On Jan. 24, two monkeys were successfully cloned by a team of geneticists in Shanghai. They were created using the same method which produced the infamous “Dolly” the sheep, which was previously thought to be impossible to achieve with primates. The monkeys, Hua Hua and Zhong Zhong, have once again sparked international controversy over cloning, which seems to be an overreaction based on science fiction fears.
The monkeys were grown using a form of cloning called “reproductive cloning.” This involves taking an egg from a female animal, removing the nucleus from the egg and replacing the nucleus with the nucleus from the cell of the organism you are attempting to clone. The cell is then returned back to the female animal’s uterus, where the clone will gestate until it is born naturally.
Using this method to clone primates allows scientists to create completely identical copies of the same genes repeatedly, or to manipulate the genes to create a designer form of the original genes. This could really help in studies about what exactly triggers diseases such as Cancer, Parkinsons and Alzheimers. But this same fear has many afraid that we will be able to customize or recreate the genes of humans.
Technically speaking, the cloning of humans is something that already exists. In 2013, a team of scientists at the Oregon Health and Sciences University were able to produce human stem cells using embryos cloned from adult cells. This process is being used to replace damaged tissue, and hopefully will eventually be able to replace tissue throughout the body with an exact match. However, it is not being used to create human clones. It’s simply seeking to help naturally born, existing humans.
Cloning in itself is not a negative innovation of science. Even if a rogue scientist wanted to clone humans, they would likely not be able to fund the project. Cloning is an incredibly expensive system, and relies heavily on grants which can support it. The cloning of humans is currently illegal in 46 countries, including China where Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua were created, and is likely to stay that way for a very long time.
The real issue with cloning, is that it complicates the definition of being “alive.” With the categorization of living and non-living creatures, we can then decide who is deserving of rights, and what rights they deserve. For example, a dog would not have the same rights as a rock. Dogs are considered living, feeling things which deserve protections. Rocks are not viewed with the same importance, as they are not defined as “living.”
This applies to clones, as they are created in a lab through a process which is deemed to be unnatural. Scientists then have to decide what rights a clone is entitled to, especially considering the fact that they will be experimented on throughout the duration of their life. This has been the case for previously cloned animals, and will almost definitely be the case for Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua.
The fact is, cloned animals have the same rights as lab animals which are currently being tested on. Lab animals are constantly being exploited to test pharmaceuticals or make-ups, in the name of science. These tests can be incredibly painful, yet are deemed necessary to protect consumers from bad reactions to products currently on the market. If this can be considered ethical around the world, it seems that cloning should be viewed as being ethical as well.
Reproductive cloning will likely face worldwide criticism for as long as it is practiced. It complicates what the definition of being “alive” is, and who is deserving of rights. Yet lab animals rarely have rights at the moment. Lab animals are constantly exploited to test makeup and pharmaceuticals.
The truth is, these monkeys will likely live a painful existence. They will be poked and prodded in the name of science, but this will hopefully lead to life-changing cures which could help not only humans, but a variety of species. The cloning of monkeys will almost certainly not change attitudes towards the cloning of humans, especially if it won’t change our views on the treatment of lab animals.
Hopefully, this innovation in cloning will help to cure a variety of diseases which we currently know very little about. With innovations in reproductive cloning, this could also allow for cloning to become cheaper and easier. Perhaps it could be utilized to boost the numbers of endangered species, or to help us better understand the formation of life. The possibilities are endless with cloning, and the cloning of humans should be the least of our worries.