Fictional characters have a habit of popping up again after unpopular deaths. From comic book superheroes to sultry soap opera stars, you just can't keep a good hero down. Leaf through history books and you'll find any number of legendary kings and saviors slated for an eventual return as well.
But what if death weren't the end in real life, too? What if we could bring back some of the world's most extraordinary figures? Could Albert Einstein help us to solve the energy crisis? What kind of album could Ludwig van Beethoven produce in a modern recording studio?
While such notions were previously the domain of fantasy and mysticism, modern science has finally reached the point where such tales of resurrection might have a real-world counterpart: human gene banks. After all, much of who we are boils down to our genes. These little tidbits of information are located on strands of DNA in every cell in the human body. This means that if you had a sample of Einstein's DNA, you'd essentially have a biological blueprint for his brain.
This is where the prospect of cloning enters the picture. Human cloning is currently outlawed in numerous countries, but scientists have successfully produced genetic copies of various animals and could hypothetically perform the same procedure with human genetic material.
Forget the movie images of full-grown zombie men emerging from stainless steel vats of embryonic fluid. These human clones would be normal infants, each brought to term by a human mother. The only difference is that the reproduction is asexual instead of sexual. Scientists would take a donated egg, fuse it with a cell from the person to be cloned and then implant it in the mother. This procedure is known as somatic cell nuclear transfer. Some scientists even think we could clone individuals who are currently dead, provided enough genetic material has been preserved. For more on these issues, read How Human Cloning Will Work.
The resulting clone baby would have none of the memories or experiences of its clone parent. But genetically, it would be identical -- meaning that a clone of Einstein would possess the same mental advantages the original possessed at birth.
Sound like a good idea? Well, not everyone's excited about going to Einstein II's baby shower.
Cloning the Best: Arguments Against Gene Banks
To put it lightly, human cloning is controversial. Major religions, global organizations and entire countries have banned its research, despite the various medical benefits human cloning offers. While some of their concerns are health-related, objections often come down to ethical or religious stances. For the purposes of this article, we'll put aside some of these larger ethical concerns and focus on the potential pros and cons of banking extraordinary genes for future cloning.
The main argument against the creation of such a bank can be summed up in one existential question: What makes me who I am? While genetics contributes a great deal to the answer, there's no getting past that we're all shaped by our experiences. It's the old nature vs. nurture debate. A clone might be born with all the genetic charms of a great scholar or athlete, but his or her subsequent upbringing, education, environment and relationships might steer the person any number of ways.
After all, is the biological child of two talented individuals guaranteed any of the drive or happiness possessed by his or her parents? Think of all the tiny decisions, influences and bits of pure chance that made you who you are today -- if any one of these had chanced to go a different route, how drastically different might your life be?
Another related argument against the cloning of extraordinary individuals is the extraordinary pressure it could put on the children to match up to their clone parents. Critics argue that this and other methods of genetic tinkering would create an atmosphere more akin to racehorse breeding than healthy parenting.
Some critics also fear that such genetic practices are nothing more than a return to the failed science of eugenics, the controlled breeding of human beings to improve the hereditary qualities. During the early 20th century, eugenics programs in the United States were responsible for the involuntary sterilization of thousands. Nazi Germany followed suit, instituting sterilization programs and eventually attempting to eliminate Jewish and non-Aryan populations. Might the banking of extraordinary genes for cloning purposes constitute the establishment of a new master race?
Another major issue to consider is that the human race is still evolving. While some biologists previously said we stopped evolving 50,000 years ago, researchers have identified more than 700 human genes that have evolved over the last 10,000 years. Researchers are just beginning to understand why and how we evolve, so why should we consider ourselves a finished product?
But the supporters of creating a top-shelf gene bank have a few points on their side as well, including the fact that these banks, in essence, already exist.
Bring on the Clones: Arguments for Gene Banks
Banks of extraordinary genes already exist. We just call them sperm banks. As these establishments are in the business of providing quality genetic material to women who need help conceiving, they're discerning with their donors. Sperm banks generally screen donors on a basis of height, education, age and medical history.
In 1980, Robert Graham advanced the concept and founded the Repository for Germinal Choice -- or, as it came to be known, the "Nobel Prize sperm bank." So the idea of saving genetic material from exceptional human specimens is nothing new. We're already doing it. We're just combining the material with the mother's genes. Cloning removes the need for the mother's genes to enter into the picture at all, making her the child's physical mother, but not his or her genetic parent.
And if we did clone these banked individuals? The resulting children would indeed be products of their environment and upbringing, each with their own sense of individuality. They would also have distinct genetic advantages, even if they ultimately squandered them. Parents already can screen pregnancies for genetic disorders such as Down syndrome. Advocates could argue that giving parents the chance to choose the best genes possible for their children is a (giant) step in the same direction.
As for the argument that parents might place unfair expectations on a child cloned from an extraordinary person, supporters point out that such situations are common with children anyway. Many parents push their children to succeed or live vicariously through their achievements. Is a child more prone to mistreatment or love based on who his genetic parent or parents are?
The larger issue of human cloning itself will continue to be a topic of great ethical debate in the decades to come. But if the practice becomes legal and accepted, then the stockpiling of prime genetic material for future cloning will likely happen as an extension of current trends.
Explore the links on the next page to learn more about cloning and genetics.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- Bonsor, Kevin. "How Human Cloning Will Work." HowStuffWorks.com. April 2, 2001. (July 10, 2008)https://science.howstuffworks.com/human-cloning.htm
- "Eugenics." Britannica Online Encyclopedia. 2008. (July 10, 2008)http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/195069/eugenics
- Gillespie, Nick et al. "Who's Afraid of Human Enhancement?" Reason Magazine. January 2006. (July 10, 2008)http://www.reason.com/news/show/33064.html
- Hopkins, Patrick D. "Bad Copies: How Popular Media Represent Cloning as an Ethical Problem." Hastings Center Report. March 1998.
- Kevles, Daniel J. "Study Cloning, Don't Ban It." The New York Times. Feb. 26, 1997. (July 10, 2008)http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C07E3D91631F935A15751C0A961958260
- Osting, Richard N. "Across the Major Religions, Cloning for Human Reproduction is Denounced." Associated Press. Jan. 9, 2003.
- Plotz, David. "The 'Genius Babies,' and How They Grew" Slate. Feb. 8, 2001. (July 10, 2008)http://www.slate.com/id/100331/"Species angst." New Scientist. March 11, 2006.