Sixty years ago, Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Joshua Lederberg shocked the world with the first serious scientific paper detailing the feasibility of human cloning. Four decades later, a sheep named Dolly — the first large mammal ever cloned — brought his prediction a step closer to becoming a reality. Now the realization of Lederberg’s proposal seems quite plausible, even if the technology needed to artificially produce humans may not emerge for another few decades.
Just as the domestication of crops and livestock triggered a revolution whose impact on society still reverberates today, cloning has the potential to fundamentally alter human culture. But will we learn the lessons of the last revolution quickly enough to apply them before the next one begins?
Simply put, cloning is a form of reproduction whereby organisms make a copy of themselves. It is also the most common form of replication found in nature. But about a billion years ago, another, more elaborate method emerged: sexual reproduction. The fusion of half a male’s genome with the corresponding half of a female’s set off a chain reaction, giving birth to a brand new force of evolutionary change. Though the more complex reproductive machinery came with certain costs, they were far outweighed by the survival benefits gained. Species that rely on sexual reproduction, for example, have a richer variety of genetic variations and better protection against the accumulation of harmful mutations than do their cloning counterparts.
But the very feature that has allowed sexual species to survive has come to be seen as a hindrance to tailoring the environment to mankind’s advantage. Since the agricultural revolution, humans have steered the genetic development of crops and livestock alike. Trait by trait, man has shaped the plants and animals around him over the course of some 500 human generations. By bypassing sexual reproduction altogether, artificial cloning promises to allow mankind to harness the laws of heredity within a single generation.
Artificial cloning first arose in the early 1930s and was used primarily to grow simple animals such as amphibians. It took nearly half a century for scientists to build the technical expertise needed to clone bigger and more complex creatures such as sheep. Dolly’s birth was met with enthusiasm from the livestock industry, which had no difficulty envisioning the possibilities created by copying its top-performing animals at will. Desirable attributes could be retained, and the genetic fluctuations inherent to the process of sexual reproduction could be eliminated. Meanwhile, the medical field saw its own opportunities in Dolly’s success: Tissues and organs, for instance, could be grown to replace those in patients suffering from serious genetic defects or internally destructive diseases.
Yet in spite of the substantial rhetorical and financial support for artificial cloning, the technique still has not advanced to the point of industrial use. Since Dolly’s birth in 1996, only a handful of other large mammals have been cloned — a success rate so low that the technique’s original inventor abandoned it nearly a decade ago after deciding it was too difficult to be feasible. But still the research continued: In November 2015, Chinese biotechnology firm Boyalife Group announced its plans to partner with South Korea’s Sooam Biotech Research Foundation to set up a vast commercial cattle-cloning operation. And Boyalife has aspirations to potentially move beyond simply cloning animals.
Artificially replicating humans, however, is another animal entirely. In 2013, scientists managed to clone fetal cells to treat an infant suffering from a rare genetic disorder. The following year, another experiment replicated the results, this time cloning adult cells instead. Yet when it comes to cloning human subjects, there are myriad ethical considerations and legal preventions in place. Even without existing bans on implanting cloned human embryos into surrogate mothers, it could take at least a few decades for the approval of asexual human reproduction in clinical practice. At first glance, this may seem like a long period of time, but is it truly enough to prepare for the sweeping societal changes that human cloning is bound to effect?
Adapting to a New Lifestyle
For thousands of years, humans have tried to circumvent natural selection by breeding animals that best fit their economic interests. As early as 9000 B.C., humans had managed to domesticate sheep, thanks in part to their relative lack of aggression and manageable size. These characteristics, coupled with early sexual maturity and high rates of reproduction, made sheep easy to manage and herd throughout their lifespans. Man began to steadily distance himself from the lifestyle of his hunter-gatherer forefathers, and in many ways, human behavior began to mimic that of the very herds being raised. As humans selectively bred sheep — first to produce more milk and meat, then to produce a greater quality and quantity of wool — man himself began to remold his own culture to support his new, pastoral way of life.
Likewise, humans will be forced to adapt their traditions and morals once again as technology upsets their lifestyles — this time, by disrupting their methods of reproduction. Contraceptives have already sparked debates about the roles of husband and wife within the family, while advances in endocrinology and plastic surgery have made changes in gender physically possible. Social, psychological and physiological definitions of gender no longer necessarily overlap. Nor do those of parenthood: In vitro fertilization and surrogacy have enabled same-sex couples to raise children, decoupling the act of sex from insemination and childbirth.
Artificial cloning — or other techniques such as gene editing — could deliver the final blow, undoing a billion years of reproductive evolution. So far, what began as a way to perfect the animal world has had a relatively minimal impact on our own society; we are far removed from the animals whose end products are neatly stacked in our supermarket aisles. But once artificial cloning is applied to man, there is little chance that society will react quickly enough to craft a new set of moral norms to match the ever-evolving environment around it.