WASHINGTON, Feb. 16 (UPI) -- Thursday's announcement that a South Korean scientific team has cloned human embryos and grown them to the point where they could be implanted in a surrogate mother makes one thing clear. The religious scruples of the George W. Bush administration, if continued, may prevent the United States from participating in the next economic "Big Thing."
A thought experiment. Suppose that in the 1940s and 1950s, the dictates of "national security" had been even more demanding than they were, so that developments in computer technology had been kept as a state secret, with all details withheld from public view for the next several decades. Would the United States still have led the computer boom in the 1960s, the PC boom in the 1980s and the Internet boom in the 1990s?
If you think the underlying assumption to the question is far-fetched, and that U.S. strengths would have enabled it to dominate the information technology business whatever the needs of national security, you may be wrong. You see, the question wasn't just a thought experiment.
As is now well known but was entirely secret before 1974, the British Government Code and Cypher School, at Bletchley Park, was given by Polish code experts in 1939 the tools to decipher the German Enigma code machine, and accordingly was able to decode many of the Nazi war machine's operational and strategic communications, to the great benefit of the Allies. As the war went on, and the Germans increased the complexity of their codes and created new varieties of the Enigma machine, the calculations required to solve the codes in a timely manner increased exponentially in complexity. To address this problem, a team of British mathematicians, led by Alan Turing and Hugh Alexander, in 1943 created the Colossus, the world's first digital electronic computer, put into operation two years before the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's ENIAC, the United States' first such machine.
For obvious reasons, the operations of GCCS, later Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) remained one of the most closely guarded secrets of World War II and later the Cold War, until documents relating thereto were opened under the British "Thirty Year Rule" in January 1974. Consequently, the early British lead in computer technology was never translated to the private sector (like Thomas Watson, Sr. of IBM, the British government saw little private sector potential for the machines), and British computer research remained confined to government laboratories for the next decade. British dominance of the world's IT sector never happened.
Whether the U.S. cloning business is to suffer a similar fate to the non-existent British computer dominance depends on a number of factors. Does cloning actually work, without huge adverse side-effects? If there is a worldwide attempt to ban it, will the ban be effective? If cloning works, does it result in goods and services for which there is potentially a substantial demand? If successful, is cloning likely to be revolutionarily important? Only if all four of these questions are answered in the right way (yes, no, yes and yes) is the United States likely to be missing out on a huge opportunity.
There are of course huge unknowns, but yes, no, yes and yes is where I'd put my money, although the need for all four questions to be answered the right way makes the outcome only moderately likely rather than near-certain.
First, the reports of the South Korean cloning advances appear to be well substantiated, with the announcement made through an American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Seattle. The report does not come from the Raelians, an obscure religious sect with no obvious scientific capability, but from an apparently mainstream scientific team. By producing embryos at the level that can be implanted into a surrogate womb, they have mastered at least the first of many barriers before successful cloning.
At the time of the spurious Raelian cloned-baby announcement a year ago, there was considerable discussion of the near-impossibility of successful reproductive cloning. Any clone, we were told, would be subject to numerous obscure but either fatal or wholly debilitating ailments, that would make reproductive cloning both pointless and immoral (the clone being after all a human being.)
From my limited knowledge of biology, I cannot see why this should be so, and from my considerable experience with politics I can see why opponents of reproductive cloning would claim it, whether or not it was true. If the embryos produced in South Korea are normal (and it is easy and well within the bounds of conventional science to test them in every way possible) then I see no reason why a normal embryo, if transplanted into a healthy surrogate mother, should not grow into a normal and healthy baby and adult. Of course, there will be cases where something goes wrong, or a new genetic malfunction takes place, but there is no reason to suppose that such cases would form more than a small minority of the total. If we are not prepared ever to produce a disabled baby, we would never reproduce at all, and if the medical risks of reproductive cloning are only comparable with those of natural reproduction from high risk populations, for example older mothers, or those with tobacco, alcohol or drug addictions, then I see no valid medical-ethics reason not to proceed.
If the technology appears likely to work, the legal and political obstacles to the business appear formidable indeed. Like Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, still being debated in the "red states" of the United States a century and a half after it was promulgated, cloning, particularly reproductive cloning, raises a huge negative reaction among committed Christians although apparently, from limited evidence, much less of a reaction among Buddhists, Hindus or atheists. In addition, the obvious eugenic uses of cloning and genetic manipulation raise severe antagonisms among that section of the population for whom eugenics was forever damned by being favored by the Nazis.
I am not competent to enter the ethical or religious arguments on the subject, but as an observer of politics it is clear to me that in the United States at least, it will be many years before reproductive cloning is accepted, since it will be attacked both by the religious right and by their natural enemies, the promoters of such modifications of traditional social structures as gay marriage. Given the strength of the Puritan tradition on both sides of the political aisle, and the weakness of libertarianism on any subject other than economics, it is likely both that reproductive cloning will be illegal in the United States, and that U.S. administrations will vigorously attempt to extend this ban worldwide.
While the EU is likely to follow the United States in prohibiting reproductive cloning (although opinion in France and some East European countries seems more evenly divided than in the U.S.) it is not at all clear that, if there appears to be a large market for cloning, Asian countries will follow suit. South Korea is already proceeding further with cloning experimentation than the U.S., China would undoubtedly resist U.S. political pressure on the matter, and even such countries as Thailand and India, naturally U.S. friends in the region, may well be tempted by the size of the returns available.
While Thailand, South Korea or even India alone could possibly be bullied into submission by U.S. pressure, China couldn't, and hence Thailand, South Korea and India, if they see a business opportunity and do not share U.S. ethical concerns about cloning, may use Chinese resistance as a screen to protect their cloning activities from U.S. pressure. Again, I am not an ethicist, and would not venture to predict to what extent Asian cultures might share the U.S. taboos against reproductive cloning, but if they do not share the taboos, it is unlikely that mere political pressure from the U.S. will prevent them from moving forward.
The potential demand for cloning is the easiest of the four questions to answer. Medical advances through stem cell research are an obvious initial market, and one for which the ethical arguments against cloning are weakest (the wholly unscientific 2001 Bush administration prohibition against creating new "lines" of stem cells appears merely to have hampered U.S. medical research, without, as Thursday's revelation demonstrates, significantly slowing the progress of cloning technology worldwide.)
Reproductive cloning addresses an eternal human wish, the ability to reproduce oneself, that may not be universal but is certainly extremely common. Natural reproduction requires a mate, and produces an imperfect copy; how much more attractive, for the wealthy, aging and incorrigibly vain baby-boomer, to produce a copy that is, while a different human being and subject to different environmental influences, as close to oneself as an identical twin. The strength of the urge will produce the market, if not in the U.S. then in Asia, and will thereby produce the profit opportunity for Asian scientists. Attempts to prevent Westerners from visiting Asian cloning labs, or to prohibit Asian-born clones from settling in the West, will be about as successful as 1920s Prohibition -- the demand will be too strong to overcome.
Each advance in cloning will weaken the political and legal obstacles to future advances. Successful drugs produced through stem cell research will produce greater knowledge of cloning techniques, and thereby promote reproductive cloning. Successful reproductive cloning, while meeting with severe resistance in its early years, will eventually become accepted as it becomes common, and thereby will weaken the current ethical resistance to cloning.
Neither of these advances will however be truly revolutionary; the "Boys from Brazil" fantasy of producing perfect Nazi armies in batches of 96 clones at a time will remain an evil fantasy and will not occur. Reproductive cloning will be a big business, but will remain primarily a high-end consumer service; it will produce perfectly conventional human beings that will remain a tiny minority of the population as a whole.
It is however a third application of cloning, artificial genetic manipulation, that will produce both the most determined political opposition and the most revolutionary ultimate effects. Currently, since there is a substantial fertility differential between richer and poorer people, there is a natural if gradual tendency for the average "intelligence" (however defined) of the human species as a whole to decline from generation to generation. Reproductive cloning that includes the potential for genetic manipulation has the potential to reverse this -- if we can produce highly intelligent people at will, we can modify the human population in a positive direction, as surely as through selective dog breeding.
It is clear that the political and religious opposition to any such attempt would currently be overwhelming; it is not clear, unlike with pure reproductive cloning, whether there is a substantial market demand for the technique. Nevertheless, in the long run, once reproductive cloning has become common, it seems likely that genetic modification of the clones will be sought. At that point, we will have arrived at a potential that is truly world-altering, and a change whose magnitude dwarfs even the computer revolution. We are still several decades away from this, but in 1943 we were still half a century away from the Internet.
There are a number of reasons to be pessimistic about the U.S.'s ability to retain throughout the 21st Century the economic and geopolitical dominance it established at the end of the 20th. U.S. political resistance to the cloning revolution is by no means the least important of them.
(The Bear's Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that, in the long '90s boom, the proportion of "sell" recommendations put out by Wall Street houses declined from 9 percent of all research reports to 1 percent and has only modestly rebounded since. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)
Martin Hutchinson is the author of "Great Conservatives" (Academica press, April 2004) -- details can be found on the Web site greatconservatives.com.