The circumstances under which we learn a new word (or even a new meaning for an old word) can give it a certain unique emotional coloration that is permanent. As an example, there was this time back in high school…
Having misspent a fair number of my younger years reading of old British novels and memoirs, I had already expanded my vocabulary with a lot of obsolete words, spellings and turns of phrase (to this day, I think develop should have an ‘e’ at the end). From the imperial stories and “Injah” books I had learned all about the necessity of wearing a pith helmet when the “mad dogs and Englishmen” went out in the noon day sun. Indeed, judging from the old pictures, the pith helmet was as necessary an accessory for the proper colonial (male or female, though the ladies added a bit of gauze to dress it up) as the mosquito net.
Imagine my surprise when I learned in Biology Lab that pith could also be a verb. At the time, we were part way through the term. We had dissected the earthworm (phylum annelida) and clam (phylum mollusca). We were already sick of the grisly aroma of formaldehyde.
Then our teacher presented us with a surprise in the form of a rather large, live and very lively frog. With a businesslike air he grasped the frog firmly and proceeded to stick a probe into the base of the frog’s neck and drive it up into the frog’s brain. This, we were told, would pith the frog.
Pithing, it seems, was a rather brute force method of destroying the frog’s higher functions while leaving the rest of the frog’s body twitchily alive and ripe for vivisection. It was not a pleasant sight and reminded me I had seen far too many horror movie laboratory scenes.
Today there are more sophisticated ways, surgical, gaseous and electrical, to perform the same task without literally pithing the animal. But the idea is the same and it is still done routinely on lab animals. Both the word and the idea still make me queasy.
SCENARIO: Imagine that you have money enough to burn. If you are in that happy state, chances are you are no longer young. Your body has not yet started to actively fail, but the twinges you feel in the morning are the handwriting on the wall. At this sensitive moment, along comes a scientific Mephistopheles with a modest research proposal:
Given the correct facilities, he whispers, he could clone you. There are enough hungry folks around to guarantee a willing and silent host mother. Somewhere during development, he says he will effectively pith the developing embryo so that it can never achieve consciousness. From infancy on, it will be in the “permanent vegetative state” so beloved of lawyers.
Given proper care and nourishment, the brain dead baby will continue to grow, just as such unconscious children routinely do in hospitals. Within a few years, he promises, you will have something infinitely precious: Your own private organ bank, guaranteed to be compatible with your genotype because it IS your genotype.
Think of it! As your body parts begin to fail, you can just swap them out with ones from the organ bank. Imagine how tempting it would be: Got a family history of heart trouble? That’s Okay, we have a spare (much younger) heart just waiting for you in the next room. Arm getting a little too short for those aging lenses in you eyes? No problem! Got a pair that have never been used. You say you might someday need a compatible bone marrow transplant? Brother, have I got a deal for you!
And on and on. Hip joints, lungs, stomach, prostate, ovaries (not to be sexist), you name it and we can rejuvenate it.
Scary scene? I’ll say! But I will also say that the idea that it can be countered by some legislator with the stoke of a pen is simply an equally scary joke in bad taste. I would bet almost anything you like that the above scenario has already been seriously proposed somewhere in the world. And if the serpent whispers to someone with enough money and enough fear, it will probably be accepted and accomplished.
The problem is that human cloning is simply too powerful an idea to be stopped. Not some idiot version of making a complete cloned person (which has gotten all the press), but the potential for making brain dead compatible tissue donors.
If you find the picture of the potential consequences horrifying, let me say that the cure does not lie in trying to prevent them by banning them. A sufficient quantity of sufficiently motivated money can subvert any legal barrier. Instead, I would suggest that these strong temptations can only be removed by pushing forward with human cloning research to make them obsolete.
I maintain that the problem contains the seeds of its own solution.
Instead of the nightmare scenario described above, imagine the development that would come after that phase if we allow the science to progress. We can already convince some human cell types to grow in the lab. And each human cell has the entire human genome within it. Now imagine that instead of trying to grow a whole person from a single cell, we try to grow, say, a whole kidney, complete with nervous and vascular systems.
To put it mildly, this is not a trivial exercise. Some of the necessary genetic components are not even located in the same area of the human genome, which posits a considerable development in genetic technology. This process also envisions developing the capability of connecting an organ to an external (presumably artificial) set of plumbing and wiring and then supplying the necessary nutrients to make it grow.
It is clear this would be a nasty, exacting and difficult task. I would argue, however, that it is equally clear that it is, in the long range, a completely feasible development. And having taken the process so far, it is only a step further to imagine forcing the growth rate. To be useful, we would want a fully developed kidney not as a matter of years, but one of months (Or weeks? Days?).
What is particulary neat about cloning a replacement is that it carries a special benefit. If you have to replace a kidney that is afflicted with carcinoma, the DNA within that kidney is, by definition, at least locally corrupted. Otherwise you would not have the cancer in the first place. Simply taking a kidney cell and using it as a base to grow a new kidney risks getting a cancerous kidney as a result. However, as all the cells in the body contain all the genetic information necessary to make a kidney, we have an entire body to search to find some uncorrupted DNA.
So the conclusion might be this: If we are horrified at the ethical problems cloning a human being presents, the solution might be to be smart enough to allow human cloning research to follow its natural course as soon as possible. Somewhere down the road we can envision the time we should be able to simply order up ethically neutral organs for replacement rather than use our present pleasant process of scavenging cadavers for them. And the replacements, being guaranteed compatible, would be a far superior product..
Speaking of ethics, I suppose I ought to admit I have an ulterior motive for campaigning to advance the technology of growing human spare parts. You see, I’m interested in a probable byproduct. I’m betting that before they get down the road to all of the life saving wonders outlined above they will finally find a way to clone replacement human hair. Some might consider that a trivial gain, but to us follically challenged types, it is a goal worth any amount of research funding!