists crying for legislation against twinning? Because it happens naturally, and according to the Law of Ludditism, "Only God/Nature can do that."

Nonsense! Most of us are alive because of medical technologies and social hygiene practices that have doubled the average life span in this century. What's Godly or natural about heart-lung transplants, triple bypass surgeries, vaccinations, or radiation treatment? What's Godly or natural about birth control and birth enhancement technologies? Absolutely nothing. Yet we cheerfully accept these advances because we have grown accustomed to them and, more importantly, we have benefited from them.

I propose that we lift the ban on all research into cloning--including humans--and see what happens. My hypothesis is that nothing evil will befall society. Most of the horror-laden scenarios proposed by moralists are already addressed by the law: a clone, like a twin, is a human being, and you cannot harvest the tissues or organs of a twin.

In 1818 Mary Shelley warned in her novel, "Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus," that "supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world."

The censors took her words to heart in the final cut of James Whale's 1931 film version starring Boris Karloff. In the riveting laboratory scene when the monster is brought to life, Dr. Frankenstein roars "It's alive. It's alive. In the name of God . . ." At that moment his lips keep moving but his voice disappears. The censors deleted the rest of the sentence -- the forbidden words that have frightened cultures from ancient Greece to modern America: "now I know what it feels like to be God."

Scientists don't want to be God. They just want to solve scientific problems. Only scientists can do that. Let them do it.

Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine (www.skeptic.com) and the author of Why People Believe Weird Things (W. H. Freeman, 1997).

Michael Shermer


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