November 07, 2003
UN Debates Therapeutic, Reproductive Cloning Ban

The UN is worried about cloning.

While there is virtually universal support at the United Nations for a treaty banning human cloning, the international community is deeply divided over therapeutic cloning.

Scientists see it as a promising avenue in the battle against disease while anti-abortion activists and many Catholics see it as the taking of human lives

There is something almost classic about this debate where diplomats and the forces of international law are so assured they are tackling an important emerging issue while they ignore a real problem that has been developing for years. In particular, the UN is unified about the supposed threat of reproductive cloning while ignoring a change in reproduction practices that is a far greater threat to society in large part because it is already happening on a large scale. What change am I referring to? If you guessed sexual selection go to the front of the class. See, for instance: Girl Shortage Causes Wife Buying In India, Genetic Testing Changing South India Mating Practices, and Human Natural Selection In Taiwan to see just how rapidly this practice is spreading. There is an upside in that it will probably select for higher intelligence in offspring. But the downside will be societies with large numbers of sexually frustrated males and that could cause everything from internal unrest to wars. <

Aside: Europe has experienced quite the come down from their certainty that they were not torn by the sorts of divisions over abortion that characterise US politics. But along came more southern European members and suddenly they too face debates about abortion and therapeutic cloning that have people in Brussels unable to find a consensus on issues that provoke strong passions in opposing factions.

But what is even more interesting about all this? At the risk of seeming a bit esoteric: I the definition of "clone" is going to end up being very difficult to pin down in the long run. If cloning is defined by reference to the DNA sequence of a donor and if the prohibition is against a person having an exact duplicate made of himself or herself then what happens when someone decides to have an child who is made from a 2.0 improved version of their DNA sequence? After all, 20 years from now we will all know our personal DNA sequences and I can easily see someone deciding to make someone a whole lot like themself but without, say, the heartbreak of seborrhea, allergies, asthma, or a hairline that starts receding when they reach the age of 17. Many women will go for permanent blondness for their daughters. Just a couple of SNP changes and suddenly no need for peroxide. Allow your kid to look almost like you but be smarter, healthier, and better-looking. Make a child who will grow up to be an idealized image of what you always wanted to be.

You don't suppose those UN folks have considered this possibility do you? My guess is they haven't. Think about it. When it becomes possible to make small alterations in offspring DNA how many SNP alterations (Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms or single letter DNA changes) should be required to be made in order to make an offspring not be an exact clone of yourself? I figure I needed to satisfy some high SNP difference requirement I'd opt for a whole bunch of silent mutation changes (changes in ways and in places that do not cause any functional changes - and there are just tons of those that can be done btw) that would not appreciably alter the result.

Bottom line: if the UN bans reproductive cloning expect people to carefully read the treaty language and then to "program around it".

Update: One other point about reproductive cloning: If a government or a cult made hundreds or thousands or tens or hundreds of thousands of copies of the same person that would be a problem. But would single copy cloning of a person for progeny really create a substantial problem? It'd be like having more twins. But my guess is that by the time reproductive cloning can be done safely and cheaply the technology will have advanced to the point where the "version 2.0" approach of making clones better will be available and most cloners will opt for it. So most clones will not be identical. Expect them to be healthier, smarter, and better looking. Individual level cloning will not cause much of a problem. But cult or government-level cloning could pose problems.

The more substantial conflict is going to come over the question of what future generations should be like. Once all the genetic variations that influence cognitive function are identified battles and perhaps literally wars will be fought over the moral and empathetic characteristics and sensibilities of future generations.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 November 07 04:18 PM  Biotech Society

Fly said at November 8, 2003 3:59 PM:

“Me” Version 2.0 stages:

Stem cells will be used to repair bodies.

Some stem cells will be genetically modified as part of the repair process.

As an option, stem cell therapy will include the addition of an extra “health” chromosome. The health chromosome will contain some genes that make more or better forms of proteins, that turn-off existing unhealthy genes, and that make new “non-human” proteins.

Healthy people will opt for a booster infusion of stem cells with the “health” chromosome modified with selected enhancements. At first these will be systemic changes, i.e., liver stem cells will be modified to release the desired substances into the blood for transport throughout the body.

Later stem cell modifications will target specific tissues and locations for enhancement.

Eventually “original” somatic cells will be targeted for removal or upgrade. (Modified cells could display an altered “version” protein to prevent “re-infection”.)

Implant technology will progress in parallel to this genetic enhancement technology. Electronic systems will move from primitive pacemaker technology to sophisticated control of body organs. Body fat, musculature, accelerated healing, immune system, arousal, and sleep patterns could be altered at will. Electronic interfaces in brain regions could enhance memory, plasticity, learning, attention, etc.

External systems will provide immediate access to information over wireless connections. Personal databases will serve as “memory” backups. No more forgetting names or facts. Online services will be available for language translation or navigation in foreign environments. The line between “internal” and “external” systems will blur as contact lens function as display screens, glasses, cameras, telescopes, etc.

Version 2.0 humans will be modified versions of present humans rather than altered offspring. The early adapters will be the oldest, the most ill, and the handicapped.

PS Government organizations at all levels will be slow to recognize what is happening and helpless to prevent it.

Jack Strocchi said at November 9, 2003 5:59 PM:

In the beginning, there was only single-celled life, prokaroytic, and then eukaroytic, organisms that reproduced by identical asexual replication. Their static genome's were vulnerable hostile takeovers by the viruses, which are small and crave the resources of the cell. The viruses seek ways to decode and undermine the genome of the identical genomes of asexual organisms. Fortunately, fast breeding mono-celled organism are prone to mutation, and can therefore out-run viruses ability to take them over.
Then once upon a time there was an ecological niche for multi-celled, mentally-abled metabolisms - metazonans. And thus sex was born.
But, unlike protozoans, metazoans live longer and have slower generation cycles, since they need more time to develop, mate, gestate.
Sexual reproduction, peridoic recombination of the genomic constitution, is a drastic mutation of normal asexual reproduction. At considerable cost to the parent (loss of 50% of their heritable genome per issue) it allows larger organisms to "scramble" or change their code sequence. The benefit is that conjugative genetic variation prevents a gene line from being wiped out by a clever lethal virus.
Even within sexually reproductive organism, too much genetic identity is unhealthy. Hence the genetic inhibition on incest, to prevent parents matching allelic copies of lethal hereditary genetic diseases and causing them to be expressed in their children.
Occasional cloning occurs in nature - monozygotic twins.
But mass cloning, where most of a species contained the same genome, would be dangerous to the species gene pool. A freak virus might wipe out the better part of the species, threatening extinction.
It is hard to see how cloning on such a massive scale would be possible, let alone desired, even by the most totalitarian dictators.
By the time that mass cloning would be practicable there would be means of inserting encryptive devices into the genome to protect it from viral takeovers.

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