Cloning: another dunk, another concerto

April 10, 1997|By Jean Bethke Elshtain

"HELLO DOLLY!'' trumpeted USA Today to welcome the era of sheep cloning. The fetching ewe staring at us in a front-page color photo looks perfectly normal and not terribly exercised about her historic significance. That she is the child of no one will probably not haunt her nights and days.

But we -- we humans -- should be haunted, by Dolly and all the Dollies to come and by the prospect that others will appear on this earth as the progeny of our omnipotent striving, our yearning to create without pausing to reflect on what we are simultaneously destroying.

A few nights ago, I watched the Chicago Bulls. Michael Jordan performed one of his typically superhuman feats, an assist that suggested he had eyes in the back of his head and two sets of arms. To one citizen who called a local radio program, the prospect of ''more Michael Jordans'' made the ''cloning thing'' not only palatable but desirable. ''Can you imagine a whole basketball team of Michael Jordans? he asked giddily.

Unfortunately, I can. It's a nightmare. If there were basketball teams fielding Jordans against Jordans, we wouldn't be able to recognize the one, the only, Michael Jordan. It's like suggesting that 40 Mozarts are better than one. There would be no Mozart if there were 40 Mozarts. We know the singularity of the one, the extraordinary genius -- a Jordan, a Mozart -- because they stand above the rest. Absent that irreducible singularity, their gifts and glorious accomplishments would mean nothing. They would be the norm, commonplace: another dunk, another concerto.

Hitlers and Teresas

A college research librarian I know offered a spontaneous, sustained and troubling critique of cloning that rivals the best dystopian fictions. Her cloning nightmare was an army of Hitlers, ruthless and remorseless bigots who kept reproducing themselves until they had finished what the historic Hitler had failed to do: annihilate us. It occurred to me that an equal number of Mother Teresas would probably not be a viable deterrent, not if the Hitler clones were behaving like, well, Hitler.

But I had my own nightmare scenario: a society that clones human beings to serve as spare parts for the feeble. Because the cloned entities are not fully human, our moral queasiness is somewhat disarmed. We could then ''harvest'' organs to our heart's content -- organs from human beings of every age, race and phenotype. Anencephalic newborns, whose organs are now harvested,'' would, in that world, be the equivalent of the Model -- an early and, it turns out, very rudimentary prototype of glorious, gleaming things to come.

Far-fetched? No longer. Besides, the far-fetched often gets us nearer to the truth than the cautious, persnickety pieces that fail to come anywhere close to the pity and terror this topic evokes.

Consider Stanislaw Lem's science-fiction classic ''The Star Diaries,'' in which his protagonist, Ijon Tichy, ventures into space and encounters one weird situation after another. On a planet called Panta he runs afoul of local custom and is accused of the worst of crimes, ''the crime of personal differentiation.'' The evidence is incriminating; nonetheless, Tichy is given an opportunity to conform. A planet spokesman instructs Tichy on the benefits of his planet, on which there are no separate entities -- ''only the collective.''

The denizens of Panta have come to understand that the source of all ''the cares, sufferings and misfortunes to which beings, gathered together in societies, are prone'' lies in the individual, ''in his private identity.'' The individual, by contrast to the collective, is ''characterized by uncertainty, indecision, inconsistency of action, and above all -- by impermanence.''

Having ''completely eliminated individuality,'' the people of planet Panta have achieved ''the highest degree of social interchangeability.'' It works rather the way the Marxist utopia was to function: Everyone at any moment can be anything else. Functions or roles are commutable. On Panta you occupy a role for 24 hours only: one day a gardener, the next an engineer, then a mason, now a judge.

The same principle holds with families. ''Each is composed of relatives -- there's a father, mother, children. Only the functions remain constant; the ones who perform them are changed every day.'' All feelings and emotions are entirely abstract. One never needs to grieve or to mourn as everyone is infinitely replaceable. ''Affection, respect, love were at one time gnawed by constant anxiety, by the fear of losing the person held dear,'' Mr. Lem writes. ''This dread we have conquered. For in point of fact whatever upheavals, diseases or calamities may be visited upon us, we shall always have a father, a mother, a spouse and children.''

Indeed, there is no ''I.'' And there can be no death, ''where there are no individuals.'' In this commutable void, we do not die.

Tichy, like most of us, can't quite get with the program. Brought before a court, he is ''found guilty and condemned to life identification.'' He blasts off and sets his course for Earth.

Only this time, if Stanislaw Lem were writing an addendum to his brilliant tale, Tichy would probably land on terra firma -- in both the literal and metaphorical sense -- only to discover the greeting party at the rocket-port a bit strange: there are 40 very tall basketball players all wearing identical number-23 jerseys, dribbling on one side and, on the other side, 40 men in powdered wigs, suited up in breeches and satin frock coats, all playing ''The Marriage of Figaro.''

Jean Bethke Elshtain wrote this commentary for The New Republic.

Pub Date: 4/10/97

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.