Clones-Clones Part-Part 2-2

illustration by A.J. Garces

As my brother Vinnie put it, "In this country, you've got 250-plus million people who can't seem to agree on anything, but Monday morning comes along and they all agree it's time to go to work."

For all our talk of individuality, most of us get up at roughly the same time, eat the same things for breakfast, and (as our traffic jams prove) go to work at the same time. The demands of our employments are numbingly similar. Then we get off work at roughly the same time, hit the same rush hour, get home at the same time, and our homes are filled with roughly the same stuff. Eat the same food again, have the same family fights, indulge in similar entertainments, and the lights go out in most of our homes within an hour of each other.

As for our precious intimacies, the feelings experienced as most importantly and uniquely our own -- no matter how private our subjective sense of love may be, humanity has been telling pretty much the same love stories the world over for all of recorded history. Our spirituality? Every monotheist is pretty much like every other; likewise the polytheists: and, mono or poly, the behavior of these devotees varies little -- especially when it comes to killing and repressing each other to prove that their particular god is the true goddamn divinity. Study any century or country you like, of any culture or race: The implements and buzz-words may be different, but the wars are constant and the suffering is brutally identical.

As for gender: In my lifetime, women have been heads of state in Israel, India, Pakistan, and England, with no appreciable change in the behavior of realpolitik. (The same was true for Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, and Catherine the Great, to name a few.) Women in the workplace haven't changed the rules of work. Women now compose half the delegates to our political conventions, and we've seen what an edifying difference that's made in our political life -- none, zero, zip. Men still commit about 90% of our violent crimes, as they always have, but all those bad boys got half their DNA from their mothers, as they always have. And their crimes are pretty much the same in every era, everywhere.

Every snowflake may be unique as it flutters to earth, but you'd never know that by looking at a snow-covered field. As a writer I've exposed my most private feelings and experiences, only to receive letter after letter about how what I've written is exactly the same as the experience of complete strangers with supposedly different backgrounds, different DNA, different everything. (I'm not complaining, actually. I think that's wonderful.)

All of which is to say: Individuality is a vastly overrated quality. There's really very little of it out there. I'm not saying that's good or bad. It just is. We are far more alike than different. Even our individual, prideful insistence that we are so very different, is a trait we share in common.

Looked at in this light, the whole idea of cloning seems an enormous redundancy.

As Robert Wright wrote in Time: "My next-door neighbor -- or the average male anywhere on the globe -- is a 99.9% accurate genetic copy of me." Contemplate that: 99.9% identical DNA between all men, and between all women. And the difference between men and women is only a sliver less: about 99.8% identical. In short: We begin life as virtual carbon copies of each other. And we continue through life in much the same way. For most practical purposes, we're already clones.

I am not trying to minimize the importance of that tiny difference which gives each a separate face. If I believe anything in my bones, I believe in the sanctity of the individual. I am only pointing out that our obsessive concern with individuality is, to put it mildly, lopsided.

I suspect that the reason we insist on our individuality so vehemently is precisely because we are so much alike. If we didn't stand up for our shreds of uniqueness, we would be swamped by our inescapable sameness. Our specialness may be tiny, so small that you can barely see it under a super-microscope, but it gives us that sense of self without which we spiritually and emotionally cannot bear life.

How important is the tiny? Consider this: A human being of your own gender is 99.9% your DNA clone; a human being of the opposite gender, roughly 99.8%. But a chimpanzee -- yes, any chimpanzee -- is about 99.6% the clone of any human being. We share more than 99% of our DNA with the chimps. Thus "tiny" is so important that an infinitesimal variation is enough to determine the huge difference between the history created by chimpanzees and the history created by human beings.

Most of us naturally created, almost perfect clones feel revulsion, even a kind of panic, at the idea of lab-created perfect clones. Some express their fear as a religious objection; with most, it's purely instinctive. One George Annas, identified by The New York Times as "a health law professor and ethicist" (I have yet to understand what an "ethicist" is), recently told a Senate subcommittee that cloning a human being would be tantamount to "moral terrorism." If that ain't panic, what is?

Why should natural 99.8% clones fear manufactured 100% clones? It's not as though the clones' DNA would be any less human than ours. So what are we scared of?

I suspect our panic -- or, at the least, our unease -- has two roots. First, there's the question of identity. We are so much the same, in so many ways, that our identity as individuals is our most fragile and precious possession. So much so, that when an individual's identity becomes severely disrupted, the person is considered clinically insane. That's how big the tiny can be. For all the fantasies of recreating Albert Einstein, and for all the ego-tripping of the few who desire to replicate themselves, the idea of perfect duplicates -- scientifically created and controlled -- is profoundly threatening to what small shreds of identity we've each been able to concoct and preserve. And the notion that our little natural identity will be left to fend for itself, while some faceless far-off officialdom selects a favored few to be duplicated according to standards that we can't control -- well, it's difficult to imagine a scenario more threatening.

But, secondly, we are also intimidated by the power of the tiny. For, in fact, there's no way to make an exact human clone. As a scientist friend explained to me, DNA in embryos is very susceptible to influences. Scientists use the term "gene expression." You may carry a gene -- say, a gene that makes you susceptible to cancer -- but it doesn't follow that this gene will be "expressed" or activated. The expressing of a gene depends upon factors, influences, outside the individual. "Depending on initial conditions," my friend said, "there'll be different degrees of gene expression; for instance, people who carry the same genes don't necessarily have the same eye color." The factors are so many and so variable, and the genes (especially when in embryo) are so susceptible to influence, that the possibilities of tiny changes are almost infinite. And, as we have seen, a tiny change can have enormous consequences, making for entirely different outcomes.

Take identical twins -- since the scientists say that cloned human beings would be, genetically, the same as identical twins. My brothers are identical twins; they have 100% the same DNA. Until they were teens, no one outside our family could tell them apart. Yet as soon as they were born, right out of the chute, they were entirely different people. Even as infants, one was aggressive and rebellious and one was far more accepting. My scientist friend says that this is because of their different experiences (due, he thinks, to different positions) in the same womb.

All wombs are different; even the conditions within one woman's womb will vary from year to year. So a human embryo, brought to term in a different womb, is going to be a different person, even with identical DNA. In matters of DNA, the tiny is all-important, and even a clinically controlled womb is going to produce tiny differences with unimaginable consequences. Most of us don't know the scientific particulars, but our century has shown us that science always creates more than it intends. From every scientific development springs something disturbing and new. Given the history of our century, we can't be blamed for fearing what the tiny yet enormous difference in cloned human beings will produce.

Well. We're going to find out. Because if it can be done, it will be done. (My friend was enthusiastic about setting up a human cloning operation in China, far from American restraints; he even spoke of the possibilities of cloning the dead.) And so our small, threatened shreds of personal identity will seem smaller still, and will surely be more threatened. We will be faced with having to stand up for ourselves even more fiercely, in a world even more hostile to individuality. As always, the test tubes will test us. We are weary of being tested by technology, but that seems to be the condition and challenge of the 21st century. We have no idea where we're going, and that is awful for so many who don't know who they are; who feel unique, but don't feel their uniqueness respected; who are so alike, yet so alone, and are so often torn apart by that paradox.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Letters at 3AM
Letters at 3AM: As Time Goes By
Letters at 3AM: As Time Goes By
"I'm not quitting. I'm turning," says Michael Ventura in his final column

Michael Ventura, Nov. 14, 2014

Letters at 3am: The World 
That Calls Itself
Letters at 3am: The World That Calls Itself "the World"
We're capable of so much – and look what we've settled for

Michael Ventura, Oct. 31, 2014

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle