Animal cloning: cui bono?

Marvin asks:

So what if it’s safe? Do we need to clone beef cattle, dairy cattle, swine and chickens? It’s not like I’m starving, and I’m not sure how this helps people who are starving. Who benefits from cloning livestock? This seems to be yet another great example of what I’ll call “technologism:” If we can do it; we must. We just can’t seem to help ourselves.

Not to underestimate the human impetus toward “if it can be done, it will be done,” I think there are very concrete interests at stake here. This summary provides some helpful information:

For farmers whose livelihoods depend on selling high-quality meat and dairy products, cloning can offer a tremendous advantage. It gives them the ability to preserve and extend proven, superior genetics. They can select and propagate the best animals–beef cattle that are fast-growing, have lean but tender meat, and are disease-resistant; dairy cows and goats that give lots of milk; and sheep that produce high-quality wool. Through cloning, it would be possible to predict the characteristics of each animal, rather than taking the chance that sexual reproduction and its gene reshuffling provide.

What’s at issue here, it seems to me, is the continuing institutional “commodification” of animals. Less and less are farm animals regarded as beings with their own natures that merit respect. Rather, they’re products that can be engineered to lower costs, suit consumer preferences, and generally behave less like organisms and more like machines. Needless to say, the chief beneficiaries are likely to be big agriculture interests who can afford cloned animals, and the biotech firms who hold the patents to the cloning technology.

The article linked above tries to make the case for some benefits accruing to the animals from cloning:

Cloning has the potential to improve the welfare of farm animals by eliminating pain and suffering from disease. “From time to time, in nature, you find a naturally disease-resistant animal,” says Rudenko. “You can expand that genome through cloning, and then breed that resistance into the overall population and help eliminate major diseases in livestock.”

Cloning can reduce the number of unwanted animals, such as veal calves, says Ray Page, chief scientific officer and biomedical engineer at Cyagra, a livestock cloning company. Veal calves are commonly surplus male offspring from dairy cows. Since the males don’t produce milk, they are not as useful to the dairy industry and are turned into veal calves. Cloning can ensure the creation of more female offspring for dairy production.

Of course, what this article omits is that a big part of the reason that farm animals are so prone to disease is that they are kept in unnatural and barbaric conditions, which is why our meat is pumped full of hormones and antibiotics. And it’s dubious, to say the least, to suggest that the demand for veal wouldn’t ensure that the supply of calves is maintained.

It ends up looking like cloning is at best a techno-fix band-aid on the already inhumane conditions that farm animals are subjected to. This is all leaving aside the harm that the cloning process itself inflicts on animals: both the extraction of eggs and the health problems that cloned animals, at least in the early stages, were prone to. The most likely result, I’d guess, will be to reinforce a purely instrumental view of animal life and to increase the profits of those who see animals as little more than meat machines.

The cow-man cometh

This story reports that the UK has given the green light to scientists to create human-animal ‘chimera’ embryos for research purposes (see here for a bit more background).

Essentially this involves combining an animal egg (cows in this case) with human genetic material to create an embryo from which stem cells can be extracted. The hope, I take it, is that these embryos will be close enough to human embryos for the resulting research to be of value.

Some opponents have objected to what they consider the blurring of the boundary between human beings and other animals. Researchers respond that getting eggs from animals is more efficient and less ethically troublesome than getting them from women, a process that is described as “invasive, painful and potentially dangerous.”

This research doesn’t remove the moral controversy over destroying the resultant embryos: though there may be some debate about whether such an embryo is “technically” human, it’s close enough for those who oppose embryo-desctructive research more generally. Ironically, this concern is somewhat at odds with the “blurring the lines” argument, but not outright inconsistent with it.

There’s also the question of whether it’s ethical to get the eggs from cows. If the process of getting eggs from women is dangerous and painful, how do the cows fare? None of the stories I read addressed this particular issue, but one can only assume that the well-being of the cows isn’t foremost in the minds of those who are using them in this way.

Of course, this touches on the issue of using animals in scientific research more generally. Is it permissible to use them, without their consent (obviously), and in a fashion that leads to pain, suffering, and/or death on the animal’s part?

I don’t have a settled view on this. I’m strongly inclined to say that routine product testing and experimentation sheerly out of curiosity or the desire to know aren’t sufficient justifications for most animal experimentation. It’s hard to see how, say, having another variety of deodorant on the shelves justifies subjecting animals to painful tests.

On the other hand, research aimed at curing serious disease has, at least on its face, a stronger claim. Surely saving human lives justifies sacrificing some animals?

Still, it might be worthwhile to at least examine a dissenting view. As it happens, I’ve been reading Andrew Linzey’s Christianity and the Rights of Animals. Among other topics, he examines the argument for animal research and ties it to concerns about research that destroys human embryos.

Linzey’s concern is that animal experimentation, justified as it is in terms of harms and benefits, or an essentially consequentialist moral framework, is intrinsically likely to lead to experiments on unwilling human subjects. If experiments on animals are justified by pointing to their prospective benefits, what stops us from experimenting on embryos or “sub-standard” human beings for the same reason? “Once our moral thinking becomes dominated by crude utilitarian calculations, then there is no right, value or good that cannot be bargained away, animal or human” (p. 120).

He goes on to ask: even if we can accept that these kinds of moral trade-offs might sometimes be justified, do we want to institutionalize them? That is, do we want entire industries whose products (and profits) are premised on treating both animal life and nascent human life as disposable commodities to be exploited for our benefit? Or do we want to somehow recognize that they have intrinsic value that must be respected in some way?

Like I said, I don’t have a settled issue on the matter, but I think it’s worth thinking about. Our tendency is to see the non-human (or even the marginally human) as essentially a resource. For a variety of reasons I don’t think this is a healthy, sane, or sustainable view. And yet it’s not easy to draw the line between abuse and legitimate use.

Transhumanism

The fact that some people’s idea of utopia involves “uploading” your personality into a computer and living forever frankly gives me the creeps. (I also am not sure it’s even a coherent idea. In what sense would that be me rather than just a Max Headroom-style copy of me?)

I have no idea how many people actually adhere to this “transhumanist” ideal. I’ve never met any in real life. But the fact that they can put on conferences suggests there are a few.

The transhumanist idea of the “Singularity” has been called “the Rapture for nerds,” but it’s really gnosticism for nerds. It’s the idea that material things like our bodies and the Earth are icky death-traps that need to be left behind.

The conservatism of Ray Davies

Apropos of yesterday’s post, the lyrics from The Kinks’ “God’s Children”:

Man made the buildings that reach for the sky
And man made the motorcar and learned how to fly
But he didn’t make the flowers and he didn’t make the trees
And he didn’t make you and he didn’t make me
And he got no right to turn us into machines
He’s got no right at all
‘Cause we are all God’s children
And he got no right to change us
Oh, we gotta go back the way the Good Lord made us all

Don’t want this world to change me
I wanna go back the way the Good Lord made me
Same lungs that he gave me to breath with
Same eyes he gave me to see with

Oh, the rich man, the poor man, the saint and the sinner
The wise man, the simpleton, the loser and the winner
We are all the same to Him
Stripped of our clothes and all the things we own
The day that we are born
We are all God’s children
And they got no right to change us
Oh, we gotta go back the way the Good Lord made
Oh, the Good Lord made us all
And we are all his children
And they got no right to change us
Oh, we gotta go back the way the Good Lord made us all
Yeah, we gotta go back the way the Good Lord made us all

The Kinks are probably the only great reactionary rock band. Not reactionary in some kind of mean-spirited sense, mind you. But in the sense of writing wistful songs about the English countryside getting chewed up by sprawl and the drab conformity engendered by the welfare state. And in this case a quasi-Luddite opposition to the mechanization of modern society. The albums Muswell Hillbillies and The Village Green Preservation Society are the loci classici here.

Humans as GMOs

This article at The Nation makes the case that even progressives who take the ultra anti-restrictionist line on abortion should support regulation of new reproductive technologies. These technologies have the potential for very serious unintended social consequences and therefore shouldn’t be left solely to individual choice. This seems like a place where progressives and cultural conservatives could make common cause if they can put aside mutual suspicion over abortion politics.

I think this is a place where a Murray Jardine-style analysis is illuminating: we have a very hard time as a society limiting things that appear on their face to be simply matters of individual preference. But the author of this piece shows that the consequences of those choices have the potential to create social patterns that will have consequences for other individuals who had no part in making that choice. This requires us to deliberate about what kind of a society we want to live in. For instance: do we want to live in a society where access to new technologies results in an extreme genetic stratification between rich and poor?