March 30, 2006

· Sociology

Here’s an apposite comment from P.Z. Myers about someone who has had some cells from his late pet dog, Tito, cultured and frozen:

This is a personal decision, and I wouldn’t argue one way or the other about what Hank should do; it sounds like he’s wrestled over the issues already. All I can say is what I would do if I were in his sorrowful position.

I wouldn’t even try cloning.

… the essence of Tito isn’t reducible to a few million cells or a few billion nucleotides. While the genome is an influence and a constraint—a kind of broadly defined bottle to hold the essence of a dog—the stuff we care about, that makes an animal unique and special, is a product of its history. It’s the accumulation of events and experience and memory that generates the essentials of a personality and makes each of us unique.

Even if cloning were reliable and cheap, I wouldn’t go for it. It would produce an animal that looks like Tito, and would be good and worthy as an individual in its own right, but it wouldn’t be Tito.

I’ve half-joked before that, purely because of this basic point, sociologists should welcome human cloning with open arms. Technically achieving the sort of things many people imagine they could do with cloning —recreate a lost child or relative, produce a new version of themselves—would in fact have just the opposite effect. It would show just how important social structure, local environment and historical contingencies are to forming people. And that’s without even getting in to the metaphysical questions of what’s essential about people’s identity. Some people are going to be really upset when they realize that the genome is not some kind of magic essence of self. I hope public understanding catches up with the reality before actual cloned people are subject to the resentment of their creators.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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