Golly, Dolly! It's the abolition of man

February 26, 1997|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON -- Well, hello, Dolly. What are we to make of you, now that we have made you? And what are we to make of us?

In Scotland, a sheep named Dolly has been manufactured -- literally, made by hand. Dolly is the result of the first cloning of an adult mammal. If one is now enough for multiplication, does this mean that there no longer is any endangered species? Or does it mean that humans are uniquely endangered?

Dolly is genetically identical to the one parent -- if that is the right word -- from which it was cloned.

The word ''parent'' is problematic. It does not quite fit the sheep which was merely an incubator for the embryo engineered elsewhere and then inserted into her. So the word ''parent'' here denotes, if anything, another adult sheep, the one that was the sole source of Dolly's genetic material. But that parent is sort of the sibling of its identical-twin offspring, Dolly. Golly.

Such ambiguities will trouble only unusually thoughtful sheep. However, the featherless bipeds called human beings have the kind of consciousness that causes them to wonder about themselves: Given what we are, how ought we behave?

Now, what if the great given -- a human being is the product of the union of a man and a woman -- is no longer a given? The news from Scotland could have immense consequences for mankind's moral life -- for thinking about ''ought'' propositions.

The biotechnology of cloning turns out to be remarkably simple, meaning it is accessible to scientists with training that is not especially recondite. And apparently there is no practical impediment to cloning the human animal. If freedom is the silence of the law, Americans are free to try it. And the bioethical code adopted by European nations, forbidding genetic experiments that would alter human generations, will inhibit only the conscientious.

"Our bodies, our choices"

The news from Scotland gives the slogan ''our bodies, our choices'' an interesting new dimension. And a society that couches every issue in the language of individual rights (as in the right of ''choice'' concerning ''reproductive freedom'') may have difficulties, now that narcissism and megalomania, two recurring human attributes, have a new avenue of expression: Make me my heir.

This subject is an invitation to playful imagining that soon turns serious. Imagine five Michael Jordans playing five other Michael Jordans. But, then, what makes him him is not just his genetic material but his competitive character, his fierce integrity. How much of character is genetically influenced or determined? The nature vs. nurture argument continues. As the twig is bent: Would a cloned Jordan be Jordan without whatever it was about his family, and about North Carolina, that helped young Michael become the man?

And what about the soul? Is there such a thing? Is there a ghost in the machine, or only a machine? Are they right who say, ''I do not have a body, I am a body?''

Mankind, a k a Homo Technologicus, is making progress, in the form of sheep and other animals with immense potential for agricultural, medicinal and other scientific advancements. But at what moral hazard? Twenty-five years ago Professor Leon Kass of the University of Chicago said much that now urgently needs resaying.

In his essay ''Making Babies: The New Biology and the 'Old' Morality,'' Mr. Kass noted that technological corollaries to the pill -- babies without sex -- involve not just new ways of beginning life but new ways of understanding and valuing life. Connections with parents, siblings and ancestors are integral to being human, although not to being a sheep. Can individuality, identity and dignity be severed from genetic distinctiveness, and from belief in a person's open future?

Suppose a cloned Michael Jordan, age 8, preferred the violin to basketball? Is it imaginable? If so, would it be tolerable to the cloner? Imagine the emotional distress of a cloned person with foreknowledge of powerful genetic predispositions, psychological or biological.

Cloning, like eugenics generally, would produce, as C.S. Lewis wrote, ''one dominant age . . . which resists all previous ages most successfully and dominates all subsequent ages most irresistibly.'' This is not the ''conquest of nature,'' it is (to take the title of Lewis' book) the abolition of man, because humanity is supposed to be an endless chain, not a series of mirrors.

When Hiroshima occasioned anxious talk about the dangers of physics, Einstein replied that the world was more apt to be

destroyed by bad politics than bad physics. Dolly raises the stakes of biology, but also of philosophy.

9- George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 2/26/97

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