A team lead by Douglass Turnbull at the Newcastle University in the UK has just announced that they have successfully transplanted a human egg nucleus into a new cell. The advance holds out the prospect that mothers with inheritable defects in their mitochondrial DNA can nonetheless give birth to healthy children.
It got a predictable denunciation from religious conservatives, who described it as:
“a further step toward tampering with the very essence of humanity, and demonstrates not just a contempt for life itself – all the embryos in this experiment were destroyed for science – but a profoundly dangerous and arrogant belief that we can tamper with the genetic makeup of our fellow human beings.” (Family Research Council)
This is a familiar theme. While many people find the idea of cloning to be disturbing or even repugnant, few people can actually put their fingers on what exactly the problem is – leaving exclamations of disgust as their only means of argument (like this from 2008 on animal hybrids).
Bioethicists who oppose human cloning have turned this into a rationale of sorts. They call it “The Wisdom of Repugnance”. If something seems intuitively wrong, that’s because we have an intuitive wisdom – even if we can’t articulate what the problem is.
Jussi Niemelä of the University of Helsinki, in a recent paper in the journal Bioethics, takes issue with this stance. He points out that cloning violates a raft of instinctive – yet wrong – intuitions about how the world works. The reason we find it yucky is that it violates our evolved ways of thinking about the world.
For example, we intuitively believe that all things – especially living things – have an essence that makes them what they are:
The cat will continue being a cat no matter how much its outer appearance might change over the years of its existence. A human baby, an adult and an elderly person with a prosthetic leg and one lung removed are all equally human, no matter how different they are morphologically. This tendency can also be called “postulation of causal essence”.
We also have intuitions about how the biological world works. For example, according to Pascal Boyer (author of “Religion Explained”) we have an animal ‘template’ that says, for example. that animals are born and not made:
Thus a skunk [concept] falls under the inferential rules of an animal [template]. This is to say that if a cat [animal] has baby cats, needs to eat, has a mind etc., then a skunk [animal] also has baby skunks, needs to eat and so on. These things need not be learned separately for each concept as long as the concepts are linked to the right template supplying the inferential framework.
These are ‘cognitive shortcuts’. Simple rules that our brains have evolved to allow us to make rapid decisions about the world around us. The problem comes when we try to apply these instinctive rules to situations that never occurred in our evolutionary past.
Folk-biological reasoning is an essentialistic, automatic and streamlined way of making sense of incredibly complex world of living kinds. The automatic cognitive tendencies are, as discussed in the section about essentialism, quick and useful in everyday life, but not necessarily correct in a scientific sense. This is why natural thinking tendencies get into all sorts of trouble when genetics are involved.
Cloning breaks the intuitive rules about biological life in a number of ways. Because clones are manufactured, folk-biological reasoning puts clones in the category of artefacts, rather than living things – and yet they are alive. They break the break the template that specifies that ‘animals’ are conceived through procreation.
Cloned organisms also break the folk-biological rule about species classification – that cats procreate and give birth to cats, cows to cows, etc.
What’s more, cloned organisms don’t appear to have an essence (or ‘soul’). As the Catholic Church says:
The spiritual soul, which is the essential constituent of every subject belonging to the human species and is created directly by God, cannot be generated by the parents, produced by artificial fertilization, or cloned. (s1060, Pontifical Academy for Life.)
So repugnance isn’t wisdom at all. It’s an intuition that something is wrong, for sure, but that intuition is driven by our evolved rules for understanding how the world works.
Cloning represents a radical deviation from the norms of reproduction and the features of living kinds human minds have evolved to understand. As such, it is not surprising that it should give rise to just these kinds of reactions: a strange, eerie feeling of something out-of-place, a fear of transgressing invisible, unspeakable yet profound boundaries etc.
And when we sense that something doesn’t fit our intuitions about the natural world, our moral system of disgust kicks in. That doesn’t mean that cloning is right, of course. But it does mean that we can’t trust our intuitions to give us a morally correct answer.
As Niemelä says, on a topic like cloning our instinctive reactions have about as much to do with wisdom or ethical thought as does a knee-jerk reflex!