Saturday, June 03, 2006

Clones are not the same

Today's silly misunderstanding of cloning comes from the New York Times:
Anyone trying to select a winner at the mule races this weekend in Winnemucca, Nev., will no doubt have a hard time choosing between Idaho Gem and Idaho Star. They may have different names, but they are not necessarily different mules.

Idaho Gem and Idaho Star are clones. They are two of three mules who were born in 2003 as the result of a cloning project at the University of Idaho and Utah State University.
No, no, no! This is like saying "Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen may have different names, but they are not necessarily different people." The two mules, like the Olsen twins or any other identical twins, merely share their DNA. This doesn't mean they're the same mule. This misunderstanding pops up quite a lot (especially with journalists trying to get a nice "twist" on the story for an eye-catching lead) and it's really quite pernicious as it distorts the debate about reproductive cloning.


Blogger driftwood said...

Do you think this is just an issue of poorly understood science, or do you think there might be various odd religious ideas afoot as well? At least in the human case, there seem to be people that are using the genome as a physical proxy for supernatural ideas like souls. I hear anti-abortionists emphasizing the genetic uniqueness a new embryo. They bring this up both in attacks on abortion and on embryo using research. They seem to think that this accords the embryo some special status, but they never explain why being different is worth anything. My suspicion is what they are really thinking is that it now has its own unique soul. I don’t know if that is really what they are up to since they don’t make that claim. Perhaps they realize that it is an unsupportable opinion that they have no argument for.

In the case of christians at least, they probably don’t believe critters like mules have “souls”. But maybe they believe in a related supernatural essence for these other animals. If so, they would be inclined to believe that two mules with the same genes would have to have the same essence.

Your thoughts?

6/03/2006 11:15:00 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

Yes, I've heard this weird argument as well. They seem not to realize that in fact even the genome is not defined at the moment of conception. Immune cells undergo permanent rearrangements of the genome in order to create antibody diversity. Then there's the "epigenome" of methylation, histone modifications, etc. that even begin to differ between identical twins. Plus obviously the subject of this post, identical twins (as if twins each have half a soul or something?). I think that's just anti-abortion people trying to give a bit of scientific patina to the argument that a soul is infused at the moment of conception (which is itself not a moment, as it takes a few hours for the sperm and egg to fuse their nuclei).

And, yes it is poorly understood science, but poorly understood for deeper reasons, even more general than specific religious ideas. I think people have deep-seated intuitions that living things have hidden essences, which is probably how the whole idea of souls got started in the first place.* So even people who aren't really religious are vulnerable to this misunderstanding, since the genome is such a convenient representation of this hidden essence. The reality, that your personal identity is a complicated combination of proteins, lipids, nucleic acids, neural firing patterns, and synaptic connections, isn't as appealing or intuitive.

*I remember reading about a study where children were asked what would happen if you "modified" animals or objects. If you showed them a hammer and said you were going to take off the metal part and whittle the wood into a sculpture, they would say it wasn't a hammer anymore, but a sculpture. But if you took a dog and replaced all its dog parts with cat parts, the kids were convinced that even though it looked like a cat, it was still "really" a dog - i.e. it retained its dog essence.

6/04/2006 10:25:00 PM  
Blogger driftwood said...

That study with the animal essences sounds really interesting. If I did such research, I would want to push into less people like animals. Snakes? Worms?

We also have a problem with whether people are really the “same” in an appropriate sense their whole lives. For instance, does it make sense to prosecute a ninety-year-old man for war crimes committed when he was an ardent young Nazi living in a very different world? Hard to get traction on a question like that, so maybe we just let simplified ideas of the genome and the like do the extra work.

6/04/2006 11:11:00 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

This may not apply directly to war crimes cases, but in general there is a deterrence rationale for prosecuting even reformed criminals (e.g., murder unsolved for 30 years is finally solved due to DNA evidence, but the murderer repented 20 years ago and became a priest) - you should be equally deterred by the threat of someday going to jail whether or not you have undergone a drastic personality change before getting caught. For the "elderly Nazi" case, I'm persuaded by Mark Kleiman's argument that retributive justice has value in that it restores the social status of the victims of the war crimes, by affirming that they are worth avenging. [which would justify punishing the elderly Nazi where incapacitation and deterrence would not.]

In a way, there are already legal means of exculpation on the grounds that you weren't "the same person" when you committed the crime - e.g. temporary insanity. Of course this is more specific - you have to show that at the time of the crime you didn't know that what you were doing was wrong.

6/08/2006 08:28:00 AM  
Blogger driftwood said...

Yes, Kleiman’s argument seems reasonable and puts the individual case into a larger social framework which certainly seems to be the right way to look at genocide. But I don’t buy the deterrence argument for general crime at all. People discount their futures, and 20 or 30 years out, that discount will be steep. I would guess that the effect of such deterrence would be so slight that it would be drowned out in the noise of any attempt to ever measure it.

6/10/2006 08:35:00 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

True, a 20-30 year discount is pretty steep. That might be part of the reason why we have a statute of limitations on many crimes. But I think a "character change" basis for clemency does undermine deterrence at shorter timespans. I mean, what if you believed you could get off scot-free for murder if, for example, you spend two months at a drug rehab center and afterwards are no longer the "same" person who committed the crime? After all, drastic character changes are correlated with the passage of time, but some people do have drastic character changes in short periods of time while others remain essentially the same over their entire lives.

6/12/2006 09:40:00 AM  
Anonymous sakthi said...

It is better to try cloning with animals..its all good.. funny watching animals like that...But its better not to try with human-beings.There are some talks like some of the scientists already start experimenting with human beings..
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Anonymous CreditDoctor said...

I consider the idea of cloning people awful. I think no one will be happy to see a person looking and behaving the way he is doing. The twins is quite another thing.

8/21/2007 06:13:00 AM  
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People discount their futures, and 20 or 30 years out, that discount will be steep. I would guess that the effect of such deterrence would be so slight that it would be drowned out in the noise of any attempt to ever measure it.

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I'm not surprised if people still misunderstand this. You know what, our prime minister here in M******A (too shy to mention) even said that DNA can be expired (in his answer upon the need of taking another DNA sample from our late Deputy Prime Minister, when the DNA sample that has been taken from him last 10 years is still there with the police). So what? LOL.


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Anonymous Tamara Jones said...

It's somewhat irritating seeing yourself not in a mirror but with another person. An identical twin only the same with physical features, but different in attitude. A clone looks and act the same as you, as it refers to process of duplicating something that already exist. Cloning have been done for decades, though mostly are through plants and animals. Never seen one though. Casablanca Ceiling Fans

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