CRISPR, Cloning, and Self Preservation: How SF Handles Morality

September 16, 2019 § 7 Comments

Cloning is my favorite thing ever.

Okay, let me rephrase. Studying the sociological and scientific impacts of cloning is one of my favorite intellectual ventures (second only to my recent research on the Oxford comma). In high school, I even had the opportunity three times to hear renowned Harvard-alum Sam Rhine lecture at his annual Genetic Update tour, where I was introduced to the (at the time) foreign, promising idea of CRISPR—short for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindrome repeats.”

CRISPR, an up-and-coming genetic editing technique, has become incredibly crucial and influential in the world of medicine over the past decade. With what Dr. Luhan Yang describes in her Ted Talk as a special “scissor” enzyme and a unique guide RNA “microscope,” the gene has made it possible to grow human organs in, surprisingly, a pig. This is an exciting feat, particularly as another person is added to the donation list every ten minutes; hence, Dr. Yang dubs CRISPR as the way “to create a world where no one dies waiting for a transplant.”

This made me wonder…how far WILL we, as the human race, go for this kind of advantage, and is it ethically right?

The answer, I think, lies far beyond recent science advances. In fact, it begins in science fiction literature that consistently recognizes when actions are right or wrong. This begins in 1818 with Mary Shelley’s renowned Frankenstein, which has a stark contrast between moral and immoral. Throughout the novel, we see a lonely, intellectual, curious Victor Frankenstein yearning for companionship, creator-ship, and self-improvement. His means for reaching such? Creating this THING, which we come to know as “the fiend,” “the daemon,” and “the Adam.” I think most (including Mary Shelley) would agree that Frankenstein’s desires and actions throughout the novel are wrong; they are rooted in self-interest, in indulgence, and in evil. Thus, Frankenstein’s monster rebels, and the fight for good/evil (though neither the creation nor the creator are “good” by any means) ensues.

This same kind of good/evil cloning literature is echoed for years throughout history, literature, and the media. However, there is arguably no greater modern example of “complicated cloning” than the 2005 Michael Bay thriller The Island. In Bay’s film, society is thriving, and citizens are healthy. However, when two people realize that the antagonistic health system is cloning patients in order to harvest organs for future donations, the world turns upside down. Yet again, we see a good/evil narrative as the protagonists fight the government and the health system in hopes of regaining a safe community, even if that means sacrificing improved donation rates. As always, good conquers evil.

If the SF novel and film industry specializes in good and evil, why don’t we live like we know the difference?

We are always differentiating the good from the evil in literature and in life; it is what makes us inherently human, able to comprehend what qualities we want to possess and which ones we don’t. Even so, how are we able to fathom the good and evil in Frankenstein and The Island yet unable to see the reality of CRISPR, real science?

Some argue there is no good or evil after all. There is only self preservation, and perhaps that is the message of all of these SF works. For example, without his version of self preservation through creation, Victor Frankenstein would never tell his story to Walton. Without self preservation, millions of citizens in the world of The Island would die without transplants. The list goes on.

Maybe it is the same with science of the modern world. Without self preservation, the concepts of survival of the fittest and natural selection would be a farce; after all, a species can’t make a moral decision to avoid fitness and adaptability. Similarly, perhaps this realm of CRISPR is merely a work of self preservation; we have no other choice.

Maybe someday in the near future we will know.

~Gracie O’Rorke

Ted Talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/luhan_yang_how_to_create_a_world_where_no_one_dies_waiting_for_a_transplant

Organ Donor Data: https://www.organdonor.gov/statistics-stories/statistics.html

The Island Photo: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0399201/

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§ 7 Responses to CRISPR, Cloning, and Self Preservation: How SF Handles Morality

  • louthaink says:

    In answer to your question ‘If the SF novel and film industry specializes in good and evil, why don’t we live like we know the difference?,’ I would say that the very fact that the SF industry explores the good and evil of cloning indicates that we are living like we know the difference. Sci-fi tends to be an avenue for people to explore their fears about the direction they perceive society to be taking. Books like Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (a similar plot to The Island with clones being harvested for their organs) and tv shows like Black Mirror (which explores the various ways that technological improvements can be terrifying) are society’s way of showing concern and understanding of the gravity of the situation. I don’t think we can use the SF industry as a counterpoint to society, when it is very much an expression of societal concerns and feelings.

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  • madddiemn says:

    I think you bring up a lot of interesting points here Gracie! I would like to push back slightly on the idea that SF runs exclusively in good vs. evil narratives, especially when it comes to cloning. I think that these stories actually encourage exploration beyond just good and evil into morally gray areas. For example, you say that neither Frankenstein nor the monster could be considered “good,” which I would agree with – and I would extrapolate that to say that the fight between Frankenstein and the monster is not one of good/evil at all, but between two morally ambivalent and confused characters. The question I am left with after reading your blog post and after exploring literature such as Frankenstein is, when do the means stop justifying the ends? And I think that SF spends a lot of time delving into that question, especially in terms of morality.

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  • karlwithak1 says:

    I found your analysis of Frankenstein and The Island striking. I agree with you in so far as most of literature and film historically adopt a more or less obvious black and white line between good and evil. However, this is not a new concept: stemming all the way back to god and Satan in Genesis. What I found more revolutionary was your more abstract analysis that every action in these works can be assessed based on a fundamental philosophical value of self-preservation. However, we as a society seem to have rejected the concept of self-preservation as a normative custom as we have outlawed actions such as burglary, which from the perspective of the burglar make perfect sense under the lens of self-preservation. Therefore, I would argue that the concept of self-preservation alone is too narrow and feel that a more accurate normative belief structure would involve maximizing the collective self-preservation of a society. This new expanded principle is not without its problems as there is the challenge of defining who or what gets to be in the collective. For example, do we include the organ donor clones as people, and therefore killing them to harvest their organs is bad, or do we consider them indebted to their creators, and kill them (As many a mother has said “I brought you into this world and I can take you out of this world.”) Ultimately, I think the largest ethical hurdle of cloning is deciding what is included in the collective—a question arising at a particularly trying time as there are presently heated debates over when a fetus is considered a human and whether or not women are granted agency over their own bodies.

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  • heaven says:

    This was a very interesting blog post! In regards to your question about why don’t we live like we know the difference between good and evil, I think that people tend to place things like cloning and CRISPR into a morally gray area. I don’t think anyone wants to just say “cloning outright is good or bad”, and prefer to just leave it in the gray area and choose not to approach the topic. I agree with you that people do differentiate and know good versus evil, but I also think that the average person does not tend to take the time to truly ponder over the morality of things very often. It is very interesting to think about and consider as a human being, whether or not people take the time to discuss morality. Overall, this post was very thought provoking and I will be thinking about this for a while!

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  • audreymolina says:

    This really made me think about the relationship between fiction and truth and the perceived authority of artists and writers on moral issues. Stories construct realities in which good/evil or right/wrong can be clear and defined, so the writer comes across as an authority on these matters. Reality is almost never so clean. Mary Shelley was able to decide the actions of Frankenstein’s monster and assign them relative moral values, but scientists have no way to predict how their discoveries will be used or what will ultimately result from them. Real science is never that simple. It’s a matter of cause and effect; we can rarely assignment moral value to a cause on its own but the effect it produces is a reflection in our minds of that cause’s fundamental morality. We want so badly to say that CRISPR is good or bad. If CRISPR ends up saving lives, we will, of course, say that it was fundamentally good from the beginning. If it results in dangerous or overpowered scientific abilities, we will say we always knew it was bad. People are like that. We want things to be like a novel from the beginning but they usually aren’t. Plenty of science has had both positive and negative effects on the world. GMOs, for instance, are a highly controversial development in agricultural science that have the potential to either contaminate our biggest food sources or solve world hunger, or something in between. Nobody really knows the answers, not even the writers who seem to have such moral authority. They have that authority because they know what’s going to happen. Since we don’t have that knowledge, I feel like assigning moral value is not particularly useful. Thanks for this post, it really made me think and question my own understanding of scientific morality. Who knows the answer? Is there even an answer at all!? Ahhhh!

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