May 08, 2002


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techsploitation
by annalee newitz

Biohazards

INITIALLY I WAS nonplussed by the whole anticloning lobby. Congressional rumblings about banning cloning seemed sort of quaintly bizarre, especially since I imagined it was obvious to everyone how patently different therapeutic cloning is from reproductive cloning. Therapeutic cloning is a process used only in genomic research, often for creating powerful stem cells. Reproductive cloning is what produced Dolly the sheep, and it's the sort of cloning that gets (mis)represented in science fiction movies like The Boys from Brazil and The 6th Day.

Therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning are related in that both involve making genetic copies of embryonic cells. But that's the only similarity. Reproductive cloning theoretically could allow you to create human babies; therapeutic cloning, on the other hand, creates blobs of undifferentiated cells. Trust me – there's a difference. Blobs of cells don't cry or feel things or decide that the only possible color you can paint their room is "ballerina pink." They're about as close to being human as the little bits of skin you chew off your cuticles every day if you're in the habit of biting them.

And yet Bush and his supporters in Congress are trying to stamp out therapeutic cloning based on some kind of twisted pro-life logic, arguing essentially that it's child abuse to clone a one-celled embryo. Think of the four-celled children! So they've whipped up a bill that, if it passed, would make all forms of cloning a criminal offense punishable by $1 million in fines or up to 10 years in prison. This makes sense when it comes to reproductive cloning, since creating a human as a science experiment is unethical – not that the government hasn't done far worse a zillion times before, with human medical trials in prisons, mental institutions, shelters, and the like. But we'll just leave that little contradiction aside for now.

What I really want to know is why the hell our dear president is so freaked out over therapeutic cloning when researchers at State University of New York have just announced they can control the behavior of rats via remote signals that send "commands" directly into wires stuck in the animals' brain? These so-called roborats are fitted out with little rodent-size backpacks that conduct signals sent from a laptop into three electrodes planted in the rats' brain: two electrodes are in their "directional" centers, and one is in the "pleasure" center. Whenever the rats obey commands, they get a dose of brain-gasm. The more they are "trained," the easier it is to get them to go anywhere they're told. They'll even do things that go against their instincts, like walking into well-lit open spaces.

I'm starting to feel kind of Woman on the Edge of Time-ish here. I mean, if people get wigged about the idea of cloning one fucking embryonic cell – a cell that is provably not a human being but simply one teeny piece of a thing that might become one – why isn't anyone worried about high-tech mind control? Hello! These are complete animals that scientists are turning into living robots, using some brain implants and their laptops. Isn't that scarier than one damn cell?

And yet nearly all the media coverage of the roborats – unlike the coverage of therapeutic cloning – has been alarmingly chirpy. The Washington Post and the New York Times reported optimistically about therapeutic applications of the roborat technology, which could allow paralyzed people to use their limbs again or control prosthetic limbs via brain implants. I agree that those uses of the technology sound great. I know a couple of people who would probably really dig the idea of getting to use their body below the shoulders again. And yet – mind control with pleasure implants! How ooky can you get?

The point is, all this stuff is relative and contextual. When researchers start treating biology the same way they treat technology – as tools and raw materials – ethical questions start swarming. It's easy to have gut reactions that aren't necessarily helpful ones. Obviously the answer is to regulate how we use our biology, but not by outlawing certain experiments altogether. Even if one sort of cloning is obviously disturbing, other types have tremendous therapeutic value. Just as rat mind control could ultimately help paralyzed beings move again, therapeutic cloning could ultimately help mend damaged organs. In fact, I would wager that therapeutic cloning will harm far fewer beings than the roborat experiments already have.

Annalee Newitz (robowriter@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who doesn't want your electrodes in her brain, you damn dirty scientist. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.