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The Brave New World of Cloning, Part One–The Cloning of Animals and the Ethics of Dominion

“I was convinced that there was still plenty of time.” With those words the author Aldous Huxley looked back to 1931, and the publication of his famous novel Brave New World. Huxley’s vision of an oppressive culture of total authoritarian control and social engineering was among the most shocking literary events of the twentieth century. But just 27 years after the publication of Brave New World, Huxley was already aware of his underestimation of the threat represented by modern technocratic society.

News that scientists had cloned an adult sheep from non-reproductive cells shook the scientific community, but prompted an earthquake of concern in the larger culture. The cloning of the sheep by Dr. Ian Wilmut’s team in Scotland raised a host of ethical, legal, and social issues which will take time to untangle. Yet, even as this reality began to sink into our cultural consciousness, further reports of the cloning of monkeys from embryo cells and attempts at human cloning raised the sense of ethical crisis.

The simple fact that an adult sheep had been produced through cloning was a graphic indication of the remarkable advances made in the field of genetics in recent years. The achievement of a cloned mammal — genuinely cloned from a non-reproductive cell — was thought to be years away. Yet Wilmut and his colleagues apparently moved the schedule ahead and achieved a genuine scientific breakthrough. In years since, researchers have cloned other animals, and a commercial venture now offers to clone your pet cat.

The proposed use of the cloned sheep and the impetus behind the experiment is pharmaceutical research, but this limited purpose is but a hint of the countless purposes to which the technology can be directed. “Dolly,” as the sheep was known, is the face of the future as the technology of cloning is advanced and applied.

What are the ethical implications of cloning animals? At first glance, this question appears no more complicated than related questions concerning animal husbandry and breeding. After all, selective breeding designed to enhance the quality of stocks and herds predates the development of genetics as a science. Once the basic patterns of genetic inheritance were observed, techniques intended to enhance genetic quality quickly followed.

Over the past two decades, this has exploded into international agribusiness, and most modern animals produced for human consumption bear the marks of some genetic intervention. Genetic enhancements such as the practice of “twinning” cattle embryos are now practiced wholesale in developed nations. But the arrival of “Dolly” and other cloned life forms represents an entirely new development toward the artificiality of animal life at the hands of human engineers.

According to the Bible, human beings are granted and assigned a dual responsibility by the Creator — dominion and stewardship. Human beings, made in the image of God, are to exercise dominion and “rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” This extensive rule sets the human being apart from the rest of creation, and the other creatures.

This rulership is translated into the intentional use of animals to human ends and the elevation of human needs and purposes above all other creatures. But the dominion granted to human beings is not inherently ours; it is a delegated rulership. We rule over the animals by the authority of our Creator, and thus we will answer for our stewardship of our rulership.

What does this suggest about the issue of cloned animals? First, the acknowledgment of our delegated dominion should make clear that our rulership is limited. We are not to take the authority of the Creator as our own. Second, this principle of a delegated rulership should serve as a warning concerning the increasing artificiality of animal life at human hands. The increasing use of unnatural means of reproduction leads automatically to a sense of engineered life forms as human creations.

Put bluntly, we were not commanded or authorized to create new forms of life as extensions of our own designs and ego. Nightmarish scenarios of unforeseen consequences are easily imaginable. Further, the issue of cloned mammals also threatens the biodiversity God clearly intended as a mark of His creation. Cloned animals repeat the genetic code of the host animals, avoiding the necessary genetic mixing by natural reproduction. Performed on a wide scale, this could threaten to harm species, or even threaten their survival from disease. The development of “chimeras” mixing human and animal genetic material is a challenge that may threaten both animals and human beings.

The intricate questions of ethical means and ends revolve around every aspect of animal cloning. This is not a simple issue of a new genetic technology. The ethical issues of animal cloning are real and unavoidable. Without question, the development of cloning may provide advances in therapeutic technologies which will benefit human beings as well as animals. Nevertheless, the technology of cloning also raises the specter of transgenic animals — crossing species and creating customized new animal forms. Again, the Christian worldview warns us that our stewardship and dominion of other creatures is to be exercised within limits imposed by the Creator. Many arguments on behalf of human “co-creation” with God are not biblically sustainable, and indicate creaturely over-reaching and hubris. Human beings are assigned responsibility for the care, use, and enjoyment of animal creatures, but we are not granted license for their mechanistic manipulation, transgenic innovation, or ruthless violation.

One need not accept the ideology of the animal rights movement in order to question the moral character of these new technologies which threaten the integrity of animal life. At the same time, abstract claims of the integrity of animal life cannot be posed in terms of ultimacy. The distinction between human beings and the other living beings is central to the biblical text. Spiritual value is assigned to human life in a sense that is totally foreign and alien to animal life. Animal life is certainly not without value, as attested by the “goodness” of animal creation by the verdict of the Creator. But animal life cannot be assigned the highest value, for such would be an inversion of the biblical hierarchy of value and moral responsibility.

Though the cloning of a sheep was the proof that cloning could be achieved, few thoughtful persons could keep their minds on the lamb. The cloning of human beings — long limited to the domain of science fiction–now appeared to be an impending reality. Ian Wilmut accepted the fact that cloning humans would be possible. “There is no reason in principle why you couldn’t do it,” he acknowledged. Yet he added, “All of us would find that offensive.” That was not to last for long. In recent months, Wilmut has become an eager advocate of so-called “therapeutic” human cloning for application in embryonic stem-cell research.

The cloning of animals and the cloning of a human being are just differnt applications of the same basic technology. With companies offerring to clone your cat and scientists rushing to clone human embryos, how long will it be until some scientist decides to clone a human being — and is successful?