Thursday, April 22, 2010

More Than A Chip Off The Old Block

Economist Bryan Caplan, contemplating the idea of raising a clone of himself as his son for a new book, concedes that the idea is highly appealing, while confessing that many people are likely to find that prospect icky. Count me among them. Even leaving aside the bioethical problems - as far as I know, we still haven't succeeded in producing clones without serious genetic flaws that leave them more susceptible to a variety of congenital defects and significantly shorten their lifespan - the prospect of raising a genetic copy of one's self is problematic. For one, I think it likely that the parent and clone, sharing as they would however much of personality is due to genetic factors, would be likely to clash for that reason. I've often had trouble getting along with my mother in my life, and more often than not, it's on account of our similarities, not our differences - a flaw you dislike in yourself is even harder to tolerate in another person. Secondly, I suspect that knowing that one's child was genetically identical to one's self would somewhat warp our both our natural instincts and our socially conditioned attitudes as parents. Evidence seems to suggest that to be psychologically healthy, children must establish a personal identity distinct from that of their parents as they grow, and sharing the exact same genes would make that more difficult. Everybody has at some point met a son who is under excessive parental pressure to follow in his father's footsteps, or a daughter who is expected to live up to her mother's legacy - it seems that one of the mistakes to which we are vulnerable as parents is viewing our children not as distinct individuals, but as extensions of ourselves. An identical genetic profile would only exacerbate this problem. How would the cloned child of, say, a brilliant scientist, handle the implicit pressure to become a brilliant scientist him- or herself, given that everyone - the child, the parent, society in general - would expect that outcome? If such a child failed to live up to his or her genetic potential (and that's hardly unlikely, success generally requiring a combination of talent, luck, hard work, and opportunity), how would s/he handle failure? Finally, there's this problematic sentence:

I'm confident that he'd be delighted, too, because I would love to be raised by
This gets right down the heart of a rather thorny philosophical issue - the nature of the self, and how we perceive the selves of others. If you're confident, as Caplan apparently is, that the self is genetically determined, then yes, you can project your own preferences onto a genetic copy of yourself. I am not at all confident of this, and frankly, I don't see any reason to be. If I were to clone myself, the clone would grow up in a different time, with entirely different formative experiences, and I think it's pretty likely he'd end up a different person than I am - just as identical twins, nature's clones, diverge in some ways when they are raised in different environments.

I've never met Caplan, and it feels unfairly judgmental to say this, but his preference for raising a genetic copy of himself, rather than a conventionally conceived child that's only partly him, and his confidence that this arrangement would be good for the child as well as for him, strike me as somewhat narcissistic. I've yet to have a child myself, so of course I can't say much about how the experience changes a person, as all my friends who do have children attest. But from where I sit, at least, it seems unfair to unduly burden one's child with one's own preconceptions and expectations, even when that child is not carrying one's exact genetic legacy.

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