Clones and college English

“It’s just not right,” said one student. “Cloning doesn’t feel right to me.”

“I want to grow my own clone,” joked another. “And have my brain transplanted into it when I get old.”

Cloning came up during a discussion of several technology essays that my students, college freshmen, had read for the English 101 class that I teach at UNR. Our conversations ranged from virtual reality to Internet porn pop-ups to life-support systems, living wills and, yes, the ups and downs of human cloning.

In one essay, Peggy Orenstein wrote about going to a virtual-reality expo. She noted how important it is for people who care to be able to shape the future of an emerging technology. The essay was written a decade ago.

Virtual reality is lame, said students who’d tried it. But it might be useful for training military pilots, they agreed.

We made lists of various other technologies, listing pros and cons under the headings of “wired” and “anti-wired.” Online shopping made both lists, as did chat rooms and Internet porn.

I can’t remember how talk turned to cloning. One student had read an article discussing whether a human clone would have a soul. Another wanted to know if a clone was like an identical twin.

Both questions aren’t necessarily applicable yet. Top executives at Advanced Cell Technology, the company purported Sunday to have achieved lift-off with the first cloned human embryo, say they’re not interested in transplanting cloned embryos into a woman’s womb so that one day a replica of, maybe, Elvis could go walking around Reno, signing autographs.

So why do scientists want to do cloning?

By cloning a human embryo, researchers hope to produce genetically matched replacement cells—yes, this is back to the stem cell thing—for patients with spinal injuries, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, etc.

A student wanted to know what happened to a cloned embryo after the stem cells were extracted. “Do they just dispose of it then?”

“I guess they do,” I said. That’s what happens to embryos used in research. “Because this nation has decided exactly when human rights kick in—at birth.”

I was headed into dangerous territory. It was safer to talk about Arnold Schwarzenegger running into a clone of himself in The Sixth Day. But we lurched back in to questions of morality and the proposal that clones could be grown and harvested for organs. Or maybe … if technology became advanced enough, we could grow clones of ourselves and transplant our brains into the clones. But what about the poor clone whose brain is going to be replaced? And wouldn’t this be a privilege of the rich? One student reminded us that technology has always been something that people with money get first.

Truth be told, we don’t know where cloning will take our society. That’s why now is the time to talk about all these things. As writer Orenstein concluded in her essay on virtual reality: "This time, we have the chance to enter the debate about the direction of a revolutionary technology, before the debate has been decided for us."