The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Science Week: The Science and Ethics of Cloning: A Pop-Culture Perspective

Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer

ImageEver since a couple of Scots introduced the world to a sheep named Dolly in 1996 cloning has been a staple of pop-culture in movies, TV shows, and comic books.  Heck, long before it became science fact it was present in science fiction.  Back in the 1970s a novel and subsequent movie adaptation of The Boys from Brazil explored the idea of cloning Adolf Hitler.  More recently movies such as The Sixth Day and The Island have featured human cloning front and center in their plots.  Some of your favorite comic book superheroes including Spider-Man and Superman have been cloned.  Heck, even Jesus Christ was cloned in the novel The Genesis Code.  But what lessons can be learned from pop-culture about the the science, and perhaps more importantly the ethics of cloning?


As far as the science of the actual process, pop-culture only goes so far.  They know enough to know that obtaining a viable sample of DNA from the individual to be cloned is a prerequisite to cloning that individual, but beyond that factual accuracy tends to go out the window.  For works of fiction prior to the actual discovery and development of the cloning method, various deus ex machina were employed such as the Bokanovsky process in Brave New World.  Even in the wake of the development of somatic cell nuclear transfer, also known as SCNT (the term for the actual "cloning" process), many films (Godsend, The Sixth Day, The Island) gloss over the specifics and just get to the consequences.  In that vein, let's leave the hard science behind for a moment and talk about the implications of cloning.  More specifically, while multiple mammalian species including mice, cats, sheep, cows, dogs, monkeys, and others have been successfully cloned (and warrant a discussion of cloning of their very own), we'll focus our attention on human cloning.

Before we go any further, let's get a couple of things clear.  1) There are two kinds of cloning, termed reproductive and therapeutic.  Both can involve SCNT to clone an individual, but where reproductive cloning seeks to allow the clone to develop into a viable organism, the purpose of therapeutic cloning is to derive embryonic stem cells from the clone for research (and perhaps in the future therapeutic) purposes.  For this discussion we'll only be talking about reproductive cloning, and that's what I'll be referring to if I use the term "cloning".  2) There has not been a verified, post-natal human clone anywhere in the world.  Some claims have been made, but that's all they've proven to be: claims, and baseless ones at that.  Though many believe it is a matter of when and not if a human is cloned, nations around the world have outlawed the practice, and many in the scientific community support such a ban.

If we look to pop-culture, we know that ban or no scientists are an amoral (if not outright immoral), obsessive lot who like to play god and laugh in the face of the laws of nature.  Such a view is laughably inaccurate, as are many of the views pop-culture offers on cloning.  But let's take a look anyway, you know, for shits and giggles.

Pop-Culture Cloning Tenant #1: A clone is identical in EVERY way to the original individual

The aforementioned The Boys from Brazil explored this idea (without exactly asserting it) in terms of cloning Adolf Hitler.  A fictional Josef Mengele successfully cloned Hitler and scattered 100 or so Hitler clones around North America and Europe.  Mengele ensured that each would have similar, traumatic life experiences (specifically the murder of his father) in hopes of pushing one of the clones down a future-Fürher fate to lead a Third Reich.  This idea that a clone would have the same personality as the original individual was much less elegantly explored in the film Godsend.  When a couple's son is tragically killed, they are approached by a doctor promising to given them their son back through the power of cloning.  It is eventually revealed that the doctor mixed some of his own dead son's DNA with that of the couple's child, creating a clone that had all the physical traits of the latter and the memories (and violent psychoses) of the former. 

This is perhaps one facet of a larger idea that genetics can determine personality.  Though an interesting concept deserving of its own discussion, we can discard the idea as far as the personalities of clones are concerned.  For example, for every set of identical twins (sharing the exact same DNA, much like clones) with highly similar interests and personalities, there is another set that are very distinct and different.  In that way clones can likely be thought of in the same way as identical twins.  Genetic identity does not negate individuality.  Insight into the potential reality of human clones may be gained by considering Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.  Therein a cohort of 70 or even 80 clones (though not called such, they may be thought of as such) were not assumed to be identical or even similar in personality simply as product of similar genes.  It took extensive biological and behavioral conditioning to ensure that.

Pop-Culture Cloning Tenant #2: Clones grow faster than weeds

According to pop-culture, half the fun of making clones are all the crazy shenanigans they can get into when they are injected into the lives of their templates.  Consider Michael Keaton's clones in Multiplicity, or Peter Parker's clone in the Spider-Man Clone Saga.  Assuming Peter Parker was 25 when he was cloned by The Jackal, he'd be 40-50 years old by the time his clone was ready for their inevitable steel cage match.  Michael Keaton's clones in Multiplicity were ready to go in a day.  And not only can a clone's growth and development time be incredibly shortened, it can be exquisitely controlled.  Once the clone reaches the proper age, it is then able to age normally.  Granted, neither of these examples were ever meant to stand up to any kind of rigorous scientific scrutiny, but still.

It almost goes without saying that the reality is far different.  It is almost ironic that more accurate depictions are present in older works of fiction.  In The Boys from Brazil (1976) Hitler's clones grew and aged at the normal human rate.  In Brave New World (1932) batches of Gammas and Deltas and Epsilons, though able to have a slightly shortened development time, still took years to grow to maturity.  And all of this doesn't even take into account the potentially premature aging defects observed in some cloned animals.

So it's not that clones can't age faster than "normal", but that they may be doing so spontaneously and beyond scientists' control/understanding.

Pop-Culture Cloning Tenant #3: Clones – so easy, a caveman could make one

Whether you're growing a clone for spare parts or to wreak havoc in the life of your nemesis, various examples from pop culture give the impression that almost any idiot with a Junior Biologist Starter Kit could make a clone of their very own.  Here again they've completely missed the mark.  The reality is that successfully cloning a mammal and having it survive to adulthood, much less birth is incredibly difficult.  And I don't just mean that it requires a small fortune's worth of highly technical equipment and someone with years of accumulated knowledge and experience to successfully carry out the process, which it does.  Even for the experts, it's damn near a miracle that cloning actually works.

Back in 2000 the efficiency of nuclear transfer, i.e. cloning was less than 1%.  That means that for every 100 animals cloned, maybe 1 of them would survive to adulthood.  That number has yet to significantly increase.  In some cases 8% of cloned mice result in viable pups being born, and other studies have reported 8-10% of cloned cows result in live births, though the number that survive just 1 month after birth drops to around 5%.  And that's not all.  According to the National Academy of Sciences:

"It is quite clear that across multiple species there are far more failures…than there are live normal births…The most notable defects are increased birth size, placental defects, and lung, kidney, and cardiovascular problems. Other problems have included liver, joint, and brain defects, immune dysfunction, and postnatal weight gain. Thus, a wide variety of tissues and organs can fail to develop properly in cloned animals."

Will science find ways around these problems?  Sure.  Probably.  But I'd hold off ordering that clone of your pet dog Scruffy for awhile.

Final Thoughts

I'm not sure if this is a case of art imitating life, or life imitating art.  Likely the former, given that (at least as far as I'm aware) speculation by scientists such as Richard Seed, Preston Estep, and Aubrey de Grey on the use of cloning humans to extend lifespan and repair damaged/aged tissues preceded fictional works like The Island and Never Let Me Go.  While the use of human cloning for the purpose of organ replacement remains firmly within the realm of science fiction, fear merely at the prospect of such was enough that it was one of the main reasons cited in support of a ban on human cloning.

I find it interesting that clones are often depicted in pop-culture as mere "copies" of a person with no identity of their own (as I discussed above), yet just as often are asserted to be unique individuals with all the rights there of.  Perhaps these differing views reveal the complexity of the issue at hand.  When Dolly was first announced and the prospect of human cloning moved from science fiction into science reality, it elicited both hope and fear, excitement and trepidation.  All at once cloning was both the promise of immortality, and a threat to human decency.  The question was no longer "can we do it?" but "should we?".   

Toward that end, pop-culture is little help, offering few if any philosophical insights that cannot be discerned otherwise.  Though I'll leave you with some thoughts on science, courtesy of Mr. Aldous Huxley (Brave New World):

"I'm interested in truth, I like science. But truth's a menace, science is a public danger. As dangerous as it's been beneficent.  [W]e can't allow science to undo its own good work. That's why we so carefully limit the scope of its researches…We don't allow it to deal with any but the most immediate problems of the moment. All other enquiries are most sedulously discouraged. It's curious to read what people…used to write about scientific progress. They seemed to have imagined that it could be allowed to go on indefinitely, regardless of everything else. Knowledge was the highest good, truth the supreme value; all the rest was secondary and subordinate.

Every discovery in pure science is potentially subversive; even science must sometimes be treated as a possible enemy. Yes, even science." covers science and technology in entertainment, media and pop culture. Follow them on Twitter and their Facebook fan page. Subscribe to free email notifications of new posts on their home page.