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HOME > Review > To err is human - but to clone one divine?

To err is human - but to clone one divine?

Can it be Done?

Few scientists today actually doubt the possibility of human cloning. Some, including the famous reproductive biologist Richard Seed, have made it their stated aim to do so. Currently, in Europe it is illegal to conduct research into human cloning. In the US, a "5-year moratorium" has been introduced. So then, there will be no one cloned in Europe & North America any time soon.

Why not? I hear you ask. Most laws are frequently broken, at some time or another. Well, in this case things are more complex. You can’t just go to your local chemist & buy the equipment and chemicals you need; you must have a lab and the provision to order whatever you may need. This initially will cost a fortune, and you need the relevant contacts to get your equipment. Alternatively, you need a day job in a lab that gives you the access to everything you may need. You are then in a position where any cloning work you do can only at best be a hobby, albeit more extreme than most! You then have the knowledge that there are others in the lab, and if any of them find out what you’re up to, you will never work in a lab again. It would be very difficult to keep all evidence under wraps in such an environment.

Finally, consider that from an academic point of view; it just isn’t very interesting. The barriers to cloning one individual from another are practical. When a human being is cloned, he will be famous, but his impact on science will be minimal. Identical twins are clones; a successful cloning experiment will furnish us with precious little else other that a recipe for cloning. Studying other aspects of development would yield new, functional and possibly groundbreaking data. So then, on this basis most people would rather study something else. The only real incentive would be money. 

Why Bother?
Most biologists will tell you that they are against cloning humans. Ian Wilmut, the ‘creator’ of Dolly has frequently said he finds the idea "repugnant". Others will argue that there is no reason to. However, what these people refer to in this case is cloning of a whole organism. I too would say it is pointless. The only conceivable application of the technology would be to satisfy the egotistical whims of people who should know better. Sadly there is no doubt that these people will pay handsomely for such a facility. Even if it remains a criminal practice, it probably wouldn’t remain so absolutely everywhere, so these people should be able to go waste their money somewhere in 5-10 years.

Evolutionary Effects

I have heard it suggested that human cloning is the "beginning of the end" for the human race, the rational being as follows. In an evolutionary context, cloning is a bad thing. Evolution relies on the continued ‘mixing & matching’ of different versions of different genes. If one particular arrangement of genes confers a significant advantage to it’s bearer, then it’s bearer should have more opportunity that his pears to pass on his genes, including the advantageous region. In this way, this arrangement of genes has a higher representation in future generations, making the species ‘fitter’ as a whole. One effect of cloning is to bypass this re-arrangement, so no new configurations arise; hence evolution itself is impaired. This certainly helps explain why almost all higher organisms utilise sexual reproduction, at huge cost to the individual in terms of time, effort and above all energy.

My argument goes as follows: there are 6 billion people on the planet at the moment. For cloning to have any real impact on the natural ‘flow’ of genes through the generations, the number of people that would need to be cloned would be absolutely staggering. Considering the initial cost that such a technology would demand means that very few people will be able to afford it. Admittedly the cost will fall, I believe that by the time it becomes realistically affordable for any but the richest of the rich, the novelty of the idea will have worn off & people will have moved on to another fad; possibly ‘Designer Children’; but that’s just speculation. And this assumes that human cloning will be legal, which is another kettle of fish.


One evening around dinner, a friend of mine, a medical student, asked me if there was any reason why, with relevant advances in neurosurgery, you could not clone yourself a new body, and then have your nervous system transplanted into the new body. This would avoid the ravages of old ages and/or sustained injuries and possibly allow you to exist indefinitely; just exchanging bodies every couple of decades. First I must point out that a ‘brain transplant’ is not a realistic possibility, nor will it be any time soon. The nervous system is an enormously complex piece of machinery, and has proved very resilient to medical advance. However, brushing past that issue, it did trouble me for a while; indeed why wouldn’t it work? Then it dawned on me, this assumes that the brain itself is unaffected by time, which is simply not the case. There are many neurological diseases that are late onset; senility is a trait associated with age and so on. It is quite clear that with extreme old age, the brain just doesn’t function as it once did. Children can learn at a pace quite unobtainable by adults, and this trend by and large continues with time. Imagine then the state of a nervous system 200 years old in a new & fit body. Although this idea may prolong your life, the human brain has spent it’s evolutionary life with a lifespan of less then 30 years to deal with, it is not equipped for a working life measured in hundreds of years.

Cloned Organs

The main practical interest in cloning at the moment is for organ transplants. There is a large black market for organs in the world today. This is because there is a much higher demand for transplant organs than there is supply. Also, it is usually a matter of life or death, so people will pay whatever it takes to get a new liver or kidney etc. Still, due to histoincompatibility, many transplants fail. Everyone, bar identical twins is genetically different. Our immune systems recognise anything that is not marked as ‘self’ with special signals. Hence, the new organ is perceived by the immune system as something to fight off. This can be circumvented to an extent, but the transplant patient will be on immunosuppressive drugs for the rest of their life; hardly ideal.

With advances in understanding what chemical signals lead to the differentiation of certain cell types, it is hoped that from one cell, development can be directed to one specific cell type only, or towards cell types needed to make up a specific organ, and hence that organ. The process of cellular differentiation remains rather poorly understood, but headway is always being made. It is conceivable that development could be directed to omit the formation of a nervous system and the resultant body then harvested for organs, though this idea rests well with very few people. It is unlikely to ever be utilised.
In neurology, it appears that cellular regeneration does occur, though only in ‘glia’ cells, not the neurones that make up the ‘pathways’ down which the impulses travel & enable the nervous system to function. However, it seems that it may be possible for these glia cells to differentiate into a neurone, given the right stimuli. Hence, it is possible that repair of brain damage or degenerative disease could be remedied using cells created by cloning techniques.


Arguments about cloning and genetics tend to be fought at either extreme; there are people who believe there is something profoundly wrong in ‘meddling’ with our genes, of ‘playing god’, while there are other gung ho individuals who see it as the key to a brave new world. I, along with most biologists, take the view that cloning will neither change the world nor have a significant negative impact on it. There are other technologies afoot in biology and the physical sciences that will have much more of an immediate and marked impact on the world. Cloning just seems to frequently clash with peoples’ sense of right and wrong, or natural & unnatural.

Article by Chris McCormack

If you have any comments, views or questions you would like to share, please feel free to email me.

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