Jewish World Review August 15 2001 / 27 Menachem-Av, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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The clones are coming! The clones are ... -- SERIOUS and even chilling as the ethical questions it raises are, human cloning remains an inherently comic topic. As scientists and politicians earnestly debate duplicating our earnest selves, it's hard not to notice the absurdist aspects of this debate.

The farce begins with some of the names the cloning industry has adopted, like Clonaid. Which sounds more like a cosmetic in competition with Clinique than a scientific breakthrough.

Clonaid, as it turns out, is a company headed by one Brigette Basselier, a name that really ought to be up on a theater marquee where the latest French sex farce is playing. A double feature, the other show would be produced by a cast of clones. How could we tell which was which, and would it matter? All French sex farces long ago became much the same. (Or, since this is about cloning, should that be French asexual farce?)

After a while, any discussion of cloning begins to sound the same, too. Which figures in a way. And the burning questions raised by cloning turn into Zen: Would a cloned Marcel Marceau have just as much not to say?

The other day, a supposedly serious presentation of the pros and cons of cloning before the National Academy of Sciences erupted into a shouting match worthy of a Mack Sennett comedy, with distinguished scientists putting on a pretty good imitation of Leo (The Lip) Durocher arguing a call. But scientific conferences will never be wholly satisfying until the moderator can send participants to the showers.

I couldn't help but picture Gene Wilder as Young Frankenstein when one of the dueling scientists, Panayiotis Michael Zavos, solemnly declared: "They are calling us mad scientists; we're not. If the process is not successful we will discontinue our efforts.''

Oh yeah? After how many attempts and botched clones? Because you know there will always have to be a sequel, just as there is in Hollywood.

Anybody proclaiming "I am not a mad scientist'' inspires about as much confidence as Richard Nixon proclaiming "I am not a crook.'' Come to think, Dick Nixon may have been a clone before his/its time, which would explain a lot about him. Those hunched shoulders. The awkward body language. The way he played/pounded the piano. Or walked the beach in wingtips.

Scientists will continue their efforts to clone a human because that is the nature of scientists. It's probably in their genes. Generation after generation, a Doktor Frankenstein is always drawn back to Transylvania for one more try.

Reading accounts of the debate/fracas at the National Academy, one has to wonder: Who are the freaks here -- the cloned products of the experiments being proposed, or the scientists who want to conduct those experiments? And could we tell the difference?

Asked why Southern writers always wrote about the grotesque, Flannery O'Connor replied: "Because we can still tell a freak when we see one.'' After this oh-so-serious discussion of cloning by oh-so-serious scientists being taken oh-so-seriously by oh-so-serious journalists, I'm not sure we still can. Nobody laughed. Maybe the humor chromosome is missing from some scientists' genomes.

I found myself scanning the pictures of this certifiably scientific conference on the lookout for Igor, as played by Marty Feldman, lurking in the background. But he was nowhere to be seen -- although that may have been Vincent Price behind the curtain. The whole discussion had the campy flavor of a bad sci-fi movie.

Every time a scientist solemnly assures us that he'll give up cloning if he isn't successful, it occurs that the really scary part would be if he were. How would you like your genotype walking around somewhere, or penned up where you could cannibalize him/her/it for spare parts? And why wouldn't your clone, poor thing, have just as much claim to your constituent organs, if not more? (Youth will be served.) Would a clone know he's only a clone? And which are you?

A Russian named Gogol once wrote a biting comic/satiric portrait of Czarist times called "Dead Souls.'' The novel concerned a businessman of a sort who had figured out a profitable scam that required his going around the countryside buying dead serfs, at least in name. Imagine the macabre fun Gogol could have had with a society that depends on fertility clinics/embryo farms to supply subjects for scientific research. Gogol had no idea just how dead our souls could grow.

It's all enough to remind one that, if there was a hero in Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World,'' it was the savage. For if this be the next great achievement of Western civilization -- the creation of human embryos for scientific experiments like cloning -- what is barbarism?

In Britain, where they are farther down this strange road, Tony Blair has explained: "Our conviction about what is natural or right should not inhibit the role of science in discovering the truth ... .'' At the time Britain's prime minister was talking about the desirability of human cloning. But once our convictions about what is natural or right no longer inhibit our actions, scientific and otherwise, anything is possible. Even probable.

At least I think that was the British prime minister talking, and not his artificial, unfeeling clone. But it isn't always easy to tell. again.

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