How cloning messes with your identity.

How cloning messes with your identity.

How cloning messes with your identity.

How you look at things.
Jan. 3 2002 4:57 PM

Brain Twinster

Cloning messes with your identity in more ways than one.

Since Frame Game analyzes spin, it tends to attract readers who have the attitude and aptitude to do the same. Sometimes, they turn their talents on Frame Game itself. The last few columns on cloning—"The Ethicist's New Clothes," "The Too-Weak Rule," and "Everyone's a Twinner"—have generated a number of interesting critiques in Slate's Fray. Here's one from Slate reader Ben Chan, followed by Frame Game's reply.

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This is going to get very complicated, so if you want to follow the argument, be prepared for some serious mental exercise.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Chan argues that the conundrum that occurs in natural twinning doesn't occur in cloning, as Frame Game claimed it did. The conundrum in natural twinning is this: In terms of continuity, you're the same entity you were prior to the formation of your primitive streak, which happened about two weeks into your embryonic development. (For an explanation of what this streak is and why it matters, click here.) Your identical twin, if you have one, is also that entity. But you aren't your twin.

Chan argues that the rule proposed by advocates of therapeutic cloning—i.e., that the embryo prior to the formation of the primitive streak has no identity and therefore may be exploited and killed—solves this conundrum. But Chan rejects Frame Game's critique of this rule. Frame Game argued that cloning has made full-grown people, like early embryos, capable of twinning—and therefore indeterminate in the same sense in which the early embryo is indeterminate. Frame Game's point is that the rule produces an absurdity: If it's OK to kill a human entity that can divide to become an indeterminate number of people, then it's OK to kill you right now, since scientists could take your skin cell and clone any number of people from it.

Here's how Chan summarizes the indeterminacy problem in the natural twinning case, and why that problem doesn't occur in the cloning case.

Person A is child A is infant A is fetus A is post-streak embryo A is pre-streak embryo A. So Person A is pre-streak embryo A. Person B (natural twin of A) is child B is infant B is fetus B is post-streak embryo B is pre-streak embryo A. So Person B is pre-streak embryo A.

Problem! Person B is not Person A. Thus the pre/post-streak distinction is made, and we say the identity does not hold between pre and post streak embryos.

Saletan claims the same problem (that two people can be traced to the same post-streak embryo) hits the cloning industry because of their very own technology. This is wrong. [His argument presumes that] Person B is child B is embryo B is skin cell A is Person A is child A is post-streak embryo A. But since skin cell A is obviously not Person A, there's no way to link Person B to post-streak embryo A.

There is no similar discontinuity in the (non-clone) twin case to prevent one person from being the same person as two people, which is precisely why we had to introduce one at the pre/post-streak stages.

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Frame Game's reply to this critique, in the spirit of Bill Clinton, is that it depends on what the meaning of "is" is. In the strict sense of equivalence, it isn't true that "Person A is child A is infant A is fetus A is post-streak embryo A is pre-streak embryo A," just as it isn't true that an acorn is an oak tree.

Chan appears to be using a looser definition of "is," as all of us do when talking about continuity of identity. When we say that "Person A is Child A," what we mean is that Person A derived exclusively from Child A and that Child A became exclusively Person A. That's true of the acorn and the oak tree.

By that definition, Chan is correct that "Skin Cell A is obviously not Person A," since although Skin Cell A derived exclusively from Person A, Person A did not become exclusively Skin Cell A. Instead, Person A divided to become Skin Cell A (and subsequently Pre-streak Embryo B and Person B) and the remainder of Person A.

By the same standard, it's also true that in the natural (non-clone) twin case, Person A is not Pre-streak Embryo A, since although Person A derived exclusively from Pre-streak Embryo A, Pre-streak Embryo A did not become exclusively Person A. Instead, Pre-streak Embryo A divided to become Person A and Person B.

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So far, so good.

But what happens when we take Skin Cell A from Child A and use it to create Pre-streak Embryo B? In that scenario, Child A divides to become Skin Cell A (and subsequently Pre-streak Embryo B and Person B) and the remainder of Child A (and subsequently Person A). So although Person A derives exclusively from Child A, Child A does not become exclusively Person A.

Therefore, by Chan's definition of "is," Child A is not Person A. Therefore, if it's OK to exploit and kill Pre-streak Embryo A because it "isn't" Person A—as the advocates of therapeutic cloning argue—then it's also OK to exploit and kill Child A because it "isn't" Person A.

You could change your definition of "is" to make it true that Child A is Person A. To do this, you would have to eliminate the "becomes exclusively" criterion, so that when you say "Child A is Person A," you mean simply that Person A derived exclusively from Child A. But by that definition of "is," it's also true that Pre-streak embryo A is Person A—and that Person A is Skin Cell A.

Pick your poison.

If you don't want to accept the analogy between the natural-twinning case and the child-cloning case, you can fall back on two other distinctions. One is that the child, unlike the embryo, has mental and physical attributes essential to personhood. Frame Game won't pursue that argument, since it abandons the twinning-based rule, which was the target of Frame Game's criticism. Debunking the twinning rule doesn't resolve whether abortion is or isn't acceptable; it just punctures the myth that the killing of a pre-streak embryo isn't an abortion.

The other distinction you can fall back on is that twinning is natural and cloning isn't. More on that after Frame Game has had a couple of weeks to rest his brain in front of a TV set.