What’s in a (sur)name?

March 11th, 2009

When I was growing up, my family would occasionally get a piece of junk mail inviting us to send off fifty bucks or so for a handsome book. The brochure always featured a photo of a faux leather tome, stamped with a heraldic seal, and complete with a forked satin ribbon to mark one’s place amid the hundreds of gilt-edged pages. The book purported to be a history of ‘The Pearson Family‘, ostensibly an ancient clan descended from some Norseman named Per.

Ours was one of dozens of Pearson households listed in the St. Louis phone directory (as in any big American city), and I assume we were targeted by the book company through such public data (i.e., the McConaghy family down the block presumably didn’t get the same ad). But our family’s claim to the storied patrimony of Per is, uh, tenuous. My great-grandfather adopted the surname around 1920, at the behest of his brother, who worried that immigrants settling in Hamilton, Ontario would have a hard time finding work under so conspicuously Jewish a surname as Pinkhovits. In light of this, we always got a kick out of the heraldic junk mail come-ons, imagining ourselves mingling at a worldwide Pearson family reunion, too short to find the punchbowl without stopping a Viking for directions.

Our family’s recent adoption of a surname is far from unusual, of course. Many north Americans today were born with surnames that were adopted by immigrant ancestors, or their early descendants, in the past few centuries. As is true in much of the world, these names are usually passed on patrilineally (i.e., only by fathers). In this sense, surname transmission mirrors that of mitochondria (which are passed on only by mothers), and effectively matches that of Y chromosome lineages. There are exceptions, of course, in which Y lineages are knowingly (through formal adoption) or unknowingly (through what human geneticists often call ‘non-paternity’, but would be better termed ‘cryptic paternity’) given new surnames.

Considering the dynamics of this process, one might wonder how much Y chromosome diversity is found within, and among, surname lineages in a given human population.  You might intuit that a few basic parameters should largely govern that distribution. On the name side, there will be rates of willful surname change, cryptic paternity (read: cuckoldry), and differentiation in pronunciation/spelling. On the genetic side, there will be the background mix of Y chromosome haplotypes in the given population, and, as time passes, the mutation rate of those haplotypes, and the degree of variation in breeding success among them.

In a new paper, Turi King and Mark Jobling set out to assess some of these parameters in the British population, focusing on 40 surnames that have, according to records, been established in Britain for a long time. In doing so, they augment a stream of data that started with a 2000 paper focusing on just one surname: Sykes. That paper, by Brian Sykes (no coincidence there, of course) and Catherine Irven, suggested that nearly all modern Sykeses share a patrilineal ancestor roughly 20 generations ago (a blink of the evolutionary eye). King and Jobling’s more comprehensive data paint a more complex picture, but one that ultimately suggests a strong, lasting relationship between surnames and the Y lineages that they carry. Meaning that many long-established British surnames show distinct Y haplotype compositions that are strongly biased toward one or a few haplotypes, which King and Jobling call ‘descent clusters’.

For some surnames, the Y lineages that make up those surname-specific ‘descent clusters’ happen to be similarly frequent in samples from the overall British population. In these cases, it’s hard to infer just how faithfully the surname has been passed on patrilineally; after all, the pattern might just as readily reflect a history of free adoption of the surname by various local patrilines throughout its history. As one might guess, some particularly common British surnames, such as Smith and King, show this relatively hard-to-interpret pattern.

For many other surnames, however, the most common ‘descent cluster’ Y haplotype(s) were quite rare in the general British population, or were so overwhelmingly common among carriers of the given surname, that one could safely infer that the surname was robustly associated with particular patrilines. A striking exemplar of this pattern was Attenborough: nearly all of the sampled British men with this name carry a Y lineage that is particularly common in east Africa (and to a lesser extent in other parts of Africa, the Mediterranean basin, and southwest Asia), but very rare, overall, in Britain. In King and Jobling’s data, many other surnames showed such significantly distinctive ‘clustered’ Y haplotype composition.

King and Jobling are careful to note (and to verify by computer simulation), however, that the particular Y lineage composition seen for a particular surname need not closely resemble the Y-lineage composition among carriers that surname, say, 20 generations ago.  Rather, some patrilines that originally carried the surname can readily have gone extinct (meaning that, at some point, the last remaining man carrying both the surname in question and that Y type died without having a son), leaving fewer and fewer distinctive Y lineages carrying the surname in question. Small populations (such as that comprising the male carriers of a given surname) are particularly prone to random extinction of lineages, per se; termed genetic drift, this random process can quickly and drastically change the Y lineage composition of the given surname.  King and Jobling infer that some casese of strong clustering seen for single surnames in their data may readily reflect such drift, rather than original foundation of the surname by just one or a few men.

A strange pattern in King and Jobling’s data goes unnoted in their paper: a modest positive correlation between surname length (syllable- or letter-count) and degree of patrilineal clustering (measured as the proportion of samples assigned to the largest lineage cluster).  In my discussion of this pattern with Jobling, a couple of potential explanations came up.  First, long names contain inherently more information than short ones — which might let researchers identify variants of longer names more accurately, including fewer ‘false positive’ matches that are likely to carry distinct Y lineages. Second, short surnames might be adopted, wholesale, more frequently than long ones, preferentially adding to their patrilineal diversity. In light of the question of surname adoption frequency, I’m curious at the degree of patrilineal diversity that might be found among carriers of surnames, such as Esposito (Italian ‘exposed’, as in ‘left out’), that were commonly assigned to foundlings in many parts of Europe. Such names may represent one extreme of the ‘founder diversity’ range, and, as such, might offer a good opportunity to gauge effects of a) background haplotype composition in a given population and b) genetic drift.

Arguably, King and Jobling’s data are ultimately demographic trivia specific to the British population.  But they do offer some modest, potentially comparatively useful ethnographic insights, particularly regarding early surnaming conventions (they discuss the possibility of distinguishing signals of patrilineal variability as they may relate to the geographic, occupational, or other types of surname origin) and, more weakly, into the sex lives of ancestral Britons.  But the new paper carries one more nugget of potential interest, too: data on the surname Jefferson. Nearly all of the British Jeffersons that they sampled carry one of the two most common Y lineages in Britain. Only about 4% of them, by contrast, carry the distinctive Y lineage found among descendants of American statesman-scientist Thomas Jefferson (and that also appears, much more densely than in Britain, in Mediterranean populations). As reported in another paper by Jobling and colleagues, those American descendants famously include descendants of Jefferson’s son Eston, whose personal story exemplifies the complex association of surnames with Y haplotypes. Born into slavery (and never publicly acknowledged by his slave-owning father), Eston used his mother Sally‘s surname, Hemings. Sally, in turn, got that surname from her own mother, likely because her father too (reportedly a slaveowner of European ancestry, like Jefferson) refused to acknowledge his extramaritally fathered children — especially those understood to have African ancestry.

The new emperor’s clones: Obama’s refreshing but tepid embrace of reasoned sci/tech policy

March 10th, 2009

On 9 March, President Obama issued an executive order to lift smothering restrictions on embryonic stem cell research that were imposed by his predecessor, George Bush. In its own right, Obama’s order enacts a substantive and welcome change, jumpstarting an exciting and clinically promising line of biomedical research. But the revival of stem cell research can also be seen as part of a larger, ongoing effort to strip away religiously motivated fetters placed on many fronts of American science by the Bush administration.

Sadly, despite some real progress, these fetters continue to ominously hinder the American public discourse on science — even on occasions, such as the the new executive order on stem cell research, that should be clear victories for empiricism. Along with previous reversals of Bush policy that reinstated sound, empirically driven policy on such matters as greenhouse gas regulation, the stem cell order conveyed a clear grasp of the vital societal value of the always skeptical mode of systematic inquiry that we call science.  Yet, in remarks at the signing ceremony, Obama was careful to solemnly profess his ‘faith’. In doing so, he likely meant to console opponents of stem cell research, many of whom are religious. Reaching out to opponents is laudable goal, and one that Obama consciously cultivates in his role as a `uniter’. Yet it is frustrating that, in a national ‘teachable moment’, Obama could apparently find no better way to reach out than by emphasizing a pat solidarity rooted in shared baseless beliefs.

And that wasn’t the only way in which, even while redressing another case of scientific sabotage by his predecessor, Obama still shrank from fully championing a reasoned approach to policymaking.  As a sign of specific future policy intentions, Obama’s latest profession of faith may have been less telling than his use of the signing ceremony to harshly, but emptily, condemn the prospect of human reproductive cloning.  Speaking with customary force, but without laying out a chain of reasoning such as we’ve come to expect from him, he declared that ‘[cloning] is dangerous, profoundly wrong and has no place in our society or any society.’ Obama’s mention of cloning as a foil to stem cell research reinforced a pattern that has emerged in American politics, in which the two issues seem to have become joined at the hip, appearing together with the rote predictability of a pantomime hero and villain. Their rhetorical conflation (which is nearly always resolved with some dramatic flourish of contrast) may serve mainly to let supporters of stem cell research distance themselves from an ostensibly obvious evil, thereby reassuring us of their credentials as decent members of the human race. But if stem cell research is right, must reproductive cloning be wrong? Perhaps this moment — punctuated, as it is, by a major change in federal biomedical research policy — is a good one for reviewing the question.  Below is an attempt, in several parts, to do just that.

Cloning, part one: The saga of bill S.812

March 10th, 2009

Two years before Obama’s executive order to rescind limits on stem cell research, Senator Orrin Hatch introduced bill S.812, the ‘Human Cloning Ban and Stem Cell Research Protection Act of 2007’. Though unmistakably right-wing, the veteran Hatch is renowned for shrewdly wielding the political olive branch (he famously joined Bono’s well-heeled campaign for foreign aid debt forgiveness; recorded a hearty get well song for Ted Kennedy; and stood up fairly early in support of Barack Obama’s embattled attorney general nominee, Eric Holder). It was no surprise, then, that Hatch front-loaded bill S.812 with a title aimed squarely at what has become known as ‘purple state’ America. In admirably forthright wording, Hatch’s title evoked a sober, considered balance: one could picture Justice herself, pausing for a moment’s due consideration before lifting a brightly glowing vial (stem cells) in one hand and discarding a soiled diaper (human cloning) with the other. In 2007, as now, American adults, eager for a therapeutic boon, tended to favor stem cell research; the same electorate, however, strongly opposed reproductive cloning — and, sadly, remained largely oblivious to key differences among stem cell lines that stood to greatly limit the pace and scope of their therapeutic promise.

In particular, much of the public appeared unaware that some stem cells — the most developmentally versatile ones — are culled from young embryos (only those slated to be discarded), while others are collected later (usually after birth). Seen in this light, Hatch’s title, with its reference only to ‘stem cell research protection’, carried a deft ambiguity. In public rhetoric, Hatch and other Republican leaders often silently, but pointedly, exploit the distinction between embryonic and non-embryonic stem cells: their insistence that they are ‘pro-stem cell research’ is asterisked with a qualification — only grudgingly voiced to anyone beyond their religious-right ‘base’ — that they mean ‘adult’ stem cells only.

But the invocation of ‘stem cell research’ in the title of bill S.812 turned out to be even more strikingly devious, once one actually read beyond the title. In the body of the bill, the term ‘stem cell’ appeared twice: once, in a recursive mention of the bill’s title, and once in a boilerplate section defining ‘unfertilized blastocyst’ — which, as the definition rightly noted, is not a stem cell (nor is it a golf ball, as long as we’re keeping track…). Perhaps other references to stem cells were stripped from Hatch’s bill during last-minute backroom revision, with someone forgetting to change the title. Or maybe the reference to ‘stem cell research protection’ was to be read as an oblique threat, conditioning future Republican cooperation on substantive stem cell research initiatives to passage of S.812 (much as a mafioso might profess interest in the protection of kneecaps). In any case, the body of the bill did indeed mention ‘cloning’ (28 times); indeed, every substantive clause aimed squarely to ban attempts — therapeutic or otherwise — to make a human embryo by cloning. And in this sentiment, bill S.812 was far from new.

Since 1998, the Senate had already seen at least three major motions to ban human cloning, each mirrored by a sibling bill in the House of Representatives. Each time, the House bill passed, but enough senators balked at the proposed bans to give a reprieve to the apparently non-existent technique of reproductive cloning. The round of legislative fuss over emerging reproductive technology that preceded Hatch’s 2007 bill culminated in the 2003 passage of a House bill banning cloning. Right around that time, a tellingly relevant nugget of news went largely overlooked here in the US. It was a spat that played out in the British press; the words were lively enough, but it lacked in visual fireworks, so was hardly tabloid grist, and hardly registered as a blip in the American press. Looking back, though, one might say that the affair laid bare a clash of ideas at the core of our society’s debate over technology itself.

Cloning, part two: Hearsay, hearsay!

March 10th, 2009

The trouble started back in December 2002, when the BBC aired a documentary film that openly probed the tenets of a popular cult. The day after the broadcast, Crispian Hollis, a cleric who worked for the cult in question, denounced the British state broadcasters for airing a film that dared to publicly challenge his beliefs. Hollis alleged that the filmmakers had indulged in `unfounded guesswork’ — and he fumed, sensibly enough, that passing off any such guesswork as documentary fact is `not only unscholarly but runs the risk of undermining [journalistic] integrity.’

But closer inspection of the offending broadcast suggested that Hollis’s indignation might have been misplaced. In discussing their subject matter — the dogma of the cult in question — the filmmakers had actually made it a point to favor definitive evidence over unfounded hearsay. What sort of hearsay had they tried to get to the bottom of? It turns out that Hollis and his fellow clerics swear:

  • that there is an invisible male ape watching over all of earth, in great detail, at all times (presumably never sleeping).
  • that this ape parses all human conversations (and even unspoken thoughts), in all languages, simultaneously.
  • and that the ape in question has been doing all this since being born — asexually — more than two millenia ago.

So what evidence is there to support these claims? Sadly, the BBC filmmakers were apparently unable to reach the ape himself for comment, and the leaders of Hollis’ cult insist that their claims rest on eye-witness accounts written by several men who interacted with the ape early in his life, when he was living in southwest Asia (rather than, say, in the sky). Though varying in some details, the cited accounts all portray the ape as readily visible, susceptible to sleep, and not — to the outside eye, at least — especially interested in, or even aware of, the everyday life of anyone in, say, Guatemala or Korea (to name two places where the cult in question has become particularly popular).

As hearsay goes, Hollis deserves points for boldness. In the annals of medicine and peer-reviewed research, there is little, if anything, that could rival his cult’s claims. Let’s take the two thousand year plus lifespan detail, for example. That would be roughly eight-fold overripe even for a Galápagos tortoise, thought by most biologists to be the longest lived animal with eyes. Which brings us to the question of the ape’s remarkable worldwide vision. Most primates do indeed have quite good eyesight; nonetheless, watching the whole surface of a ball-shaped planet at once would seem to pose problems for the architecture typical of paired vertebrate eyes.

And then there’s the asexual birth bit. Some birds (turkeys, for example) may do it. And, indeed, bees do it. But, so far, there’s no clear evidence of asexual reproduction in any wild (i.e., non-laboratory) mammal. Moreover, even if a female mammal could bear asexually conceived young, she would have to pull off a pretty neat trick to make a son, in particular: one of her X chromosomes (or some other part of the genome) would have to mutate, wholesale, into a Y chromosome, in order to masculinize the developing fetus. Birds — lucky them — don’t have this problem, as it is their females, not males, who have two highly distinct sex chromosomes like our X and Y.

So it seems understandable that the foregoing claims by the cult might provoke some skepticism. But if we’re to gauge the boldness of a claim by the degree of hand-wringing among its makers, then it is the apeness of the ape that really stands out. When formally endorsed by the cult in 1996 — ostensibly to square its dogma with a vast weight of empirical evidence on the matter — the fact that humans are apes was officially fudged with an `ontological leap’. This was apparently done largely to quell horror, among the cult’s adherents, at being (versus merely descending from) animals. Hollis’ all-seeing sky ape, being a man (if an unusual one, in having been born asexually), was thus separated from all non-human apes by some sort of unprecedented evolutionary jump — a qualitative material difference that the cult, conveniently, has declined to try to characterize in any concrete and testable terms.

Here it’s worth noting that such careful dogma-pruning has long been used to help priesthoods stay afloat amid occasional tidal waves of new human knowledge that threaten to obviate pulpits themselves, along with fossilized bronze-age cosmologies. Hollis’s cult, for example, had already conceded, centuries earlier, that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than vice versa, despite the absence of this basic fact in the sacred texts that the cult typically relied on. But theological revision has limits — and when further tweaking would appear to gravely threaten priestly interests, smart clerics throw a trump card familiar to all parents (virgin or not): believe because we say so. And so many a cult, including Hollis’ own, extols as virtue the belief in some ever-dwindling suite of empirically groundless claims, coddling the willful ignorance that is `faith’.

Cloning, part three: Eve

March 10th, 2009

The same winter that saw controversy over the BBC documentary on Crispian Hollis’s cult (the Catholic church, in case you hadn’t yet guessed), another claim was foisted on the world by another cult, who likewise urged others to believe their claims without evidence. On 26 December 2002, the day after a birthday celebrated for Hollis’ allegedly asexually born boy, along came an asexually born girl. Or so said a priest in a newer, far less popular cult. Flush with a potent mix of giddiness and apparent relief, chemist-cum-cleric-cum-CEO Brigitte Boisselier crowed to journalists that she had overseen the birth of a healthy girl who, if true to billing, was the first primate cloned from a somatic (i.e., non-germline) cell.

Pending so-called `independent’ confirmation (which never came), Boisselier declared that day that the world had only a week to plausibly call her a fraud. And so began a short but intense inquisition (perhaps enough to make the BBC proud, but Torquemada would be unimpressed). Pressed for proof of her cloning claim, Boisselier retorted that any such evidence she might offer would be dismissed out of hand, presumably due to her priestly subjectivity and/or direct financial stake in the matter.

The rest of Boisselier’s cult put up a stiff front of secrecy regarding their claims, too, and a safe consensus emerged among pundits: Boisselier’s announcement had been a hoax, serving as a commercial publicity stunt for her and her colleagues. And, indeed, in the several years since the birth announcement, the biggest nugget of followup detail that the cult has offered publicly: like her alleged forerunner in Hollis’s cult, the asexually born child and her mother are said to have found refuge somewhere near Jerusalem.

So what sort of evidence could Boisselier release to made her claim credible? Decisive evidence would comprise DNA sequences, from across the human nuclear genome, amplified in parallel from somatic (i.e., non-egg, non-sperm) cells of the alleged mother and daughter. Only if their sequence pairs matched each other perfectly in an overwhelming majority of cases (allowing for a few mismatches, for reasons we’ll get to below), and the derivation of sequences were proper and clear (there’s the rub, for Boisselier and any anonymity-minded sample donor), could one soundly infer that the donors derived from the same fertilized egg, and were, given their age disparity, most likely clone and clonee.

Absent such evidence, pundits understandably scoffed from the start. Belittling the chance that anyone — a non-MD to boot — might have pulled off such a rash stunt, talking heads shook scornfully, and took pains to mull the implications of human reproductive cloning in hypothetical terms only. Other empirically groundless claims of Boisselier’s cult — that humans have non-earthling forebears, for example — became fodder for doubting her truthfulness a priori. Suddenly, outspoken empirical rigor was in refreshing vogue!

And, perhaps miraculously, Crispian Hollis’ own priesthood called shotgun on the skeptics’ bandwagon. Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls burdened himself to speak for empiricists everywhere, declaring that `[Boisselier's] announcement without any element of proof has already raised the skepticism and the moral condemnation of the greater part of the international scientific community.’ Such newfound skepticism made sense, too; after all, Navarro-Valls’ and Hollis’ own asexually bred darling hadn’t been born yesterday.

Duly steeled against falsehood, the world still awaited real tests of at several human cloning claims; no verdict came, and at least one alleged clonee has cited lawsuits as deterring her from further disclosure, fueling talk of a charlatan hoax. But whether or not Boisselier, or anyone else, has yet cloned a woman using a skin cell nucleus, a sense of inevitability looms around that endeavor. Skepticism of human cloning claims, however fiercely it persists, may eventually look less like sincere evidentiary concern than like craven denial. Perhaps then, at this pregnant hour in the advent of human reproductive cloning, a broader survey of surrounding myths — not just those which are two millenia old — could help us decipher all the frightening scrawl on the wall.

Cloning, part four: Identity

March 10th, 2009

Let’s start with the worn chestnut of identity. Ethicist Robert Williamson has posited `that there is a personal right, ethically based, to individuality, autonomy, and identity…[and that r]eproductive cloning crosses a significant boundary in removing the single most important feature of autonomy: the fact that each of us is genetically unique.’ As is well-reported, monozygotic siblings — so-called identical twins, triplets &c. — seem to pose a challenge to the assertion any such right, which convention would deem a universally inborn attribute (at least within our non-universal little branch of life’s tree). Williamson skirts this problem, distinguishing violations of rights by `nature’ from those `reproduced deliberately by man.’ Ignoring dilemmas raised in trying to justify or even rigorize such a distinction, he retreats still further, exempting monozygotic siblings as a special case because `even if they closely resemble each other, they do not resemble anyone else.’ Unfortunately for Williamson’s argument, the same can be said of clones and their clonees (except if the latter happens to have monozygotic twin…).

But even beyond the problems of defining rights, the identity question is moot. Simply put, clones are not genetically identical. To understand why, first recall an admonition that often pops up in the cloning debate: that environmental factors ensure the uniqueness of individual personality, aptitudes, and other large-scale (read: `non-genetic’) traits. If, for example, you rue the hackneyed vision of an army of Michael Jordan clones turning professional basketball into a Midas’s hell, check the numbers for a real life clone-of-a-sports-superstar. Outfielder Osvaldo Canseco hit exactly zero homeruns in his major league baseball career; over the same seasons, his injury-prone monozygotic twin José hit 73, and swatted 389 more while Ozzie was relegated to the minors or the celebrity impersonator circuit.  Incidentally, José has reportedly written that both he and Ozzie used anabolic steroids during their careers; while that particular environmental factor may have helped José considerably, it apparently did little for his twin…

Vagaries of environment turn out to affect more than athletic performance (which, of course, has genetic underpinnings too); they also affect the genome. Because genomes mutate, each potential clonee has a mildly genetically diverse population of cells from which to clone; further mutation during the development of a clone itself nearly assures its genetic uniqueness. Bottom line: assuming plausible rates of cell division and random mutation, fewer than one in ten billion newborn clones would have even one cell genetically identical to the sperm-fertilized egg from which he or she derives.

Moreover, cloning — especially for males — may require eggs whose proteins (which influence gene expression, and, thus, subtleties of development) and non-nuclear genomes (such as those of mitochondria, the rife bacteria that long ago established symbiosis within ancestors of our cells) differ from those of the fertilized egg that became the clonee. A somatic genome transferred into such a tabula non rasa egg has its own pattern of functionally meaningful chemical modification (called genomic imprinting), too, which typically needs thorough overwriting for cloning. More bizarrely still, many living humans are technically chimeras, harboring small numbers of somatic cells derived from a mother, child, or even sibling; such cells sometimes cross placental barriers during gestation, engrafting amid much larger populations of cells derived from another zygote.  In all the above cases, a clone derived from a single somatic cell represents a truly novel mix of heritable molecular inputs.

All told, the lack of strict genetic identity between clones and clonees voids any claim that cloning violates a right to genetic individuality. More importantly, it gives us more reason to treat clones as unique individuals, rather than to saddle them with overwrought expectations based on their genetic likeness to those we already know.  Sadly, Brigitte Boisselier’s cult announced their own plans for the latter: to try to shoehorn — wholesale — the unique personalities and memories of clonees into the uselessly novel brains of their wards. Cloning’s own technical challenges pale next to those of such a cruel endeavor; and such doubly vain goals alarm those who fear cloning as a means to human eugenics.

Cloning, part five: Eugenics

March 10th, 2009

But in assessing the fear that cloning will lead to eugenics, note that human mate choice is already eugenic. Lest you doubt, take an extreme example: if female, ask yourself whether, all else being strictly equal, you would rather mate with a kind, five-foot-tall millionaire man with Down syndrome than with a kind, six-foot-tall millionaire man without Down syndrome. If male, ask yourself which man you would rather father your grandchild.

Now, because both adult height and Down syndrome status correlate strongly with genotype, any significant height- or Down status-based mating bias is inherently eugenic (at least in the short term). Human sexual reproduction is no blind crapshoot (ask any sperm banker); our varied, if often predictable, preferences constantly shape the profiles of genetically correlated traits in new adult generations. We’re picky breeders of tomatoes, dogs, and ourselves — and human cloning won’t change that.

In this context, consider a law forbidding infertile or gay people, those with Down syndrome, and/or anyone else with sub-par reproductive prospects, to act to boost those prospects. State-enforced eugenics, no? Indeed, and you have just imagined a cloning ban, which would most affect those short on other reproductive options. `Eve’ — mint green apple of Brigitte Boisselier’s eye — was allegedly born to a clonee who foresaw little chance to otherwise reproduce; a ban might deem such folks congenitally out of luck. If unconvinced that this constitutes eugenics, note conversely that the spread of cloning, by raising the mean metabolic cost of reproduction (i.e., one might have to work more to afford clonal than sexual pregnancy) and slowing the potentially adaptive genetic diversification that sex mediates, could make the future human population more vulnerable to environmental change. This outcome is hardly what societal eugenicists claim to support (though their frequent antipathy toward human diversity certainly favors the same risk).

Cloning, part six: Poverty and exploitation

March 10th, 2009

Reproductive cloning seems unlikely to spread quickly, of course. Costly services serve mainly rich folks, after all — and rich folks are rare (plus, sex is far more fun than any laboratory procedure I can think of). Intriguingly, legalists Eric and Richard Posner have noted that, under certain assumptions, those who stand to benefit most from costly optional cloning would be wealthy females (perhaps explaining some of the gut opposition to cloning in largely patriarchal human populations). Cloning might therefore mediate eugenic discrimination against poor human populations (however, as noted, sexual reproduction may be subject to similar concerns).

In crafting public policy on cloning, we might do well to weigh such real risks — think also of figuring out ways to measure, and thus compare, suffering due to inborn illness inherent to clonal versus sexual reproduction — against foreseeable real benefits. By contrast, we might eschew ethically absolutist claims on the issue. Peppered with phrases like sanctity of human life, such rhetoric steadfastly avoids empirical falsifiability, often exploiting what philosopher Richard Dawkins has called `a convention[...]that prejudices based upon religion, as opposed to purely personal prejudices, are especially privileged, self-evidently exempt from the need for supporting argument.’

In 1997, for example, ethicist Leon Kass (whom George W. Bush later tabbed to head his new Bioethics Advisory Council) deemed sheep-cloning to be `the work not of nature or nature’s God but of man…playing at being God.’ As in many human behavioral controversies, naturalness here connoted absolute good/right; unnaturalness, absolute evil/wrong. Even beyond the extraneous invocation of a god, such rhetoric appeals at most emotionally, offering no logical reason to equate natural with good (nor, more broadly, any rigorous ontological or epistemological justification of the supposed natural/unnatural distinction).

Kass has more famously invoked `the wisdom of repugnance’ in seeking to outlaw human reproductive cloning. Were cloning universally repugnant, of course, a formal ban would be redundant. But Kass eagerly ministers the choir, arguing that those who claim a kneejerk aversion to cloning — however poorly backed by reason — can legitimately bar the technology to all. By such logic, those who quaked at the hubris of Orville and Wilbur Wright could have rightfully nixed all further aviation. Those whose skins crawl on picturing a spider could ban such critters outright (how wise!…). Those claiming to be queasened by sushi-eaters, or by same-sex or ethnically disparate couples, could marshal legal force even if their arguments lacked rational underpinning. Mistaking prudishness for prudence, Kass — the foremost voice shaping American policy on reproductive technology — envisions heaven as a ludditocracy. How reassuring, perhaps, that he has voiced no urge to clone himself.

Cloning, Epilogue

March 10th, 2009

In an insightful essay (published in an excellent anthology edited by Martha Nussbaum and Cass Sunstein, which also includes other sources cited in this series of posts) that juxtaposed doppelgänger folklore to the modern cloning debate, historian Wendy Doniger tellingly observed that `myths, like vampires, are undead.’ Having met a few myths about asexual reproduction in the foregoing discussion, we can note another recursive parallel: like vampires, myths hate catching sight of themselves as such. But couching public policy debate in terms defined by myths obscures important, rigorously definable utilitarian issues that face humanity as technology advances. Meanwhile, those content to hurl brimstone at the prospect of human cloning, in particular, should realize that they risk soon stigmatizing real people. As in the case of so-called illegitimate children for centuries, such stigma may affront individual dignity far more than may any particular means of birth. So welcome to the world, Eve — when/where/whoever you are. May you grow old in joy, well-loved, with respect for your uniqueness and privacy, and unswayed by hokum. And if so, let’s hope there will be more of us like you.