Free will liberates us from the monkey-clone conundrum
The scientific breakthrough by Chinese scientists need not cause a moral quandary
Why the excitement? After all, 22 years have passed since the birth of the first cloned animal, Dolly the sheep. During those years, we have replicated dogs, cats and mice without much fuss. What is so special about two cloned macaques called Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua?
The answer is staring at us with dark, mournful eyes from a million newspaper images. The monkeys look like us. Their snub noses and spindly limbs remind us of the human babies with whom they share 93% of their genes. If Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua were spliced from one being, in what sense are they individuals? And if there is nothing special about them, what is special about us?
Suppose you had been cloned, and your doppelganger brought up on the other side of the country. The chances are that, without ever needing to meet, you’d dress alike, vote the same way, be attracted to similar partners. Which raises the eerie question of whether you truly make your own choices about any of these things.Our sense of ourselves is bound up with the idea that we are unique, whole and free. That idea seems intuitively true, but is hard to reconcile with what we now know of genetics and neuroscience.
Descartes’s proposition, “I think therefore I am”, was treated as axiomatic for most of the next three centuries, but we have since learnt that consciousness is, in the words of the man who discovered DNA, Francis Crick, “entirely due to the behaviour of nerve cells, glial cells and the atoms, ions and molecules that make them up”.
If those nerve cells and glial cells can be precisely replicated, our concept of self takes another knock. But we find it hard to put our finger on what we don’t like. So we cast around for any plausible-sounding ethical objection.
To see how irrational our worries are, consider identical twins. They are, in effect, clones of each other. Their existence poses many of the same theological questions as cloning: one Jesuit philosopher argued that the soul enters the body, not at conception but at 14 days, the last moment at which a zygote can divide into two viable embryos. But there’s nothing in the least disquieting about twins.
No, the real problem is that cloning confronts us with the gulf between our sense of who we are and modern biology.
Robert Owen, who took God’s side in the famous 1839 debate on religion and science, argued that the soul must reside in some part of the human anatomy not shared by other primates, but we know better.
There is no “I” inside our bodies, watching manikin-like from behind our eyes. The free will so central to our idea of ourselves is illusory — what the psychologist Nick Humphrey calls “the magic show that you stage for yourself inside your head”.
That idea is not just counter-intuitive; it is vertiginous. We struggle against it, as our fathers struggled against the theories of Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin, who progressively dethroned humanity, showing that we were not as central to the universe as we liked to imagine.
If every action you take has its roots in the interplay of your genes and the environment that works on them, how are you responsible for anything? Or, more precisely, what space is left for “you” in the chain of actions?
If there is no “you” in the sense that we used to mean it, then there is no volition, no culpability, no merit, no blame. The whole basis of our criminal justice system is wrong. It makes no sense to punish (as opposed to constraining or treating) a thief. Morality becomes a handy fiction. We are left asking, with a tormented Nietzsche, who gave us the sponge to wipe away the horizon.How should we react to what Crick called this “astonishing hypothesis”? We might choose to misunderstand or disbelieve it. We might, if we are religious, call it irrelevant, nerve cells and glial cells having nothing to do with faith. Or we might react as Crick himself did, by “looking forward to a jolly good lunch”.
What Crick meant was that understanding the chemical origins of life doesn’t devalue it. Knowing that your thoughts are a by-product of reflexes created by a coalition of selfish genes doesn’t make those thoughts any less real.
Free will may be a product of physical processes. But you still practically exercise it when you choose between red and white wine.
The philosopher Sir Roger Scruton put it well in a lecture at Princeton. You can daub paint on a canvas, he said, until, at some indeterminate moment, it becomes a portrait. The human face in the portrait is, on one level, only coloured smears. Yet, at the same time, it is also a face.
Likewise, Francis Crick was nothing more than the product of his nerve cells and glial cells; yet he was also a man who could look forward to, and select, his lunch.
It is free will, in that sense, that makes us different from the macaques. Their choices are limited: they can cry, move, squabble. But ours are vastly greater.
We can choose to clone or not to clone our own species. I’d say that makes us pretty special. — © The Sunday Telegraph