WASHINGTON, Dec. 27 (UPI) -- After the first successful test of an atomic weapon, Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the U.S. government's Manhattan Project, remembered a line from the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."
Oppenheimer stood in the hot July sun in the stillness of the New Mexico desert contemplating the terrible force that had just been released. "We waited until the blast had passed, walked out of the shelter and then it was extremely solemn. We knew the world would not be the same," he recalled near the end of his life.
His solemnity could not have been in starker contrast to the demeanor of Brigitte Boisselier, the former French research chemist who said Friday morning that her firm had produced the first known human clone, a 7-pound girl nicknamed "Eve."
Boisselier could not contain her enthusiasm as she crowed about her accomplishment. That her claim has yet to be verified independently is of little import -- the age of cloning has arrived. If Boisselier has not mastered the process then it can be safely assumed that someone else somewhere else will do so shortly. The door is open and it will not be easily closed if closed at all.
Political groups immediately took up the cause, calling for the U.S. Congress to impose an absolute ban on cloning as soon as it convenes in January 2003. This too is of little import. The provisions of U.S. law do not apply everywhere on the planet and there is certainly a university or a country or a deserted island where continued experimentation can occur.
Now that it appears a human has been successfully cloned private research dollars are sure to follow -- if not from companies than from egomaniacal billionaires who wish to reproduce themselves, the nearest thing to immortality they can currently achieve if Boisselier is to be believed.
The potential problem with human clones is not that their existence violates civil law; it is that their existence may in fact threaten moral law.
In the name of science, all-too-fallible human beings have moved ahead in their desire to be like God. They have used their accumulated wisdom and skill in an effort to reproduce existing human beings, a short step in logic from understanding enough about the genetic code to produce people according to a specific design.
In a free society people are generally free to explore as they choose and as their talents allow. Human intellectual initiative cannot be suppressed by the state even though the ability to act on it can be. This does not mean, however, that the scientific community should move ahead with abandon. Nor does it mean that responsible voices in the media should confine their inquires to "Did she actually do it -- where's the proof?"
The claim that a human clone has been created may be the last chance mankind has to explore the moral implications of cloning before it becomes fashionable.
It is not at all clear that the scientists engaged in human experimentation in the Nazi death camps or on behalf of the Imperial Japanese Army realized how profoundly immoral some of their experiments were. From the outside looking in it is indisputable that Dr. Josef Mengele's experiments on twins, as one example, were wrong in every sense imaginable.
There is no excuse, no rational justification for the experiments Mengele and the others conducted. One can imagine, however, that it would have been impossible to convince them of this. In the pursuit if their objective, if not for other reasons as well, Mengele and those like him lost sight of what they were doing. Their moral clarity was obscured by their focus on their objective.
Before the world begins to explore the truth about whether baby Eve is actually a clone, it should make one last attempt at defining the nature of man.
Is man a scientific accident, a happenstance resulting from the right combination of the right molecules at the right time somewhere in the recesses of time?
Or is man the result of a deliberate act of an omniscient creator, infused with characteristics and components that only a creator could implant such as a soul?
The future of the human race depends very much on the answer.
(The Peter Principles is a regular column on politics, culture and the media by Peter Roff, UPI Political Analyst and 20-year veteran of the Washington scene.)