Attack of the clones

I was recently reinformed that the word ‘science’ is derived from the Latin word ‘scientia’ which translates simply to ‘knowledge’. This is a rather apt name for science as it is, at its core, concerned with the gathering of knowledge. We can attribute this gathering of knowledge to oodles of advancements that have made our lives better and longer, or our lifestyles all the more enjoyable.

(Image: Sterling evans, painted by Montyne)

Upon reading this story on the front page of the PopSci website about the cloning of a majestic bull for the purposes of perpetual bull fighting (and subsequent bull dying) it got me thinking: are there places that science shouldn’t stick its nose? While it’s not too difficult to imagine that this specific application of a scientific discovery, a la cloning, is divisive (after all, the bull’s genetic destiny has now been rewritten to perpetually fight and die in an arena), the topic of cloning works well to explore this question.

(Image: Malpass93)

I find myself reminded of a line from Ian Malcolm (played by Jeff Goldblum) in the movie Jurassic Park. When asked about his thoughts on bringing dinosaurs back to the land of the living the chaos theorist said the following: “…your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Although pitched as a family-friendly popcorn film, Jurassic Park seemed to be exploring the idea of ‘unbridled science’, as put forth by Ian Malcolm’s statement.

(Image: Wikipedia: en)

Three years after the release of Jurassic Park the world heard the news of the creation of Dolly, a domestic sheep cloned from an adult somatic cell. Dolly became a household name, separated from the rest of the flock by the way she came into being. Dolly lived for six years to be replaced later by headlines about stem cell research which has now led back to the news about a cloned bull named Got.

(Image: Jackhynes)

In regards to cloning, perhaps it’s not so much a question of whether science should’ve ever been able to explore its possibilities to begin with, but where the responsibility of its practical application lies after the initial ‘gathering of knowledge’. Cloning a sheep named Dolly may well be just proof of the gathered knowledge, stem cell research certainly has the potential to greatly improve our way of life (although it’s not without its vocal critics), while cloning a bull for the purposes of fighting and killing it again and again may well be an example of a misapplication of knowledge.

What I want to know is this: does science have any responsibility to such misapplications?


13 Responses to “Attack of the clones”
  1. ko-zee-ii says:

    This type of argument has always baffled me. It’s fine to cage and use animals for food like purposes, but the second it involves some sort of sport or cruelty, the moral majority choose to arc up. This is not directed at this particular article, but more so at the nay-sayers who will surely comment on animal rights and what not, below.

    Animals do have rights. They have a right to be the beef pattie in my burger, the eggs and bacon in my brekkie roll and the milk in my coffee. To then spark righteous indignation over their use in bull fighting is pure sophistry.

    We are at the top of the food chain, the Darwinian pinnacle and anything below lives at our discretion, and is at our mercy. We may delude ourselves into thinking this isn’t the case, but when you think about what is intrinsically Australian…meat pies and the Sunday BBQ, it all falls into place now, doesn’t it?

  2. Shonky Adonis says:

    I agree that the missaplication of science is certainly possible. However, I am unsure as to whether or not it is up to the scientist to decide whether or not they are “sticking their nose where it doesn’t belong.”

    Many of science’s accomplishments can be held accountable for contributions to both positives and negatices in society/the world as their application changes. The inventors of the combustion engine, for example, could not have fathomed that one day ICBMs, capable of delivering deadly payloads of explosives from one side of the world to the other, would be a tool of war as a result of decades of upgrades/modifications to their creation.

    I do agree that cloning a bull to fight over and over again is pretty messed up, but while science is what enabled this I do not believe the scientists responsible for the technology’s existence can really be held responsible. Unless they set out with the expressed reason of chaining a bull and its subsequent clones to perpetual torment and death. If that’s true they’re just a bunch of weird sadistic freaks.

  3. BeDazzled pants says:

    Science may well mean knowledge, but there is an inherent difference between the gaining of knowledge and the wisdom to know what to do with it. Undoubtedly there will be purists or naturalists out there that think that science has already overstepped its boundaries in regards to places it has stuck its nose, but as we are the masters of our own domain and are limited only by our technology and imagination, who is to say where science should draw the line and call it quits. I for one am all for letting science and our scientists alike plumb the depths of the unknown, after all that is what science is all about right?

  4. Dude from Sydney says:

    Hi, great post.
    The short answer is a very definite ‘No’.
    There is a great line from StarTrek Voyager (yes I am a trekky, get over it an move on) in which the Scientist Tritrell (a fantasy Einstein/Manhattan Project Scientist) is talking about his discovery which led to the making of a weapon capable of, basically, mass destruction. He says this
    “It is not possible to be a scientist, unless you believe that all the knowledge of the universe and all the power that it bestows is of intrinsic value to everyone. And one must share that knowledge, and allow it to be applied - and then be willing to live with the consequences.”
    While I note that at the end of that sentence he basically states that the consequences of the misapplication of technology do burden the scientist the question is whether they should be held guilty from without. Of course a scientist, who sees their theories or creations utilised to destroy or kill can feel some burden of guilt, but that is for them to deal with, for them to chose to feel.
    Knowledge is, itself, an ends. While it may also provide the means to weave our dreams into reality it most definitely cannot, and should not be viewed as evil in and of itself. The knowledge that you can do something does not mean that you should. Now, if you were to utilise said knowledge to create a devastating weapon and then use that weapon then, yes, you can be held responsible, not the person who first theorised that it was possible.
    Nuclear energy is an amazing force which has allowed humanity to explore whole new areas of knowledge which have benefited countless humans. Unfortunately the world must also recognise that this knowledge was also used to kill. However, without it we would not have nuclear therapies, we would not have space exploration and we would not have nuclear power which, no matter what anyone says, is the cleanest power generation human kind has yet come up with.
    I am a big man and thus have the knowledge that I could probably pop out onto the street and physically dominate most people that I see. I do not. The knowledge that I have this power, it is static and cannot by itself hurt anyone. It takes intent, and it is the intent which must be scrutinised and not to knowledge itself.
    To deal specifically with the topic at hand; cloning and the use of it. I don’t particularly think that we should; that is a personal belief. But knowing that we can is pretty awesome.
    Guy from Sydney

  5. @ko-zee-ii Your eloquent phrasing and vivid examples only succeeded in one thing: making me want a meat pie. Jokes aside, your post reminds me of something a friend of mine had to write an article on for university: ’speciesism’. Basically this refers to the belief that animals are the same as (if not better than) us humans and deserve to be treated in the same way.

    @Shonky - Some good points raised in your comment. I’m still undecided as to whether scientists should be accountable for their discoveries and subsequent creations. Alfred Nobel invented dynamite and was somewhat disheartened to discover that when he read his erroneously written eulogy (the newspaper thought he had died when it had been his brother), he got an insight into the legacy he was leaving to the world: that of a merchant of death. He left a large amount of his estate to funding the beginnings of the Nobel Peace Prize. I’m sure there are countless examples of inventions or scientific discoveries that have been done out of the very best of intentions but have led to questionable or even destructive application. Humanity, after all, is rather apt at destroying itself.

    @BeDazzled - Succinctly put, but do you have any ideas about what might constitute science going too far (as implied in your comment about the inherent difference between the gathering of knowledge being different to having the wisdom to know what to do with it)?

    @Dude - And here I was thinking that Star Trek was only for a select few! What an awesome quote. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on why you don’t think we should be cloning.

  6. Muffin says:

    Okay so I won’t write a whole essay in response but I’d just like to point out that knowledge is power, and with power comes responsibility. So yeah, while scientists may have the ability to do a thing (e.g. cloning), they also need to consider the ethical ramifications of their actions.

    If you believe that we were created by God, and that humans have souls (which I do) - where does that leave us when scientists start cloning humans? Would they be soulless? Do these scientists then become on par with God? It becomes one big clusterfuck of moral dilemmas.

    So in answer to your question… absolutely.

  7. Dude from Sydney says:

    Re: cloning

    Cloning simply raises too many possibilities and problems. That is i am talking about cloning whole beings (be them animals or humans) rather than organs.

    Cloning organs is awesome. Sign me up for a new liver every 200 thousand kilometres.

    Let’s focus on cloning people; and once again i will probably point to some sci-fi novels/moving pictures to illustrate my point. To do this I will actually utilise my MASSIVE BRAIN to point out why I can use sci-fi to illustrate philosophical points:

    A significant portion of recent developments in technology have been made possible because of science fiction. While individual shows and writers may not be able to accurately portray futuristic societies, they can relatively predict soon to be technologies based on the technology of today. And because they dream, so do the children who watch them. These children dream big dreams and then, when they grow up and do science degrees and learn about the real universe they think ‘hang on, remember that awesome hand held communicator from Star Trek, that would totally work if we did this’. They can do this because now their feet are firmly planted on the earth, but thanks to Sci-fi their minds are still soaring as far as their dreams can take them.

    When a sci-fi writer develops a ‘new tech’ he or she (probably usually he) strives (again, usually) to come up with some sort of pseudo science to back it up. A rationale (this goes for nearly everyone) that requires a fairly solid grounding in real science. The tech therefore gains a reality of its own.

    This new tech is then explored in the world that they have created and before your eyes a somewhat far fetched, but also eerily true depiction of the social and moral implications of this new technology unfold. These are intelligent people exploring facets of human technological evolution for us, before we take the plunge.
    Since a lot of the ‘inventions’ they have thought up have now come to pass, relatively unchanged in real life application from their on screen depictions, might it also not be warranted to take a look at their social commentary before we do anything.

    Now, as an avid watcher of all things ‘Star’, with a dabbling in most things ‘Babylon’ (and a degree in ancient/’modern’ history as well as political sciences) I can point to those forays of social exploration and say ‘hey, what they wrote in the early nineties is now being discussed in the papers’.

    With that being said, and you may disagree with me and that is fine, but I would say that you cannot dismiss the dire warnings of literature and cinema which basically invariably say cloning is a bad idea. To boil it down (and this will include a small amount of my on postulations) the ability to clone a human could (and I say could) lead to a decay of the social mores surrounding the preservation of life. Being that for the majority of the western world human life is held to be sacrosanct (apart from in Texas) this is a fairly hot topic. If you are able to simply copy another human being, what then happens to the first one?

    This topic was most beautifully discussed by Aldus Huxley a long time ago in A Brave New World. It was further discussed, although he didn’t know it, by Orwell in Animal Farm (‘some are more equal than others’). It was stated by Captain Jean Luc Picard in an episode called Drum Head where they were discussing the loss of civil rights and in another when they were discussing what to do with Data ‘what would happen to that race, would you chain an entire species to slavery and servitude?’.

    Cloning gives us the ability to fix our selves. It also gives us the ability to create a servile race of semi-conscious beings. It also gives us the ability to give ourselves a measure of immortality.

    I believe that that when you create a human it should be special and the ability to create beings for whom the world does not care you would irrevocably take away from humanity something which makes us special. It may start with things like whole sheep, and other animals. But it could so easily be moved to humans.

    It is a slippery slope argument, true, an argument sneered at by most people, but that doesn’t make it wrong.

  8. Guy Incognito says:

    “What I want to know is this: does science have any responsibility to such misapplications?”

    Just an opinion:

    No, “science” has no responsibility at all. Science is a (or the) method by which humans (maybe other animals?) gather information about the world in which they find themselves living. Do *scientists* have a responsibility? Well, I believe yes, just like any other people in any other area. But, as mentioned by others above, that should only extend so far as is reasonable: if a scientist develops something with no harmful intention, then someone else turns it in a harmful direction, then the second person is responsible, not the scientist. Obviously it can be more complex than this.

    I think an analogy might help: If someone modifies their home’s plumbing to create some kind of weapon (use your imagination) and someone dies as a result, the plumber shouldn’t be held responsible for installing the regulation plumbing in the first place, even though it allowed for the modification. And even more importantly, *Plumbing* itself certainly can’t be responsible, as I’m not sure that even makes sense.

    Nice post as well.

  9. Evie says:

    Scientists should take responsibility for their actions as individuals. I agree with the person above (Guy Incognito) that they shouldn’t be held responsible for perversions of their creations, but too often I think scientists wash their hands completely of moral responsibility for potentially very harmful stuff.

    I recently heard a prominent scientist say in an interview (okay this is paraphrasing) “we just come up with the technology, it’s up to other people to regulate it”.

    So I get that this is a generally accepted point of view. But I don’t agree with it. If you culture the bacteria that infects a thousand million people with a deadly virus, I am sorry, but you bear responsibility for that. Laws are muddy, and are often applied as a behaviour modifier after the fact, not as a means of prevention. There has to be a level of accountability.

  10. FNQ guy says:

    This is definitely one of those topics to get some heated debates going! In short I think science needs to have some accountability. Some absolute boundaries need to be in place whilst the gray area in between ‘yes’ and ‘no’ needs to be regulated.

    Examples of ‘yes’ might be organs (although black markets could capitalise on this) and rare species to save extinction. I recall the failed attempts to clone a Tasmanian Tiger and also the Jurassic Park comment as mentioned is very relevant.

    Examples of ‘no’ cloning for me would include people. I’m thinking of the 6th Day here, risk of abuse of this power outweighs the supposed benefits. The man playing God idea also springs to mind. Look at that Octa-mum from the US with all those kids - I bet she didn’t count on getting that many kids! I’m probably deviating from the topic a little here though.

    I’d like to draw a slightly extreme parallel between cloning and nuclear power. Although nuclear power is extremely efficient and produces little waste product for the output it produces if this power is not managed well (excuse the pun) have a look at Chernobyl to see what can happen. I don’t think you’ll find many people arguing that we should have nuclear weapons either.

    So in conclusion the risk of the abuse of this cloning ability in the long term is my biggest concern as opposed to all the good things it could do.

  11. @ Muffin - Do you have any suggestions as to how scientists could be more ethical? Are you thinking more along the lines of an ideal (i.e. it’s how it should be) or more about some form of regulatory body (beyond what is already in place)?

    @ Dude from Sydney - You’ve raised some very insightful thoughts in your reply, thanks for sharing. I may even take inspiration from some of your arguments and use them for a post in the future. I certainly find your proposed link between science fiction and ’science actual’ to be thought provoking. The notion of ‘art imitating life which imitates art’ comes to mind. Are you suggesting that cloning would only become a problem for society because it has been depicted so in fiction, or are you simply saying that fiction offers us some sort of warning that should be adhered to before such things are attempted?

    @ Guy Incognito - One of my favourite sayings is ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’. I certainly used to believe that good intentions were the best approach to any situation, and while it certainly doesn’t hurt to have them, are they the be-all and end-all of waving accountability?

    @ Evie - Now we’re getting onto the interesting stuff. Where would you suggest the line is drawn for the responsibilities of science to ensure it’s not doing the wrong thing by society?

    @ FNQ guy - Interesting. Your first paragraph made me think of some sort of court that determined whether a particular scientific pursuit was ethical or unethical. I believe that one of the biggest problems with any major topic in society is there seems to be this unspoken rule that we shouldn’t talk about them. Remember that we’re not supposed to talk about ’sex, religion or politics’ at the dinner table, and yet they cover some of the areas of life that people are most passionate about!

  12. Evie says:

    Hah - tough question and the answer is “I don’t know” at least not without hours of research and thought. But for the sake of argument…

    Let’s take the proviso “first, do no harm” that is line one, point one in medical school. Of course, as someone mentioned above, you can’t really help it if someone takes your potentially amazing technology and tweaks it to make it devastating.

    But there HAS to be accountability, especially when laboratories are propped up by big businesses with vested interests not in health, but in making money. You have to be able to turn back to these labs and say, you messed up, now fix it. Or pay for it. To make a comparison, take the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Nobody cared about that oil rig until it blew up and ruined entire ecosystems. Why should scientists wash their hands of responsibility when its actions are potentially way more harmful than that of, say, Wall Street stockbrokers?

    Tesla I am avoiding your question but there’s really no line. At least no rigid line. Scientists must balance the pros and cons in their own heads and weigh them up. Does the potential for harm here outweigh the positives? If there are serious penalties for scientists stuffing up in a major way, they will construct their own lines.

  13. @ Evie - I’m all about asking the tough questions! It’s interesting that you mentioned big business as backing certain laboratories - is that a possible way to shift accountability further down the line (i.e. from scientists to their backers)?

    Your final paragraph seems to suggest a moral code for scientists that I find rather interesting. If the onus of responsibility is on each individual scientist, then that may make it easier to determine who is accountable (or more accountable in certain situations), but may not be entirely practical for dictating what is right and what is wrong in a general sense.

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