Human clones could be on their way. In a previous Odyssey webpost – All Brothers Under The Skin – I talked about the downside of cloning, which seems to be the inevitable way forward for genetic engineering of humans if they are to survive on other planets. There could be serious consequences for the future of the human race.
The idea of cloning has occasionally featured in science fiction, usually when there’s a need to explain the rapid production of large numbers of genetically identical people for some reason. Famously, a clone army is developed from the genetic template of the bounty hunter Jango Fett to fight for the Republic in the second Star Wars film Attack of the Clones, though using someone rather unpleasant as the basis for cloning might solve one’s immediate crisis but store up additional problems for the future. Naomi Mitchison’s 1975 novel Solution Three envisages a future where the whole population develops as the clones of a new Adam and Eve.
However, in 1965, Theodore Thomas and Kate Wilhelm wrote a science fiction novel based on the traditional dictionary definition of a clone – an aggregate of organisms descended by asexual reproduction from a single individual. In The Clone, which was nominated for a Nebula Award, there is just one amorphous creature which grows consistently and seeks voraciously to absorb other organisms, including humans, into its structure. Fortunately, our heroes find a way to stop it, but the clone originally developed from an accidental combination of the complex chemicals and materials used in modern industrial society.
The idea of the danger from an utterly alien being which seeks to assimilate us, possibly without limit, is a frequent threat in science fiction. We see it back in the 1953 BBC television series The Quatermass Experiment, where rapid transformation of humans into a plant-like creature could end all life on Earth. The same fear undoubtedly underlies the concept of the Borg in Star Trek.
The home-grown variety of this threat is another consistent theme in science fiction – as we continue to create, and experiment with, new biological techniques, there’s an inevitable risk that we might be stepping just a bit too far into the unknown. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from 1818 may well be the precursor to the regular storyline of the created thing destroying its creator.
And deliberate changes to life-forms, including humans, thereby altering the basis on which they successfully evolved over the aeons, will always carry a risk. The theme underlies Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde from 1886 – the well-known disastrous attempt to change the human psyche through science – and HG Wells’ 1896 novel The Island of Dr Moreau, where human-like beings are created from animals.
The key message is that the result might not always be what one expects, and precautions based on experiences so far might not be adequate to prevent it. Our creations may turn out to be not as user-friendly as we intended. In Spencer Lane’s 1938 story Niedbalski’s Mutant, a scientist speeds up plant evolution through causing a rapid succession of generations in a short period, with the unexpected result of achieving plant sentience. And then the plant starts to communicate with him.
There’s an underlying feeling that the problem with any experimentation on the living world may be the potential unleashing of something which cannot be restrained despite all the preparations that seemed like a good idea at the time. In changing the structure of any organism, including, one day, humans, perhaps you can never be entirely sure where the process will stop.
Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)