Ventura-Ventura on-on Clones-Clones

illustration by A.J. Garces

History is a flirt and a rapist. It teases with seductive possibilities for the future, provokes our fantasies, then suddenly overpowers us -- impregnating the entire race with something new, unwanted, and frightening. We give birth in a state of violation. To make sense of it is, for some, an exercise in futility, for others a leap of faith; nobody's answer quite works for anybody else. There is nothing to do but go on, yet how?

But the metaphor of history-as-rapist describes our feelings more than our circumstances. Victims of actual rape are truly victims; victims of history's metaphorical rapes are involved in a collective process for which they are partly responsible. For we are history. It is we who have the fantasies, and we who tease and provoke them into reality. It is we who accumulate and store the foundation of knowledge and experience from which a few among us invent the new -- and it is we who are always crying out for the new, so these inventions come at our invitation. It is we who turn away while others act, and we who act while others turn away: both the turning away and the act combine to create the circumstances that make for a change drastic enough to be called "historical."

Then, whether it is a political revolution, as in Russia; a revolution in what's acceptable, as happened in America in the 1960s; or a technical revolution like the automobile, the atom bomb, television, the computer -- however our fantasies and desires come to life, once they manifest they are always more than we bargained for. We create and/or allow them, then stand before them trembling; for we know that now they will turn upon us and re-create us in ways we can not imagine. Nothing will ever be the same, and there's no place to hide.

A month ago, all but a few scientists said that the cloning of adult mammals was impossible. Now a sheep named after a buxom singer has become a milestone in history -- a living symbol that, once more, the rules have changed. Fantasy has been cloned into reality.

Human cloning comes next. Everyone knows nothing can stop it. The English scientist who engineered all this, Ian Wilmut, claims never to have considered the possibility of cloning humans; he is either astonishingly naïve or a liar. Even Nature, the generally tight-lipped publication that published his findings, had to admit: "Cloning of humans from adults' tissues is likely to be achievable any time from one to 10 years from now." That's a careful way of saying that the techniques are here, and somebody just has to do it (if it hasn't been done in secret already).

Our response? Comical and contradictory, as usual. Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant officials are against it. One Islamic spokesman said "Knowledge is bestowed on us by God," so there should be no limits to research; another said "The human body is God's property, not man's laboratory," so research should be banned. (The Dalai Lama is keeping his mouth shut, with a smile no doubt). A professor named Nancey Murphy actually said in The New York Times: "The main thing to worry about is whether our culture has its priorities well enough thought out." (Our culture? Priorities?) And a biologist called Ursula Goodenough -- what a name! -- claimed to be joking when she said now "there'd be no need for men." The nervous males who run our media featured Ms. Goodenough's comment in all the first reports.

Experts have been dependably useless. Harold E. Varmus, director of the National Institute of Health, assures us that "it's very hard to do this stuff," so don't worry, human cloning is far in the future. Meanwhile Time reported that cloning "is an elegant, simple procedure" and "any skilled lab technician should be able to master it."

The politicians behaved exactly like politicians. A House Republican introduced a bill to ban human cloning research in the United States. President Clinton formed a committee to decide whether cloning's ethical or not (we can only hope its not the same committee who decided the ethics of his fundraising). He also temporarily banned public funding for research, while asking private enterprise to "refrain." (We all know how good private enterprise is at refraining.) Clinton's move means: a) Some Third World country will perfect human cloning before America; and/or b) The Pentagon wants to keep clone research to itself and secret.

In response to all this confusion, scientists who've been telling us for years that all aspects of life are determined by DNA, are now falling all over each other to tell us how important "experience" is in forming human behavior. Let's see: When you want funding, you talk about DNA; when you want people not to fuck with your right to experiment, you talk about experience. These people are shameless -- but anybody who's heard of the atom bomb already knows that.

As for the "ethicists" (How do you become an ethicist?), they're in Never Never Land. Rocco Buttiglione, described as "an Italian academic close to Pope John Paul II," said: "A person is not an object." While Jeremy Rifkin, a writer much milked by our big-wig publications, said: "For the first time, we've taken the principles of industrial design -- quality control, predictability -- and applied them to a human being."

For the first time?! Every day, all over the world, most of its five-plus billion people are treated like objects according to "principles of industrial design." From the sweatshops of Asia to the corporate corridors of America, from your local McDonald's to the fluorescent halls of your nearest mall, people work as cogs, objects, faceless parts of a massive process: granted no rights to decide policy, unable to speak their minds without fear for their livelihood, their days effectively regulated from the moment they wake up to the moment they get home from work. Many large companies in America now require both psychological and physical tests before granting employment -- and people with much fear and not much pride accede to such tests. The fundamental requirement for employment is to be clever but docile. We are nervous about cloning because most of us are already being treated like clones.

And most are fearful enough, cowards enough, to allow it.

We have reason to fear cloning. People who pay children less than a dollar for a 10-hour day sewing athletic shoes are perfectly capable of running human-clone farms for organ transplants. And people who buy those canvas shoes, knowing how they are made, are capable of purchasing organs from clone-farms if their lives are in danger -- capable of dehumanizing cloned humans to the point where they are mere products to be consumed. For consumption is the true "ethic" of our age, and we are its perpetrators as well as its victims. Cloning makes us afraid, but why? We are afraid of the future because we are afraid of the present.

Which is to say: We are afraid of ourselves.

One of the few cogent comments I came across about cloning was by a rabbi named Moshe Tendler (whose people have already been used for medical experiments): "The real problem is whenever man has shown mastery over man, it has always meant the enslavement of man."

And, yes, there are egomaniacs who cherish a fantasy of immortality-through-DNA, replicating themselves with clones. And, yes, there are wackos who think DNA alone might suffice to recreate an Albert Einstein, a Thomas Jefferson, a Toni Morrison. Nonsense. The variables that create a human being are countless and unpredictable, and go far beyond DNA. Geniuses, like everybody else, do not grow up in controlled environments; it's impossible to catalogue their influences, much less how a specific input created a specific output. Still, if such a thing can be attempted, somewhere, somehow, it will be -- or has been. But Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, is the great prophet of our age: Every invention has turned upon us unpredictably, and invented humans will have unpredictable consequences too.

The history of technology has been that we can make things, but we can't control them. Life keeps insisting that it does not exist to be controlled, but to be lived. Every attempt at control creates some unpredictable element that sooner or later disrupts control. (This will happen to corporate domination as it has to everything else; it is just a matter of time.)

When asked about human cloning, Mario Cuomo said: "Living with the accumulated knowledge of all your imperfections, it would be hard to want to reproduce yourself and then have the arrogance to face the God who will judge you." Many profess to believe in such a God, but their belief rarely translates into anything more than guilty consciences. "Guilty money is better than no money," is the American way, and the way of the world. But for the few genuine believers, there is a vexing question: Can it be that anything physically possible is among the choices God has given us?

The cloned human being will present us with the same piercing questions, and the same unavoidable choices, that any human being presents us with: Is this my brother? Is this my sister? Is this my equal before God? Is this my equal before the law? Am I obligated to do unto this human being as I would have done unto myself?

The answer is always yes. And that is the answer we will be judged by, if not by God then by history -- and, most unavoidably of all, by our own souls, in our own eyes, as we judge our own acts in the moments of death.

(to be continued)

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