There’s a great Michael Keaton movie from the mid-‘90s called Multiplicity, in which Doug, a busy contractor/husband/father, has himself duplicated so that so that he can have more free time. He ends up with a bunch of different clones of himself, each of which manifests a different part of his personality. One of them is a hyper-macho sports freak, one is gay, one is mentally challenged. The joke is that with each further clone – each copy of a copy – the stuff that makes the original able to function as a regular person gets more and more broken down. In 1996, when the movie was released, human cloning seemed about as possible as humans being able to fly. It was a crazy, silly concept, and a funny, entertaining movie that I’d long forgotten about. But with all of the cloning stories in the news this last week, I couldn’t help but think about it again. And suddenly, the concept doesn’t seem so silly anymore.
I’m sure you’ve heard about the first piece of news; the FDA has approved meat and milk from cloned animals for consumption. Now, I admittedly don’t know much about the science behind cloning, but the idea of eating meat from a cloned animal just kind of creeps me out. And it got me wondering. Will genes mutate during the cloning process? And what happens if they start making clones from clones, like they did in Multiplicity, or if they breed clones with other clones? What effect will that have on the food that we eat? They’re saying that right now, the cloned animals will just be used for breeding purposes –in other words, we won’t be eating them any time soon – but eventually, foods made from the offspring of those cloned animals will show up on the supermarket shelves. I’ve been making an effort to buy hormone-free milk products, as well as organic meats, and I appreciate that foods are labeled as such. But there aren’t any plans right now to label milk or meat that comes from cloned animals, and that concerns me. I want to know what I’m feeding my kids, and I suspect that a lot of other people do, too.
The second piece of cloning news that I read about just yesterday is that a privately funded company has finally cloned a human embryo. They destroyed it after just a few days, but the scientists involved were clear that, had it been implanted into a woman’s uterus, it most likely would have continued to develop into a full term baby. As in, a carbon copy of the guy whose genetic material they used to make the clone. Right now, it’s not illegal to make a baby using this technology, and the fact that someone almost did it has bioethicists freaking out. But to tell you the truth, I’m less freaked out about this than I am about the food thing. Of course, I don’t believe that humans should be cloned – it doesn’t take much of an imagination to envision the horrors that might result – but practically speaking, I’m not sure that there’s much of a risk of it happening any time soon. Even if less-than-scrupulous companies started offering cloned babies, I honestly can’t imagine that people would run out and sign up, especially when it’s not even possible to anticipate what some of the problems might be. I mean, I know lots of people who didn’t want to buy an iPhone right away because they thought the first version would have too many kinks.
What does freak me out, however, is the idea of genetically engineering babies. This is different from cloning, but it uses similar technology that would allow parents to pick and choose the genetic traits that they want their children to have. That, I think, is much closer to becoming a reality than cloning, and really, really troubling. I mean, come on, if every hyper-competitive, rich urban couple I know had been allowed to pick their kids’ genes, LA would be teeming not only with wanna be models, but with wanna be models who are also prodigies. Talk about unfair advantages for the rich. And that reminds me of another movie I saw back in the mid-‘90s. It was called Gattica.