Send in the Clones!

Are Clones Really a Bad Idea?

by Anders Sandberg <>, March 2 1997.
Published in Homo Excelsior #2 1997
Clonemaker, clonemaker, make me a clone,
Please use my genes; I'm so alone!
Clonemaker, clonemaker, cook up some cells
And make me a perfect clone!
From "Clonemaker" by Jeremy Buhler
Summary: Cloning isn't that awful.

Keywords: Cloning, ethics, rights, genetics


Cloning is not important as a technology. It is important as a symbol. This is why the current debate about cloning often misses the point; the central question is not the ethics or dangers of cloning (which are far too often utterly misunderstood and replaced with emotional rhetoric), but what it means to be a human.

The clone is another incarnation of our technological doppelganger, our shadow made real forcing us to deal with the hard and profound questions of personhood, reproduction and the destiny of humanity. These questions are deep down a matter of values and attitudes, and can not be easily resolved. So in order to avoid a painful debate and the threat of having to think of the big questions many seek to sweep the problem under the rug by clamoring for a worldwide ban on cloning, not realizing that it would not get rid of the problem: the clones are already among us, forcing us to confront ourselves.

Arguments against cloning can be divided into two groups:

Pragmatic Arguments against Cloning

The Genetic Diversity Argument

One of the most used arguments against cloning and other forms of genetic engineering is that it would decrease the diversity of the gene pool, in the long run inviting disaster due to diseases that we have no defense against or inbreeding.

This argument presupposes that cloning will affect the gene pool or a sizeable fraction of it. Is this likely? To become widespread, cloning needs to be desirable and affordable:

Judging from the current debate, most people are negative to it, and even among people positive or neutral to cloning few would prefer to reproduce asexually rather than sexually. The group actually desiring to clone themselves or bear a clone child is quite small at present.

In the future genetic modifications of children or cloning may become more acceptable to people, especially if it is believed that by using these techniques the child can be given a better life. This of course presupposes that having a clone child based on (say) a world-class athlete or a great composer would give the child a good start, a form of naive genetic determinism (see below) that most likely is rather unfounded, although misunderstandings and fads can affect human decisions far more than we would like to acknowledge.

However, reproduction is one of the most emotional aspects of life, and at present it seems more likely that people want to bear their children rather than a clone of somebody outside the family (Kahn 1997). This might encourage having a clone of one of the parents, but most likely the human mind-set prefers a child of both parents as far as possible. Changing these norms is extremely hard, and it is unlikely that cloning will seriously compete with sexual reproduction.

Cloning will not likely be cheap, judging from the extreme numbers of cell fusions needed to create a single viable sheep (Wilmut et al 1996). Even with great advances in technology it will not likely be something any parent can do in his or her kitchen; growing cells in a nutrient medium, cell cycle control, micro-injections and transmission into a surrogate mother is not per se beyond what a reasonably educated person could do, but taking the trouble to acquire the necessary knowledge, skills and equipment seems to be a rather extreme task for a layperson, especially since it will not likely be used regularly in life. Thus cloning will be handled by medical professionals and come with a price-tag.

While many parents may be willing to pay money for ensuring a healthy pregnancy and a promising child, it still represents a threshold and many will prefer to save money by reproducing the oldfashioned way ("If it worked for our ancestors it ought to work for us"). The fewer that clone themselves the more expensive it will be.

The conclusion seems to be that it is very unlikely that there would be a great demand for cloning, and that it would be costly. At present only some people would go through the trouble of cloning themselves, which provides a minimal risk for diluting the genome (most likely less than the risks posed by people having many children; this group would be much larger). In fact, during this century the diversity of the human genome has most likely increased significantly due to the growing number of interracial marriages across the world.

Cloning could become highly popular, but it is very unlikely to happen on its own. A mildly reasonable scenario would be a growing acceptance and demand for genetic improvements of children, leading to cloning of successful people. However, in this scenario we can safely expect that human genetic engineering will advance greatly, and genetic diversity can be retained through artificial means if necessary. Having a larger number of brilliant scientific, artistic or philosophical minds may even offset the detrimental effects of a less diverse genome, since we value human memes more than human genes.

The genetic diversity argument seems to be based on the fallacy that people who clone themselves would do it in huge numbers, clones consisting of hundreds or thousands of copies of the donor. Although this may appeal to some egocentric people, the cost is prohibitive (it would be more expensive than having hundreds or thousands of ordinary children, and as any parent can attest they are quite expensive already), the benefits doubtful and the number of people actually who would actually do it and have the resources to do so quite small.

It is interesting to note that the genetic diversity argument is an eugenic argument, seeking to ensure the viability of the human genome by limiting reproductive practices.

The Human Diversity Argument and Genetic Determinism

Another common argument is that widespread cloning will produce a bland, cookie-cutter world where just a few ideal types of people exist and are endlessly cloned. This brings up the worrisome problem of genetic determinism: even if many people had the same genes, is it at all likely they will develop into very similar people?

Genetic determinism suggests that much of what persons we become is predetermined by the genes, and not affected much by the environment. That identical twins, even when raised apart, often are similar is part of popular knowledge. However, the percentage of variance in various personality traits which can be attributed to biology are usually below 40-50%, which is not a very strong correlation and usually less than the unique factors (Tellegen et al 1988). Modern psychology acknowledges that there are genetic factors in personality and behavior, but also points out that the environment has a very strong effect.

There does not exist any support for naive genetic determinism that says that a clone of a Nobel laureate will also be a genius, or that a clone of a champion athlete will also become a great athlete. Both may have good genetic dispositions, but if these are not placed in the right environment the clones will develop very differently. Most great people did not become great because they were innately gifted, but because they developed their skills to their full potential, due to external and internal motivation, which is clearly dependent on upbringing and social opportunities rather than genetics. Most likely, any child could grow up into a genius with the right stimulance and support.

It is worrisome that as soon as cloning is mentioned people seem to become naive genetic determinists in their arguments. As Kahn (1997) points out, genetic determinism seems to be overall on the increase in society, despite the fact that all new correlations found just demonstrate how basic genetic factors can influence life, and that despite identical genome identical twins make their own choices and often develop into quite different persons (of course, identical twins who are not similar are not newsworthy, which creates a media bias).

Surprisingly, cloning might be used to demonstrate the untenability of naive genetic determinism by allowing a simple and convincing experiment: create a number of clones based on the same donor, and let them grow up in different foster families. After (say) 18 years the clones are compared. Naive genetic determinism would claim they had all developed in the same general direction, while a more nurture-centered model would suggest they had become quite different people. This argument appears feasible today, although getting it founded and accepted may be a larger problem than the cloning itself.

If cloning of successful people became widespread, it would likely be subjected by a negative feedback: people often prefer to make their children special, and if everyone is blond and blue eyed having brown hair and eyes will suddenly be exotic beauty. One could imagine fads of different appearance and predispositions sweeping the world, but due to the long human gestation time and childhood it is unlikely they would lead to a homogenized world, most likely the opposite. Somehow this argument seems to assume that people are stupid and always does what the neighbors does, even when it comes to having children.

The Democratic Argument

Another argument heard regrettably often is a democratic argument: since not everyone will be able to afford cloning, it will become another privilege for the rich and powerful. This argument has also been used against the Internet, modern medicine and a multitude of other new technology. Taken to its logical conclusion, the argument seeks to limit the spread of technology unless it can be widely available to everyone in the world, but that is obviously self-defeating: limiting the spread will only raise the price, making the technology even more exclusive and less likely to become cheap and safe enough for common use. Almost all technologies are first used by a narrow elite, but in time they spread throughout society. Typical examples are telephones, computers or cellular phones.

It is interesting to note that seeking strict regulations on the development and use of biotechnology favors large power concentrations; only they can afford the expensive paperwork and security demanded, only they have a chance of lobbying the government for permission to use the technology. In the interest of democracy and decentralization it might actually be a good idea to loosen the regulations somewhat, but it is very unlikely Big Business and Big Government would like that.

Fascist Applications

One of the most common popular images of the dangers of cloning is armies of cloned Adolf Hitlers or genetically engineered super-soldiers. While it is obvious that cloning a leader into multiple copies won't work and that breeding an army of clone soldiers would be much more expensive and complex than finding suitable soldiers the usual way, it is clear that fascist or other repugnant regimes could use cloning, and other technologies for evil ends.

But does this warrant banning cloning? As Hughes (1996) points out, if there are any advantages to be gained from biotechnology, it would be a good idea for liberal democracies to use them too. Otherwise only the fascist regimes would gain strength through their use. "The way to stop fascist uses of genetics is to prevent the rise of fascism, not to restrict the emergence of genetic technology".

Upholding a ban on cloning or similar reproductive technologies would in itself be very problematic; as we have seen controlling the spread of biological weapons have turned out to be extremely hard, and controlling the use of cloning would be even harder. Policing people's reproduction (and persecuting those reproducing in unacceptable ways) would be against the ideals of democracy of humanism, and in fact in itself a strong step in a fascist direction where the government decides what forms of birth are desirable or not.

Parental Expectations

One risk that exists with cloned children is that the parents expect them to become just as great as their donors or (in the case of parents cloning themselves) grow up to live the life they never got, fulfilling all expectations. This is a definite risk, not only with cloned children but also for children who have been genetically modified, specially educated or just happen to have over-expectant parents. The risk certainly exists, but is no argument against cloning: if we discourage cloning because we fear that the parents will be intrusive, should we not discourage other parents from having children if they are deemed to have too high expectations? The right to have children is one of the most fundamental rights in democratic nations, and just the fact that somebody isn't an ideal parent can not and should not be used to prevent this person from having children.

The solution of this problem is most likely councelling and a better awareness of how children develop and family psychology. It is a psychological problem in a society where many feel unfulfilled with their lives, and believe their children could fulfill them better than themselves, rather than a problem specific to cloning.

Ethical Arguments against Cloning

Unlike pragmatic arguments, ethical arguments in the end are based on values and cannot be resolved; the goal is instead to create a social consensus enabling people to live together.

Playing God

This is most likely the most common argument against cloning: that it is playing God. Similar arguments are used against most other forms of reproductive technologies, transhumanism and many activities based on humanist grounds rather than the beliefs of the viewer.

Arguments of this type are based on the view that the range of ethical human activities are constrained by some outside force. Obviously, which these constraints are and what this force is is a matter of belief; suffice to say that many people do not accept these constraints or the theological basis for them. For example, arguments about whether clones have souls or not (they have after all not been conceived in the usual manner) are only relevant if you believe in the existence of souls.

As a transhumanist and agnostic, I feel that this form of ethical argument at most tells the believer how he or she should act, not how I should act. Unfortunately, it is the rule rather than exception for the restrictive groups to seek to impose their ethics on everyone, instead of limiting it to themselves.

A secular variant would say cloning is against the natural order. This seems to be largely rooted in the Judeo-Christian belief in a divinely ordained natural order (Hughes 1995), and suggests that the "natural way" also by definition is moral. Just as in the theistic argument, there are no objective grounds for believing it (otherwise it would be a pragmatic and not ethical argument), and it is hard to see why acting in a "natural way" (however defined) would be more ethical than acting differently; after all, murder occurs regularly in nature but few people would argue it is ethical. It is not even possible to say that nature is optimal or harmonious in the light of modern knowledge of biology, ecology and medicine; if anything it seems to be constantly changing and evolving.

Regarding the natural as the one and only ethical basis would also go against the humanist goal of improvement and instead draw on the extreme conservative view that the past was the golden age and we must return there.


Some people see cloning as threatening human uniqueness. But twins are natural clones, does their existence threaten our concept of being unique individuals? Clones will be just as individual persons as everyone else, so cloning will not threaten more than the bodily uniqueness (which can already be modified anyway).

The deeper fear here is that as reproductive technology and other transformative technologies advances, the human sense of being unique will erode. But this is an argument based on the avoidance of truth, since it suggests that it would have been better if Copernicus had not discovered that the Earth revolves around the Sun or that Darwin didn't discover evolution. If human uniqueness has to be hinged on ignorance, I think it would be an unworthy concept. An ethics that cannot accept facts will in the long run only lead to delusions.

We are not born unique, we make ourselves unique. This goes as well for clones.

The Ethics of Reproduction

Nothing inflames people as much as the ethics of reproduction. The basic tensions appears to be between individual autonomy and the demands of society and between the rights of the parent(s) and the rights of the (future) child.

Many people have strong views on who should be allowed to reproduce and in what ways. Beside eugenic views, there is often strong opposition to the idea of nonstandard families, be they single mothers, gay couples or collectives. While the overt concern is for the psychological health of the child, the real issue is far too often a fear of the different or changes in societal norms. A typical example would be the statement by Nicholas Coote, assistant general secretary of the Roman Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales, that every human being has the right to two biological parents.

My personal view is that what is important is that the child is wanted, healthy and lives in a loving family that will help it grow and develop, not the number or gender of its parents or how it was created. The current debate seems excessively concentrated on the means (cloning or other reproductive technologies) rather than the ends (a healthy child in a loving family).

While many people decry cloning as risking creating a more uniform society, it might actually do the reverse by allowing new forms of families. Government control over what family structures and ways of reproduction are allowed is a homogenizing force probably more threatening than cloning.

Arguments from Distaste

Finally, it should be noted that many arguments against cloning are simply based on a strong distaste and emotion. That Jeremy Rifkin suggests a worldwide ban and that it should carry a penalty "on a par with rape, child abuse and murder" should come as no surprise; this is not a rational argument, just an expression of extreme fear and disgust for the possibility of autoevolution.

Why Use Cloning and for What?

One of the biggest problems with the cloning debate is that there are no real uses for cloning among humans. For medical research and some specialized biotechnology applications cloning of animals and plants will definitely be used and refined, but there doesn't appear to be any "killer applications" of cloning of humans so far.

We have already discussed the reproduction issue, which is the obvious use of cloning. Using cloning childless couples could have children, even if their genders were incompatible. Together with mosaic methods it might even be possible to create children with several biological fathers.

Another useful application may be to reduce the number of ova that have to be harvested from women undergoing in vitro fertilization, or make sure there are enough embryos for implantation.

One application that has been suggested would be growing a clone to use solely as an organ donor. To avoid ethical problems, the clone would be prevented from developing a functioning central nervous system and would hence, according to the proponents of this use, be an acceptable source of transplants for the donor.

This application doesn't work, for several reasons:

It thus seems unlikely that using clones solely for transplant organs will be feasible or desirable. It should be noted that creating embryonic cells using cloning or growing organs in vitro using technologies derived from the current research in the field (the real value of cloning) might be an useful and acceptable application.


The real issue here is not cloning, which is a fairly limited technology, but reproductive rights, individual freedom weighed against the needs of society, personhood and in what direction we want homo sapiens to develop. Most arguments against cloning discussed here have all been directed against genetic enhancements (cf. Hughes 1996) and will most likely be directed against other forms of self-enhancement.

As transhumanists, we must be aware of the symbolic power of cloning. As the current hysteria shows, it can be used as a effective rhetoric weapon against technologies and possibilities we seek by encouraging people to ban reproductive technologies in order to preserve the status quo. But cloning can also be a symbol of liberty from the old rules of biology; by being able to clone ourselves we have become able to truly change who we are and what we might become.


Embracing Change with All Four Arms: A Post-Humanist Defense of Genetic Engineering by J. Hughes.

Clone mammals... clone man? by Axel Kahn Nature 1997.

Tellegen, A., Lykken, D.T., Bouchard, T.J., Wilcox, K.J., Segal, N.L., Rich, S. 1988 Personality similarity in twins reared apart and together, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 54 1031-1039

I. Wilmut, A.E. Schnieke, J. McWhir, A.J. Kind & H.S. Campbell, Viable offspring derived from fetal and adult mammalian cells, Nature Vol 385, 810-813, February 27, 1997

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