This piece was published on February 8, 2001 in the opinion page of the Philadelphia Inquirer under the title "DNA and the death of love". Observing the fifth birthday of "Dolly", the cloned sheep, it is a commentary on the underlying attitudes toward human life that led to the eventual legalization by the British government of research on cloned (and un-cloned) human embryos under the age of 14 days. Their selection of a 14-day cut-off was not arbitrary. It corresponds to the appearance in the human embryo of the so-called "primitive streak", the first visible evidence of neurological tissue, that is a brain. The promoters of this approach argue that since no "brain tissue" is apparent before day 14 of development, then there would be no possibilty of "consciousness" and therefore no possibiliy of "personhood". Since brain tissue is required for "consciousness", experimentation on the human "pre-person" is justifiable. Recent attempts by British scientists to experiment on human-animal hybrid embryos has met with opposition.She’s almost five and there’s no doubt about it: Dolly, the first clone of the DNA of an adult mammal, is no one-hit wonder. The “nuclear transfer” technology that brought her to us, first reported by Dolly’s Scottish progenitors in 1996, has been successfully reproduced in other animal species by researchers around the world. Now the British parliament has approved legislation allowing the same techniques to be used with human genetic material.
It is now legal for British scientists to extract a full complement of human DNA from any adult cell, and inject it into an egg from which the normal female complement of DNA has been removed. Under carefully controlled conditions, the “fertilized” egg would be coaxed to grow as a human embryo, multiplying for up to 14 days, just enough time to ripen its stem cells. The embryo would then be drawn and quartered, and its stem cells manipulated further to correct the pathologies of its single parent. The expectation of significant economic benefit has already prompted the British government to invest heavily in the technology.
The British decision is certainly unprecedented but hardly unexpected. For years, researchers from a broad range of academic disciplines have been busy attempting to blur the clear distinction between humans and animals. Some lawyers now designate zoo, farm and laboratory animals, not to mention family pets, as beneficiaries of legal rights. Biologists have offered new evidence that parrots and dolphins have stunning cognitive and communicative abilities akin to ours. Harvard ant expert Edward O. Wilson claims that human reason, like animal intelligence, results from complex brain circuitry, and that human freedom doesn’t exist at all: we are just “an exposed negative waiting to be dipped into developer fluid”.
The message is that humans are really no different than animals, just more developed. And so, the passions and ideals, the creativity and purposefulness that seem to confer an extraordinary character on our existence are written off as evolved traits molded by the mix of our genetic blueprint and the jumbled environmental “dip” in which we grow. There is no longer reason to believe that each and every human person plays a unique and unrepeatable role in the world. Anyone (and therefore everyone) is expendable and may be copied.
The real casualty here is not only the special status we humans may hold as free and rational beings, but moreover, that distinctive ability that most clearly separates us from other animals: our capacity to love. After all, to be an animal is easy. It comes natural. Being truly human on the other hand is quite difficult. In a certain sense, it requires doing violence to our animal nature and beginning a personal transformation.
Becoming human is a process strengthened or weakened by deliberate personal choices not random forces of nature. Love helps us overcome our animal nature because it helps us to seek the good of another before our own good. “Survival of the fittest” has no place here. Acts of genuine self-donation humanize and liberate. Acts of self-indulgence enslave and corrupt our capacity to love. We can become authentically human only by learning to love: discovering it, experiencing it and putting it into effect. It is the only means we have to draw out from our “animality” the traits that define our “humanity”.
Human love points us toward a higher standard of life. In his new book, “Dependent Rational Animals”, Alasdair MacIntyre also recognizes the critically important, humanizing effect of this paradox of human existence: the interplay of human autonomy and human dependency. On the one hand, there is a certain sovereignty and self-possession implicit in human behavior; we are innately capable of self-directed action. But, according to MacIntyre, autonomy must always be considered linked to the plain-as-day fact of human dependency. By acknowledging our dependency -- not just in infancy and old age, but also throughout our lives -- we can begin to recognize a simple yet profound truth: we need others to become fully human. Without reference to others, our self-possession would become meaningless self-indulgence, isolation and loneliness.
Both autonomy and dependency are equal, complementary and necessary characteristics of the human condition, like two sides of the same coin. To emphasize one over the other is to become blind in one eye, to lose any hope of depth perception.
On the surface, the cloning of adult human DNA seems filled with the promise of life and health. But implicit in the language of cloning is a destructive logic that contradicts any possibility of authentically human love, the paradigm of which is the fruitful love of spouses for one another and for their child.
We cannot know what kind of organism will result from the human nuclear transfer experiments now legalized in Britain, but one thing is certain. Cloning is the re-creation of a human being in isolation. Arguably, the progenitor of the clone engages in the ultimate form of self-indulgence: a radical affirmation of personal autonomy, and the obstinate denial of the value of our inherent dependency and need for others. Unlike the words of the Tina Turner song, love is not “just a second hand emotion”. Love is absolutely necessary, in our beginning and at each moment of our existence, and it is the arduous, elusive goal to which we must aspire if we are to be worthy of the name “human”.