Summer Conference 1999: Science, Ethics & Human Destiny

Ethics and a Sense of Meaning: What is it that we must do?


Margaret, you mentioned that we should be careful with cloning in case we lessen the wonder of life. Since we can already imagine, perhaps, what a cloned individual might be like, or cloned research might involve, would actually doing it lessen the wonder of life you already have today since you can imagine it?

Somerville: To quote Hans Arendt, a wonderful philosopher, one of his objections to reproductive cloning is, he says, that every child has a right to have their life as a surprise to themselves.

I tried to use images. It’s the only way you can capture what wonder means. And I talked in another paper, which is on reproductive cloning, about everybody having the right to their own unique ticket in the great genetic lottery of the passing on of life.

And I think to the extent that we turn transmission of life into a manufacturing process, that we commodify it; we make the child into a thing or an object that we produce; that we commercialize it. One of the reasons why there is such great difficulty in putting any inhibitions on these sorts of technologies is that they’ve got enormous commercial potential. I think all of those things are concerns with respect to damage to a sense of wonder.

Why I brought up wonder is that I’ve had a feeling about myself in the last little while that I seem to be going around saying to people, you can’t do this. And I’ve got sick of saying, you can’t do this. So what I’ve been trying to think about is, is there a way that you could say, let’s not do this, because to do it would be so destructive of things that we care about.

And I think one of the things we should care about is this sense of wonder; not just for ourselves, but for future generations because we won’t just destroy it for ourselves, we’ll destroy it for future generations.

The problem is we’ve been trying to counteract the very powerful scientific, rational, cognitive-based, reasoned arguments, which are wonderful, too. And we need them, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with that. But, they’re not the whole of reality.

You almost sound incredible, uncredible if you start talking about these other things. One of my colleagues said to me recently, you know, Margo, you’re dangerously on the edge of total flake. For an academic, that’s not a nice thing to hear.

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We’ve had 20, 30, 40 years of experience with human tissue transplanting. My understanding is that many of those recipients are experiencing unusual kinds of feelings; human feelings and physical cravings and visions that they would not have experienced on their own. And [these] have been linked directly to specific cravings and experiences that those donors had when they were alive.

Do we really understand what the human soul and spirit is all about? In talking about changing tissues with each other, how can we have the arrogance to think that we know where that really lies? How it interacts in our bodies?

Somerville: What you’re talking about is being documented.

Of course, one of the things you would ask is, is that psychological or is it physical? And there is a lot of work going on. In fact, we are launching into a major project across Canada called, Mind. Brain, Society and Ethics. And what it’s hoping to do is to look at what the neuroscience mind-brain research and the various disciplinary approaches to that; not just the hard science, but a wide variety of perspectives on that science and things such as you’re speaking about.

One of the things we’re doing as part of an experiment and part of the research project is setting up a forum of Canadians, around 300, who have some particular interest [in this].

Whether it’s in mental health, for instance, the police because they’re having problems dealing with mentally ill people on the streets, people who are harmless. And we want to try and feed all of these perceptions in and see if we can create new insights, new perceptions, new lenses.

We’ve talked a lot about truth at this conference. But, if you put truth in the middle and you regard everybody who wants to look at that as having a different coloured light that they can shine on it, it might be that some things are only shown up by certain coloured lights.

We also have to somehow accommodate all those different colours. In the ideal situation what you get is a white light of insight about the thing, which is a re-created, integrated knowledge, which we’ve so much dispersed into various pockets, mainly disciplines.

But that takes a lot of time; it’s difficult and you just can’t throw people together and think that they will be able to create this integrated knowledge. They can’t do it. Most of the projects on which we’ve done that have been total failures. So, one of the things we’re trying to work out is the methodologies for doing it.

The analogy, or metaphor, I use is tell a six-year-old kid to make a cake. You give him all the ingredients and he throws in the butter, sugar, eggs, flour, milk, raisins, gets a wooden spoon and stirs it. What’s he get? A complete mess. But, his mother knows how to cream the butter and sugar, break in one egg. She also knows she gets a different kind of cake if she beats the egg whites, puts them in at the last minute, compared with putting in whole eggs.

That’s what we’ve got to learn about, how to put back our extraordinary knowledge base. We’ve never had to do it, because we didn’t have a big enough knowledge base to do it. Now we do.

Murchland: I understood your question to be about human identity.

Therefore, the question would be, are cloned embryos human beings; is there a continuity of human identity here?

Somerville: That’s a good point about your question, because really what transplantation brought forth for the first time was what’s called a modular theory of human identity; that we were interchangeable bits and pieces, whereas previous to that we had a unitary theory of human identity.

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With the sheep that was cloned, the ones that followed have less of a life expectancy and they’re weaker.. I wonder if in purer cloning we could sow the seeds of our own destruction?

Somerville: I’ll defer to Dr. Worton on this, but it’s the telomeres that are shorter in Dolly than you would expect for a sheep of that age.

Dr. Worton: The telomeres are things at the end of chromosomes and seem to play a role in regulating the ageing process, as they get shorter and shorter with ageing.

So when you start with a cell that already has somewhat shortened telomeres and then you make a clone from it, you’re starting from a different starting point than you normally would be. But, I think the full implications of that are not totally understood and there may well be many other factors besides telomeres that would dictate that a clone would have somewhat different properties from the original.

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We had an appeal yesterday for action based on consensus in order to deal with some of the problems of our situation.

Until recently consensus was achieved by obedience to authoritative religions and it is now being played down to a considerable degree.

I’m curious how we get consensus in a situation like this, which requires far more understanding than the average person, who presumably has to be part of the consensus, is either interested in, or able to manage.

Murchland: The way I summarize your question is, how did we get in this mess, anyway?

I’m asking, how do we get out of it?

Murchland: That’s part of the same question, how do we get out of it?

Somerville: One thing I didn’t put in my speech is that this same group in California who want to do this also said they are very religious about this. They don’t feel they are contravening anything that God would want.

In fact, what they believe is that God intended us to evolve to the situation where we would be able to take over evolution and that’s the very nature of what God intended and that future evolution would be designed by humans, not just allowed to randomly occur and that there was nothing wrong with that from a religious perspective, which is an interesting argument.

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Bernard, I think your appeal to Thoreau and Walden is wonderful. I naturally agree with that. The problem is in 1845, Thoreau believed that he lived on the planet Earth, which probably circled the Sun and didn’t really understand anything more of nature in a cosmic sense.

But, the real revolution in human thought and human perceptions in this century [have allowed us] to understand nature in a vast and huge way. We are part of a 15 billion-year-old universe that started with a poof.

You can talk about man trying to create a sense of meaning from his place in nature. The trouble is this concept of nature has absolutely and completely changed since the days of Thoreau.

Murchland: You may be right, but I don’t want to agree with that.

I think Thoreau saw it all coming. I think the 20th century is a son/daughter of the 19th century. And I think Thoreau was a man for all seasons, all centuries, all nations.

I don’t think the problem has changed from his time to our time, even granting everything you said about advances and so on. I’m always skeptical about those kind of value judgments.

Margaret said we are now in a position to control our own destiny, something like that.

I think those kinds of claims ought to be very carefully examined and very reluctantly accepted, because are we?

What kind of control do we have over our destiny? We don’t even have control over our neighbourhoods. And we don’t know anything, really, about this cloning mechanism; whether it’s going to work, whether it’s good, bad, desirable, possible. We are in the very early stages of that and it may not work, or it may not be efficient, or it may not replace sex.

When we start multiplying problems faster than we can solve them, then there’s something wrong with the way we’re doing things.

I don’t think the revolution between Thoreau’s time and our time is all that great.

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If enough people within the elite and the masses go along with cloning being acceptable and science progresses and we go into a new era; a new relationship with ourselves and these clones, how do we deal with all the baggage we have going into the new era, such as racism, classism, gender, sexism, all the things in our system. If we get involved in doing cloning, what are the rights and responsibilities of the copies and the original. Who has copyright?

Has this been fully thought out by the scientific community and terms of ethical committees?

Somerville: One of the interesting things about your question is that in a way it’s a paradox, because some people feel that if you are the cloned person you will be less valued because, after all, you’re just a copy.

When I was at a recent conference somebody from Xerox said, we don’t make copies, we make multiple originals.

I thought about this in the context of cloning. Then, I was in Paris and I picked up Le Figaro and they had a full page, colour advertisement and it said: If you feel like one of these. What it depicted was these stunning-looking businessmen all dressed in gray suits and they were all identical.

Then you turned over the page and there was a full-colour page advertisement featuring the newest Audi car and it said: then what you need is one of these because this is not a clone.

Now there’s the absolute reverse of what we’ve thought of manufactured goods, like cars, as clones of each other; people as all individual and unique. Here’s the opposite, the people are all identical so in order to be different you’ve got to have some sort of manufactured good to stand out from the crowd.

But the other version of this that only people who are considered very valuable will have access to cloning technology, because the others won’t be worth cloning. So, you see the argument going two ways.

We simply just don’t know what the major ramifications are for society, because we’ve never done it; we’ve never had the power to do it.

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As a scientist I don’t have any problems with any of what Margaret had to say. I think we have to think very carefully about what we do in terms of cloning. We have to be careful with our definitions and make sure we understand which kind of cloning we’re talking about.

I’m glad you made the distinction between reproductive cloning for the sake of creating cloned individuals versus therapeutic cloning, which is really you start with the cloning process, then divert it and use the cell.

I think there’s an enormous potential there; that is, we may be able to use those stem cells and manipulate them, create new liver cells, new brain cells, new lung cells, whatever.

That’s the great promise. To get to that point we need to do a lot of research, probably over the next decade or two. If that can be done, without losing respect for human life, without losing respect for the quality of life and the necessity to protect it and nurture it, as you said, then I don’t have a problem with that.

I do think, though, we need guidelines to allow us to do that. Those guidelines have to be developed very carefully and thoughtfully. They need input from people like yourself, from the philosophers, from the scientists who are likely to be involved in doing it, and from the people in this room who, through conferences like this, will learn more about and be able to form judgments.

So if you can think of a way for the moment that where could move relatively quickly, at least in Canada, to think through these issues I would be delighted to work with you and I know a number of other people who would be happy to do that and try to come up with some guidelines that we think would reflect the views of Canadians and allow us, in whatever way, to proceed with the kind of experimentation that’s needed to develop those new approaches to saving lives and, at the same time, do it with respect for human dignity.

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I want to ask about the metaphor you used about people having a ticket in the genetic lottery. You indicated it might be of value to have a unique ticket.

So, I wonder if most people would prefer to have a unique ticket or a better chance at a winning ticket. And although there are some interesting questions about identity there, I think there are also some links to some of the things we heard about yesterday morning about having opportunities.

Would people as much as wanting to be unique, want to have opportunities to construct more healthy, wealthy, wise or meaningful lives. To what extent is that linked into this?

Murchland: The distinction I’m making in my mind is between cloning and the genetic structure; improving our genetic structure it seems to me is one project going on out there. And then cloning that genetic package is a separate operation.

I think if we just clone ourselves as we are now, then we will clone our defects. That’s clear. Then we won’t improve our odds in the lottery.

However, if the genetic code structure of human identity can be improved upon, that is to say by removing the defective genes, then you would have a better product.

But it seems to me that question is separate from the question of cloning.

Somerville: It’s a very interesting question you raise, because it’s an example of the way you describe it. Of course, we would want to have a winning ticket and we wouldn’t want to deliberately let people sort of have a risk of a terrible ticket.

But, the other name for that is eugenics. And when we call it that, we suddenly elicit a whole lot of other things that we need to think about; about whether we ought to do that or not.

Eugenics simply means good at birth. So, this is a form of eugenics. And we have to say, do we want to do that?

The other thing is this: one view of the human genome is that it is the common heritage of human kind. It belongs to all of us and we all have to hold it on trust for future generations and that we don’t have a right to interfere with it and that interfering with the human germ cell line is to interfere with this common heritage of human kind and no matter how laudable our motives, we should not do that.

Now, the proposed legislation for Canada would implement that view. It totally bans any alteration of the human germ cell line.

However, again referring to Dr. Worton’s work. If we know there is a single gene, a very serious disorder, for instance cystic fibrosis, I personally would be prepared to allow that with a lot of regulatory safeguards; that you would interfere to do something to change that gene, but only on a totally genuine therapeutic base.

Not everybody agrees with that. They don’t think we should do it at all.

One of the arguments against is that it’s to alter the diversity of the human population and we can’t know the implications of that. Another one is that even if it is a single gene disorder, we don’t know what else it’s connected with; all sorts of arguments against it. So, that’s not even a clear cut decision.

Murchland: The difference between evolution and genetic manipulation is that evolution takes place, so to speak, by nature, whereas the other doesn’t. I’m not sure how strong that distinction is. Maybe we’re the tools of nature to do this.

I am not personally bothered by the prospect of what mechanism is used create us, but the question for me would be the question of human identity. Are we still human?

It doesn’t matter much to me whether we’re cloned, or whether we evolve, or whether we’re created by God, or whether our genes are manipulated. I think those are kind of instrumental questions to the big question of human identity.

Somerville: One thing that we can look at with our new science is what our new science has done is that it’s moving us constantly from chance to choice. And where chance doesn’t carry responsibility, choice does.

And one of the things we have to look at – and this is something we haven’t had to do before – is that sometimes we, maybe ethically, should choose to use chance.

So, it’s use of chance through choice, rather than use of chance, because there isn’t anything we can do. And that’s sort of the question we have to ask.

There’s one thing I’m perplexed about in this debate about human cloning. It’s about the donor and why we don’t talk about how the original material, be it an egg, or the tissue, how that is accessed and starts this whole process.

Most of us want to know our origins. I think this whole question is changed profoundly if we remove the anonymity which starts at the little bitty parts of life, which we can now manipulate.

If we imagined that each of those parts had a name, because they’re connected to someone, and I think we really need to include that in our ethical considerations; just how we are getting these original materials and is that a proper way to treat each other?

Somerville: One of things that we have to do is to put the child – this is someone else’s statement – at the centre of the infertility business and not the infertile person, which is what we’ve been doing.

Then what flows from that is people’s rights to know about their genetic identity and, in fact, there is work going in Canada to look at whether all donors of gametes will be identified.

And it seems as though that will come in. It’s already in in Britain, Sweden, Australia. So that’s the trend.

The other thing you raise that was addressed by the Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies is that there is concern, particularly among the feminists, that women’s bodies are kind of just used as sources of products and that there’s got to be a lot more concern because, for instance, obtaining an ovum is not without risk and women need to know what’s involved for them.

One of the other things that’s happened is that we’ve become so used to that, because that’s a normal part of in vitro fertilization that we don’t question that any more.

But there’s been some very interesting articles in the ethics literature that has said that because cloning is making us rethink some of the ethics of reproductive technology. We may actually revisit some of those technologies and think that some of things that we’ve come to accept, that maybe we shouldn’t have done that. And we will look at them again. And that is happening.

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[Moderator: I’m going to shift gears and accept two questions at a time.]

None of the speakers addressed the question of power behind all these questions.

Even if we decide in our own mind and our own ethic that this is not to be done, at this moment there a lot of others that are thinking they can do it. How are we going to address this question of the society we want if, in fact, the debates are taking place between the scientists, the people and the government, when in fact a lot of the research is done by the private sector?


I hold a reverence for the innate intelligence of the young human animal that we call the child.

As an advocate for children and the developmental crucial early years of life I’ve been thinking about my gut level repugnance of human cloning, much as I appreciate the mental discourse that’s necessary on the subject.

I’ve been thinking about the cloned child. Say there’s a couple who lost a child at the age of two and decided they would like to clone that deceased child, so that they could have that life to view.

Imagine the difficulties of how you would answer the cloned child’s question of why he or she was created. And what all this means in everyone finding his or her own voice and one’s unique role in life.

Somerville: To answer the second question first.

That’s some of the work that’s going on. For instance, we talk about kids who are teenagers needing to go through individuation; you know, separate themselves from their parents. It’s hard enough when you look in the mirror and think you look like your mother. Imagine what it would be like if you’re a clone.

Another thing is you do hear people get up at conferences who are furious that you don’t think, well in my case, that I don’t think, cloning should be done. And they say, but I want to have a clone so that I can correct all the mistakes that my parents made with me and all the mistakes that I think I made.

So, imagine what it’s going to be like for that kid to try to grow up.

As to the first question, that’s difficult; how do we enforce regulations, particularly, in the private sector? The analogy that I use is law. That unless the vast majority of us obeyed the law almost all the time, law is totally ineffective and, yet, we think of it as being very effective.

You can only have a very small percentage of the population not obeying the law and still have it work. And I think the same is true with whatever form of regulation we use. Most humans go along with regulations.

But, you do have to have – and it comes back to something we’ve talked about at this conference – you got to have ethics education. And the only place you can start with that is people coming into science and that’s where it has to be done.

We’ve done a good job of that in medicine in the last 20 years, but we haven’t even started to do it in science. And that’s where we need to go now to do that.

In ethics you can only introduce it at the very bottom, when the students haven’t yet bought into the system so they’ve got nothing to lose by taking the ethical way rather than the other way.

And at the very top, people like Dr. Worton, who have made their names world-wide and can who can say, yes, looking at this I can see that ethics is important and can take the risks to the science that recognizing the importance that ethics necessarily raises.

We shouldn’t say that ethics doesn’t interfere with science. It does sometimes; that’s it’s nature. But that’s what we need.

In fact, the research is very interesting. We know it well in medicine. About five leaders at the top of an institution that employs 1,000 people set the ethical tone for the whole of that institution. So, it’s incredibly important that those leaders understand what this is about.

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Is the genie already out of the bottle? Do you think it would possible in any manner to prohibit research in any way, control, law or any way, to prohibit the continuation of this?

Somerville: That’s like saying, while we can’t completely eliminate terrorism, or we can’t for sure stop biological warfare, therefore, let’s throw up our hands and not do it, not even try.

I think we’ve got an ethical obligation to try, even if we don’t succeed, to ensure that we do the moral-ethical thing and to do otherwise is really to declare moral and ethical bankruptcy.

Couchiching Online History Table of Contents 1999 Summer Conference