On the radio!

I’ll be on the radio today! I’ll be doing a segment on Today FM’s Last Word on the ethics of human cloning. If you want to tune in, I’ll be on at 5:30 pm local time. (12:30 pm Eastern)

In Ireland.

I think it might be possible to listen in here: http://www.todayfm.com/Home.aspx.

It’s been a while since I did a radio interview…. wish me luck!

Update: Well, it was quick. 6 minutes, tops. I had a bunch of sound bites and didn’t get to use any of them. Oh well, I’m kinda rusty.

I added an article I wrote in 2001 to this site. The article is almost surely the piece that got me the interview. It’s gottan a bit of play over the years, and every so often I get asked to talk about it.

If you’re really a glutton for philosophical punishment, there’s more of my older stuff here.


Cloning: Toward a New Conception of Humanity?

(originally published, Nov. 2001)

by Patrick Stephens

In 1971, James D. Watson, co-discoverer of the double-helix structure of DNA, issued a call for a public debate on the ethics of human cloning. With the recent announcement that an international research team of fertility doctors will embark on the world’s first concerted effort to clone a human being, his call is finally being heeded. But as Watson realized, technological advances in cloning and genetic manipulation challenge our most dearly held assumptions. The debate about human cloning is a debate over nothing less than what it means to be human. The science of genetics, realized through technologies such as cloning, will have a tremendous impact on cultural conceptions of human nature. This debate, its implications, and its consequences are likely to be much the same as those that raged over Darwin’s The Origin of the Species more than 140 years ago.

Cloning technology presents humanity with the very real possibility that it may one day control not only its destiny but also its origin. Human cloning allows man to fashion his own essential nature and turn chance into choice. For cloning’s advocates, this is an opportunity to remake mankind in an image of health, prosperity, and nobility; it is the ultimate expression of man’s unlimited potential. For their detractors, human cloning and genetic manipulation intrude upon the profound nature of the inherently unknowable; they represent the bottomless depths of human arrogance and irresponsibility.

Like most popular debates in modern American culture, this one is driven by the detractors. The most cogent arguments against human cloning come from one of the more pre-eminent bioethicists in the United States, Leon R. Kass, of the University of Chicago. In The Wisdom of Repugnance, Kass offers a visceral, biting critique of human cloning and calls for an immediate international ban on all cloning research. Indicting the moral character of cloning’s advocates and at the same time summing his own critique, he muses: “Shallow are the souls who have forgotten how to shudder.”

While the critics of cloning, and Kass in particular, focus their attention on the spiritual consequences of human cloning, they are right to criticize current efforts in one respect; the current state of cloning technology is not yet advanced enough to warrant human experimentation. Cloning experiments have yet to show success rates in excess of 6 or 7 percent. Many cloned mammals exhibit grotesque genetic disorders, often ones that are life threatening to both the clone and the mother. Clones are routinely born oversized. There is usually a significant amount of birthing trauma for both mother and infant. The lifespan of cloned animals is unusually short. In this respect, it would be grossly irresponsible for anyone to engage in human cloning at the present time. But these risks will undoubtedly be overcome. At such time as the process carries risks comparable to natural reproduction, these objections will cease to be relevant. But the debate is now; concerns about the current feasibility of the procedure should not delay debate on the more substantial spiritual criticisms that the critics raise.

And to be sure, the debate over human cloning has raised the specter of various nightmare scenarios to which a spiritual reaction is indeed appropriate. Cloning technology raises the prospect that chimeras, animal-human hybrids, may be created. Likely chimeras range from the relatively benign recombination of human and pig DNA, where pigs are bred to provide organs for human transplants, to the more disturbing recombination of human and chimpanzee DNA, where apes are bred for sophisticated psychological and psychiatric research. The creation of chimeras blurs the distinctions between man and animal and raises questions that are not easily answered, such as “Would a sentient ape be accorded individual rights?”

Such questions are difficult to answer because they speak to the very essence of human nature. To deal with these kinds of eventualities would require a radically different conception of mankind, human nature, and man’s soul than is currently predominant in American culture. But cloning’s critics are averse to such a reformulation. For them, the questions that cloning raises need not be answered, so long as cloning is stopped now and those questions are never asked. To that end, the critics tend to focus on more immediate issues: the kind of life a cloned child will lead, the effect of cloning on family relationships, and the threat of cloning to traditional spirituality.

For critics like Kass, cloning leaves familial relationships in turmoil, rendering incomprehensible our most basic and personal relationships. A girl cloned from her mother would be her mother’s genetic twin; her grandfather would be her genetic father; and her siblings would be her genetic children. Yet centuries of experience with adopted children have shown that familial relationships are quite resilient. Indeed, the relationships that are formed in a healthy family are likely to render any semantic debate over the nature of “genetic” relationships largely irrelevant.

Critics have raised the prospect that a cloned child will be subject to an unnaturally demanding set of parental expectations. It is undoubtedly true that some parents will place unrealistic expectations on a cloned child–just as parents of “natural” children have been doing for centuries. Many parents already subject their children to terrible psychological stress; the image of a father living vicariously through his son is already a cliché. Parents already have children in attempts to “replace” a lost child or fill other emotional voids. There is, as yet, no way of effectively prohibiting bad child-rearing.

Concerns that a clone will suffer psychological distress from living a life-already-lived are likewise weak. Twins don’t seem to suffer any psychological trauma from living a life-already-being-lived. These arguments amount to a kind of Xerox assumption. Cloning does not produce psychological replicas of the DNA donor. If critics wish to condemn the practice of replication, they would be better off debating the morality of the Xerox machine because psychological replication has nothing to do with human cloning. As identical twins demonstrate, it is certainly possible for two people to share DNA and still live separate and completely fulfilling lives.

These arguments illuminate the critic’s assumption, best exemplified by Kass, that human relationships are determined not by affection or choice but by necessarily arbitrary circumstances. Kass argues that both genetic bonding and social taboos are more responsible for familial kinship than the actual affection that exists between parent and child. “Social taboos on incest everywhere serve to keep clear who is related to whom . . .” For Kass, it is crucially important that both the taboo and the genetic relationship remain unchosen. For Kass, the family is characterized primarily by obligation and duty. He says, “considering reproduction (and the intimate relations of family life!) primarily under the political-legal, adversarial, and individualistic notion of rights can only undermine the private yet fundamentally social, cooperative, and duty-laden character of child-bearing, child-rearing, and their bond to the covenant of marriage.” But lasting familial relationships must be grounded on at least some semblance of mutual respect and shared affection. In fact, most social taboos arise primarily out of the recognition that twisting the mutually consensual nature of any relationship into an act of domination is fundamentally wrong.

More to the point, however, is Kass’s argument that cloning itself represents a kind of despotic domination. Kass sees the parent of the cloned child as subjecting it to a set of demands–forcing it, in effect, to become a particular kind of person. This argument actually leads him, and other critics, to the absurd charge that cloning is wrong because the cloned child cannot consent, before conception, to his existence as a clone. The fact that consent-prior-to-conception on the part of any creature is an utter absurdity is apparently lost on these critics. One wonders if they would perceive an equal injustice in the fact that a child may not choose its sex. Ultimately, however, all parents exert a profound influence upon their children’s lives. And many, if not most, take an active role in the design of their children. Parents select the language and culture in which their children are raised, and (one hopes) give them moral and philosophical guidance. This influence is, for the vast majority of parents and children, a good thing. Cloning does not allow parents a greater degree of control over their children’s lives; it simply provides them with better information and reasonable expectations about the child’s relative fitness, overall health, and intellectual potential.

Cloning does not produce carbon copies, but genetic engineering and cloning do provide individuals with the opportunity to introduce an element of choice into reproduction. Parents may not be able to create duplicates of themselves, but they can create life in their own image. For the religious, this creation stands as a direct affront to God. And while many of cloning’s critics do not explicitly ground their arguments in these religious terms, their ethical foundation is clearly based on a Christian sense of duty and humility.

For the religious critics, it is the presence of the divine spark that exalts man, and cloning represents a threat to that divine spark. If man is capable of remaking his children in his own image, what then is the difference between man and God? Cloning is not simply man playing at godhood; it is man becoming God. For the devout, this is the greatest of all sins. But even many secular critics respond with moral indignation at the prospect that man may start aspiring to godhood. For religious and secular critics alike, the ultimate danger of cloning lies in the fact that it allows man to take an active role in his own being and, as Kass says, “transgress what is unspeakably profound.”

As Kass puts it, such an act reeks of the “excesses of human willfulness” and is evidence of “the Frankensteinian hubris to create human life and increasingly control its destiny.” More than anything else, it is the fact that cloning is an expression of the willful mind of man that most bothers the critics.

This resistance to willfulness is essentially a resistance to reason. The critics’ arguments are characterized by a reliance on faith that finally renders them unable even to articulate their argument. What is all the more enlightening is that some critics, Kass in particular, go so far as to elevate their irrational rage into a kind of moral justification. Cloning, Kass argues, is simply repugnant, and “. . . repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it. . . . Repugnance here, as elsewhere, revolts against the excesses of human willfulness.” It is ultimately the process of discovery and articulation –the process of willful rationality–that Kass opposes.

For critics like Kass, willful rationality militates against the humility of the human soul. The “shallow souls” who have “forgotten how to shudder” at the unknown pose the greatest threat. These critics believe that the human soul is fixed by Creation as an inherently limited and humble thing and that any attempt to understand what is “unspeakably profound” is an act that demands revulsion and repugnance.

But cloning, like any other technology, simply extends man’s range of choices. And it is the extension of choice and the pursuit of knowledge that offer man the opportunity to expand the boundaries of his existence. In the end, man’s spirit, that within him which searches for truth and morality, that part of his mind that aspires and dreams–his soul–is ultimately the product of his own design. Man’s spirit is, fundamentally, not a gift or an accident, but the product of a lifetime’s achievement. His soul is the willful product of his own rationality, the manifestation of his conceptual mind. It is not the shallow shudder of humility that ennobles a man’s soul, but the enraptured embrace of knowledge, opportunity, and choice.

Humans will be cloned. Scientific and technological progress has shown few signs of halting for spiritual objections. Like the birth-control pill and in-vitro fertilization, the technology of cloning will advance, techniques will be improved, and knowledge will be gained. The inevitable questions that cloning technology will raise–questions about family, rights, and what it means to be human–will challenge society’s most deeply cherished and most profound beliefs. But such a challenge should not be resisted. Cloning’s difficult questions can be answered only through a dedicated pursuit of knowledge and an exercise of our willful rationality, and in the end, the answer to the debate over human nature may be simply that the nature of man is the product of his own will.


Posting has been light lately, I know. I’ve been busy at work, occupied with other projects and baseball has started.

So, today is April 16. The Day-After-Tax-Day. I didn’t protest with the teabaggers. (Is that a horribly unfortunate name, or what? Nothing speaks to your lack of experience as a protester than picking up a moniker that happens to be a homonym for a particular form of hinky sex.) Protesting isn’t really my thing. Standing around with a placard and urging passing cars to honk doesn’t seem to me to be the most effectual of political resistance. (Oh no… I blog. Infrequently. Congress is fairly trembling, I’m sure.)

I sympathize with the protesters. Taxes are high, and despite the chorus of sycophants echoing Obama’s empty rhetoric about tax cuts, they’re going up for everyone. Tax cuts without corresponding spending cuts are tax increases. Spending is paid for with taxes; we don’t have any magical fun money–and just printing more regular money isn’t too smart either.

The problem with tax protests is that they sort of miss the mark. I’d rather see spending protests. Spending drives taxation. So long as the government can borrow, it will always spend more than it earns. That debt must be paid for and taxes will be levied. So let’s protest stupid government spending. Let’s protest the massive unfunded liability that is Social Security. Let’s protest the absurdity of the stimulus bills and the budget that stands as a monument to irrational exuberance. If you thought irrational exuberance on Wall street was bad, wait until you see the concussive effects of an exuberant Congress.

Or not. Protesting in April probably won’t make much difference to November elections (especially since the big mid-term election cycle is next November). Organized political activity, however, can make a difference. If these protests are the first wave of an organizing effort to mobilize disaffected voters and harness them for direct political action, then that would be all to the good.

But how organized can they be if they call themselves teabaggeers?

P. J. O’Rourke

Over on Twitter I’m spending the day quoting P. J. O’Rourke, my all-time favorite irascible curmudgeon. He’s like H. L. Mencken, but with a better hairdo.

I’ve met P. J. at least three times and engaged him in conversation twice. Nothing that he would remember; hell, I don’t even remember the conversations. They were brief and occured either before or after he’d spoken at some function or other… anyway, where was I?  Oh yes, Twitter. I like Twitter, but 140 characters is limiting. I’ll put the longer, spillover quotes here. Bibliography at the end.

The quotes:

If we don’t want the world’s wealth to be controlled by people with money then the alternative is to have the world’s wealth controlled by people with guns.

Freedom is not empowerment. Empowerment is what the Serbs have in Bosnia. Anybody can grab a gun and be empowered. It’s not entitlement. An entitlement is what people on welfare get, and how free are they? It’s not an endlessly expanding list of rights — the “right” to education, the “right” to food and housing. That’s not freedom, that’s dependency. Those aren’t rights, those are the rations of slavery — hay and a barn for human cattle. There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences.

The weirder you’re going to behave, the more normal you should look. It works in reverse, too. When I see a kid with three or four rings in his nose, I know there is absolutely nothing extraordinary about that person.

There’s a whiff of the lynch mob or the lemming migration about any overlarge concentration of like-thinking individuals, no matter how virtuous their cause.

The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn. The Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work and then they get elected and prove it.

One of the annoying things about believing in free will and individual responsibility is the difficulty of finding somebody to blame your problems on. And when you do find somebody, it’s remarkable how often his picture turns up on your driver’s license.

The free market is ugly and stupid, like going to the mall; the unfree market is just as ugly and just as stupid, except there is nothing in the mall and if you don’t go there they shoot you.

If you are young and you drink a great deal it will spoil your health, slow your mind, make you fat – in other words, turn you into an adult.

In comparative terms, there’s no poverty in America by a long shot. Heritage Foundation political scientist Robert Rector has worked up figures showing that when the official U.S. measure of poverty was developed in 1963, a poor American family had an income twenty-nine times greater than the average per capita income in the rest of the world. An individual American could make more money than 93 percent of the other people on the planet and still be considered poor.

Senator Ted Kennedy: “And when the Reagan administration was selling arms to Iran, WHERE WAS GEORGE?” Answer: Dry, sober, and at home with his wife.

Imagine a weight-loss program at the end of which, instead of better health, good looks, and hot romantic prospects, you die. Somalia had become just this kind of spa.

Worshiping the earth is more fun than going to church. It’s also closer. We can just step off the sidewalk. And sometimes we can get impressionable members of the opposite sex to perform sacramental rites with us. “Every drop of water wasted is a drop less of a wild and scenic river, Jennifer. We’d better double up in the shower.

When government does, occasionally, work, it works in an elitist fashion. That is, government is most easily manipulated by people who have money and power already. This is why government benefits usually go to people who don’t need benefits from government. Government may make some environmental improvements, but these will be improvements for rich bird-watchers. And no one in government will remember that when poor people go bird-watching they do it at Kentucky Fried Chicken.

There are a number of mechanical devices that increase sexual arousal, particularly in women. Chief among these is the Mercedes-Benz 380SL convertible.

There’s a lot of debate on this subject – about what kind of car handles best. Some say a a front-engined car, some say a rear-engined car. I say a rented car. Nothing handles better than a rented car. You can go faster, turn corners sharper, and put the transmission into reverse while going forward at a higher rate of speed in a rented car than in any other kind.

Selected bibliography:

All the Trouble in the World

Parliament of Whores: A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government

Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics

Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence, and a Bad Haircut

Modern Manners: An Etiquette Book for Rude People

My kid is great. Your kids suck.

Yeah, I know. It’s an obnoxious title. I don’t really mean it, but I think it’s an honest description of much of the sentiment behind modern population whining.

There’s a thread over at Whatever that John Scalzi started on population growth, resource use, how many human babies the planet “needs ” and how many are simply open, sucking mouths mindlessly consuming vital (vital!) resources.

OK, to be fair, most of my ire is directed not at Scalzi (although he shares in the general confusion over resource consumption) but at the Zero Population Growth idiots who are just oh so concerned about how there are just way too many babies in the world. Some gems from the comments:

“Most women DON’T want to have tons of kids, but do so only because of cultural pressure or lack of comprehensive family planning education and resources.”

This commenter rails against the Vatican’s senseless opposition to birth control, which he rightly characterizes as sexist and demeaning to women. But you know, it’s also demeaning to imply that the only reason a woman might want a large family is because she’s pressured and ignorant. The same person goes on:

“I notice that birthrates are declining in educated, liberal areas, while they’re skyrocketing in areas that are heavy with cultural conservatives. All those Quiverfulls in Oklahoma are certainly making up for all the adamantly child-free intellectuals in Seattle.”

Jay-sus, is that offensive or what?

try this on for size — in my opinion the planet can reasonably sustain roughly one tenth the human population that exists today. that’s right, 600 MILLION, not 6 BILLION. there are no easy answers to getting there. i made the choice out of conscience to have only one child, then got a vasectomy. that’s a start. but given the multiple interacting global degradations that we’ve set in motion, it will take war or famine or plague to reduce our numbers quickly enough.

War or famine or plague! Yay! This is all because people suck. Oh, but not his kid.

“the wildlife and wilderness that existed in my childhood, half a century ago, have been decimated beyond recognition. that, my friends, is as important a loss as any you can name.”

“Beyond recognition?” Really? Beyond recognition? Whatever, that’s a pointless argument; definitions shift as the sand…. But let’s try–just to see–if we can come up with a loss that might–just maybe–be as evil as the extinction of the Puerto Rican Shrew. 2,800 African children die every day from Malaria.

My kid is great. Your kids suck.

The fun goes on and on,

People who choose to have large families should be taxed or otherwise penalized for the extra children. Seems fair to me. (I’m childfree, incidentally.)

Purely incidental to her opinions on taxation, I’m sure. This commenter has her own blog. She has more opinions,

A radical solution might be to cull (as in kill) the surplus young males (wars already tend to do this, in a somewhat uncontrolled manner). In fact, that is something that could be done in any society with a surplus of single, young, unemployed males between 12-25 years (who tend to be the most troublesome elements – just consult any statistics for violent crime). As a female, I would feel a lot safer if there were fewer aggressive young males around.

Unh hunh.

But let’s get back on point. At the heart of Scalzi’s original post is a concern about overpopulation and resources use. The leaping off point was a question,

If we procreate, we doom civilization through overpopulation and depletion of resources. If we don’t procreate, we doom civilization through exacerbating an aging population. What’s a potentially procreative person to do?

The question assumes that children are either unproductive resource drains or mere instruments whose existence is justified only by their ability to support aging dependents. Bleak, bleak, bleak.

And wrong.

In the first case, more people generally means more opportunity for innovation, advancement and wealth creation. Only if we imagine that the creation of wealth is a zero-sum game (or if we force it to be) can we imagine that additional children are a drain on resources. This is, at heart, a kind of political thinking that prioritizes the distribution of wealth over the creation of wealth. If we ignore the source of wealth then it’s easy to see people as nothing more than appetites feeding at a trough. If, however, we recognize that wealth is created, then we can see people as innovators who make life better for everyone around them. That’s the miracle of trade; everyone benefits.

The second case is a matter of morality. Our children are not means to our parents’ ends.

But let’s look at the resource question, because that’s where most of the discussion is centered. Scalzi gets part of the answer right,

…the issue isn’t how many people the planet has; the issue is how the people who are on it (however many there are at any given point) handle their resource management and way of living.

This is unquestionably true, if we want to support radically more people than we currently do, we need to change something. We can either reduce resource consumption, we discover entirely new resources, and we can use existing resources more efficiently. I pick all three. And, luckily for us, that’s the course we’ve taken throughout human history. In a modern economy, consumption drives the price of resources up, which creates incentives for innovation and efficiency, which drives prices down. This cycle ends up driving inflation-adjusted prices down over the long term.

The cycle works so well, in fact, that we can effectively imagine our supply of resources to be infinite. Yes, infinite.

The earth’s natural resources are finite, which means that if we use them continuously, we will eventually exhaust them. This basic observation is undeniable. But another way of looking at the issue is far more relevant to assessing people’s well-being. Our exhaustible and unreproducible natural resources, if measured in terms of their prospective contribution to human welfare, can actually increase year after year, perhaps never coming anywhere near exhaustion. How can this be? The answer lies in the fact that the effective stocks of natural resources are continually expanded by the same technological developments that have fueled the extraordinary growth in living standards since the industrial revolution. — The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (I have more on this, here.)

So, yes, to support billions more people we’ll need to do things differently. But that does not mean that we need to curtail energy consumption or somehow put a governor on wealth creation. and it certainly doesn’t mean that we should puts limits on population growth: more people mean more brains and more brains means more better. (See The Ultimate Resource by Julian Simon.)

As I mentioned before, the central problem isn’t the distribution of wealth, it’s the creation of wealth. Scalzi misses that,

And in point of fact we do a really crappy job of [resource distribution] overall. For one thing, resources are highly unevenly distributed (said the guy living in the country that consumes 25% of the world’s energy while having only 5% of the world’s population); for another thing, the lifestyles, desires and goals of the people of the whole world are too heterogeneous to make coordinated and evenly distributed resource management possible

Damn those pesky people with their desires, dreams, and hopes that conflict with the will of the political over-mind! OK, that’s uncharitable. But the fact that the desires and dreams of the billions of men and women on the planet are wildly diverse is a good thing. Diversity is good for all the reasons that we usually credit it: new ideas, different ways of approaching problems, different techniques, competing solutions, etc., etc….. More brains means more better!

The world’s wealth isn’t a giant fixed piece of pie that we carve up and distribute out. It’s a giant multi-layered marble cake with cream cheese frosting that we bake every day and just keeps getting bigger and bigger… at least, it does and it will so long as we allow people to innovate and trade.

It’s certainly true that standards of living vary wildly around the world–and it’s also certainly true that the wild disparity in living standards seems, at some basic level, unjust. None of us chose what country we’d be born into, and for the vast majority of those unlucky enough to be born in Sierra Leone, Burma, or the Sudan… that sucks. For the vast majority of those born in the industrial West, that rocks.

It’s natural to ask what we can do to even things out. What can we do to make life better in the horrid parts of the world? How can we increase their wealth? Sending them our money is an option, but it’s a short-term fix that doesn’t usually have long-term benefits.

Wealth is a product of human innovation. Free trade, property protection, stable government, and a society that discourages corruption all radically increase the speed of wealth creation. The poorest countries in the world are those that fail these basic tests: they’re universally strnagled by command and control economies run by self-serving autocrats and corrupt tyrants who bend the law to subjucate their citizens.

The best thing we can do to spread wealth is to spread the foundations of a free society. The best thing we can do to level the distribution of wealth in the world is to help the world create more wealth for itself.

As for population… more babies means more brains and more brains means more better.