Will Clones Have Souls?
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, May 27, 2001
It all started with a sheep named Dolly, a paschal lamb for a new millennium if there ever was one. In March of 1997, just before Easter, Dr. Ian Wilmut, a Scottish embryologist, announced that he and his colleagues had succeeded in cloning a “fully formed healthy mammal from a single adult cell”-- a fully-formed, healthy sheep to be precise, which they had named “Dolly”.
Dr. Wilmut had proven a new law of nature: that a single cell of an adult mammal has all the genetic code contained in the original fertilized egg-- code material which can then be used to create an entire new life. The whole of its biological life is, indeed, contained in the tiniest fragment of each living creature. Each of our cells contains all that we are, biologically at least; each of our cells is a hologram, as it were, of our entire physical beings.
The unthinkable had become real. Matters once considered merely the imaginative stuff of science fiction and futuristic fantasy had become the scientific facts of our own day. The concept of cloning living creatures-- an idea once merely thought of as idle speculation-- had made its way into the headlines as the news of the day; soon, no doubt, Dolly and her “creator” were making the rounds of the morning talk shows. Suddenly, too, we had a whole new set of theological and ethical questions to consider with no small sense of urgency.
For if scientists could successfully clone a sheep, then why not a human being as well? Before too long, would we inhabit a world where clones would live and work, alongside those of us conceived and created through more “traditional” means? What would our relationship be to this “new race” (if such it was) of “human beings” (if such they were)? What would they be like? Would they think and feel-- laugh and cry-- live and die-- like the “rest of us”-- or would there be unmistakable differences in their makeups? Would they always be a “race apart”-- perhaps inferior, perhaps superior, but certainly, always separate and unequal. A few months ago, I was involved in three different conversations-- with people from different aspects of my life-- in widely different places, at different times and contexts, dealing with very different matters-- and three times in just about as many days, someone raised the question, in more or less the same language: “Will clones have souls?”... “Will clones have souls?”... “Hey, these clones-- are they going to have souls?” And, I thought, if not some revelation was at hand, at least, a good sermon topic was...
Of course, it is almost a truism-- it is almost cliché-- to speak of how much things have changed, and how rapidly life hurtles forward into the future. One of my favorite (and most quoted) quotes from Havel speaks of how all of the old speedometers of our world seem stuck on fast forward.
It’s one thing to say (as I have also on occasion) that technology is neither good nor bad, that of course it’s the uses to which we put it that matters. This dictum is easy enough to apply to (say) computers or televisions or microwave ovens. It might even be (relatively) easy to apply to genetics or certain medical procedures, where the benefits to humanity are obvious. But when we come face to face with a new sheep-- an entirely new creature-- where there was, a short time before, nothing but a few tiny strands of genetic material-- where there is, all of a sudden, a new life formed if not ex nihil-- from nothing-- then pretty close to it-- then we may well sense that we are indeed entering into a “brave new world”, where perhaps we ought not to be treading.
In the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve are tossed out of the Garden of Eden because they seek to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which God sees as an uppity attempt on their parts to become a little too much like Him.
Now, we in this church, of course, are not bound to believe something or accept something even if no less an authority than the author of Genesis said it. Just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t make it true. But our religious tradition (indeed, I think, all religious traditions) can remind us of what can happen when hubris takes over and we human ones get a little too big for our britches and seek to become like God (or like the gods). And there seems to be enough hubris at work in some of the conversations about cloning to set off all kinds of alarm bells among those of us who seek to live our lives religiously and ethically.
Shortly after announcing the birth of Dolly, Dr. Wilmut was asked about the possibility of cloning human beings. He seemed somewhat aghast at the very prospect. “There is no clinical reason why you would [clone humans],” Dr. Wilmut said. He continued: “We think it would be ethically unacceptable and certainly we would not want to be involved in that project.”
But once the genie has been let out of the bottle, it becomes almost impossible to put back in. Like Albert Einstein, who regretted to his dying day that he had started the research that led eventually to the atomic bomb, so Dr. Wilmut may some day come to rue his discoveries on cloning. Less than a year after Dolly, the cloned sheep, came into the world, Dr. Richard Seed (some irony in that name!) announced at a Chicago symposium that he was opening a human cloning clinic, and would have the procedures for human cloning developed “within two years”.
“Clones are going to be fun,” Dr. Seed said. “I can’t wait to make two or three of my own self.” (For most of us, I would think, having one of ourselves to deal with is more than enough.)
All kinds of rumors now abound about human cloning experiments being carried out all over the world-- including (unsubstantiated, of course) rumors that scientists in the former Soviet Union have already succeeded in cloning a human child from her parents’ genetic material.
I know that these matters are complicated, and I don’t even pretend to understand the scientific technicalities involved here. And I usually don’t have too much trouble adjusting to the rapid change inherent in modern life. I’m not one, usually, who is suspicious of technology and wants to turn back the clock and return to the so-called “good old days”.
But I must confess that all this talk of cloning-- especially human cloning-- gives me the heebie-jeebies. It unleashes inside of me a deep sense of fear and dread.
There is something in us human beings which makes us yearn to seek, to strive, to discover, to know. “Why climb Mt. Everest?” men were asked a century ago. “Because it’s there!” came the reply. “Why go to the moon?” “Because it’s there!” “Why unleash the power of the atom?” “Because we can,” scientists said.
There is something in our humanness-- maybe it’s bravado, maybe it’s the song of angels-- which makes us want to do something, just because we are able to-- which makes us want to create to the full extent of our abilities.
But the voice of reason (as well as the voice of religion) ought to caution us that just because we can do it doesn’t mean we ought to. Perhaps this whole area of cloning is one where we human ones, however great our creativity and our knowledge, ought not to tread. Perhaps this is one of the most blatant areas where our ethical maturity needs to catch up with our technological capabilities, or we’re going to be in deep trouble, both technologically and ethically.
Certainly, shock at the speed at which cloning became an established scientific fact led to an almost immediate political reaction. Most European countries have signed an agreement banning human cloning. Similar legislation has foundered in the United States Congress, however, due to disagreement over fetal tissue research and when, exactly, human life begins.
In the meantime, we live in dread of the specter of someone finally unleashing the secret of human cloning, and of two-- or three-- or three-hundred for that matter-- little Dr. Seeds running around all over the place.
There are other, more serious dangers, as well:
Cloning farms where human beings are cloned for “spare parts” alone-- hearts and livers and other organs to be used in transplants-- and then discarded.
Bereaved parents who have lost a child paying thousands and thousands of dollars to charlatans, perhaps, who make promises to “bring back” their dead child by cloning a replacement from his or her DNA.
Is it so ludicrous to imagine a dictator somewhere attempting to build a “master race” through cloning? Imagine what a mad man like Hitler would have done had he had access to this kind of technology. Who is to say that Hitler was the last of his type, and that history will never again produce a soul as warped (and as powerful) as his?
Of course, cloning-- even the cloning of humans-- has its defenders. These people, no doubt, consider those of us who have serious reservations to be hopelessly narrow-minded and short-sighted. These people point to the possible benefits of cloning: the possibilities for treating, even curing, certain diseases; the hope it offers to childless couples; the possibility for continuing the line and lineage of a family where only a single descendant is left. Some even point to the possibilities for replicating positive traits in our shared humanity, as well: Why not (if it were possible) clone a thousand Christs-- or a nation of Gandhis-- a Calcutta-full of Mother Teresas-- score upon score of Martin Luther Kings?
And this, I think, brings us back (or pretty close anyway) to the original question this sermon posed: Will clones have souls?
“Poems are made by fools like me,” wrote Joyce Killmer in that poem that many of us probably had to learn back in elementary school or junior high, “but only God can make a tree.”
All manner of technological innovations can be made by human beings like us-- maybe even physical replications of living creatures-- maybe even clones-- but only God can make a soul: God and experience, God and history, God and our never-ending human search for God, written deep in the bodies, minds, and spirits of each of us.
Physical bodies, perhaps, can be reproduced in the laboratory. But souls can’t be Xeroxed. Indeed, souls are not things we have. A soul, rather, is something we are: We human beings aren’t creatures who have souls. We are, rather, beings who are living souls. We are each an integral being of mind and spirit, energy and matter-- and our “soul” is the utter summation of all of that.
Souls cannot be created out of hand. In my opinion at least, our souls do not fall into us fully formed. Rather, they are formed over time, in the sometimes harsh, sometimes gentle fires of life. As one of my colleagues has put it, “Nature needs nurture to complete itself. Without the right environment-- parental, cultural, educational-- genius can come to naught. The twists of fate and fortune, sheer luck and happenstance, can often make or break the possibilities of personal growth and achievement.”
“Soul... is [the] potentiality of spirit inherent in living matter.” How the spirit will manifest itself in time and space, no one can tell. We might be able to clone Einstein-- and the result might even look like Einstein, more or less. It might walk like Einstein; it might even talk like Einstein. But it wouldn’t be Einstein!
Bruce Handy once did a cartoon essay in which Abraham Lincoln was cloned from a lock of his hair. Thanks to modern nutrition, he grows to be seven feet, six inches tall, and ends up as a professional basketball player. Then, he runs for President, and enters the New Hampshire Primary with a speech that begins “Two score and six chromosomes ago...”. He wins in New Hampshire, but in the end he loses the nomination to Fred Thompson because he does so poorly in the South (I wonder why?) on Super Tuesday. So, he ends up doing commercials on television for the Presidents’ Day sales at various stores. So much for the “soul” of Abe Lincoln! He looked like Abraham Lincoln. He sounded like Abraham Lincoln. But you, sir, are no Abraham Lincoln!
Of course, some of us no doubt cling to the stereotype of clones that we inherited from films like “The Boys From Brazil” (where a group of neo-Nazis try to produce a new Hitler)-- or from even earlier works like Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. Here, life is created in the laboratory fully formed, fully adult, ready to go out and wreck havoc upon the world.
With cloning, of course, it may not be quite as dramatic. If scientists should even succeed in creating a human clone, what we will then have will not be a monster like Frankenstein, or a demon like Hitler, but a human infant, a human child, a little baby-- no doubt as beautiful and soft and warm and cuddly as any other baby.
As much as I love babies-- as we all do-- and as much as I am thrilled by an infant’s cry of new life-- as we all are-- I hope that day never comes. It would be so much a better, it seems to me, to use of our immense human creativity-- all that scientific and creative ingenuity we possess-- to find better ways to feed and clothe and house and educate and motivate the nurture and love those divine human children already in our midst-- then to create new children through a new technology that threatens such immense dangers.
But should such children be born, they will need to be nurtured and loved and cared for just as any other children do. For that is how they will grow their souls-- just as we grow our own.
Maybe the real question we need to ask isn’t “Will clones have souls?”, but rather: “Do we?”
Do we have the soul and sensibility that will be needed to care for our planet and for one another in the dangerous days that lie ahead?
Will we find the courage we need to take those bold steps needed to care for our earth?
We will find the serenity and the sense of inner peace we need to stay away from places we ought not to be?
Will we find the wisdom we need to know the difference?
The real question we need to ask isn’t “Will clones have souls?”, but rather: “Do we?”
I pray that we will find the wisdom we need to light our way forward in the days ahead.
Blessed be. Amen.