Cloned Monkeys, Nature and Humanity
Issue   |   Tue, 02/06/2018 - 23:27

It’s only been a month into 2018 and already we boast a new milestone in human ingenuity. After 79 attempts that spanned several weeks, Zhongzhong and Huahua, the first two monkey clones in the world, were born in the Institute of Neuroscience at Shanghai. Their names form “ZhongHua,” which means “the Chinese nation or people,” as homage to China’s leadership in primate research in recent years.

Any milestone is a stepping stone. A pair of cloned monkeys means that we’ve proudly leaped across the threshold of cloning primates and are closer than ever to cloning humans. Because monkeys share nearly 90 percent of their genetic makeup with humans, researchers plan on studying the development of these cloned primates for insights on childhood genetic disorders. Yet, closer does not mean close. The cloning process used for Zhongzhong and Huahua is anything but reliable (as it stands, it has a 1/80 chance of success), and is incompatible with human embryos, so it seems Aldous Huxley’s dystopia is still a good march ahead.

It’s not surprising that we’re headed in this direction; controlling nature is our oldest pastime. Ever since we began plowing fields, each and every generation of humans has desired to understand and manipulate nature’s cryptic rules. The more nature has shown, the more we’ve yearned to draw back the curtains. Yet, with our curiosity comes a great fear of the unknown, and more importantly, of how we might change when the unknown becomes known. With every discovery, it’s not nature that frightens us so much as it is the threshold, for it forces us to reformulate our conceptions of who we are and what we value.

As of now, we’re in a safe space when it comes to redefining our values. Zhongzhong and Huahua haven’t stirred up anything crazy, but they can at least help shine an insight into how we think about the distinction between nature and humanity.

Most of us deem the cloning births as artificial births, as “unnatural” manipulations of a “natural” reproduction process. Why? Precisely because it came as a result of human control. Our conception of “nature,” then, is something uninfluenced by direct human control, and our conception of “human” is as the controlling agent. “Nature” is the unknown and unseen and “human” is the knower and seer. Funnily enough, this very distinction is also a human construct, a tool with which we define what it means to be human and non-human. In a sense, we are human because we can define ourselves.

The real perplexity behind human cloning is that it muddles this line. Cloned humans are ostensibly human in every other way except for how they’re born. If we can control the birthing process every step of the way to create a perfectly healthy and “normal” human being, are the clones really “human”? Ironically, it appears that for certain aspects of our humanity, denying nature’s work can actually make us non-human. The same applies to our dearly cherished ideas about romance. If you can chemically work out what love is and proceed to control it, is it really love? Are we really human if the love we feel can be dissected and concocted with scientific precision?

Zhongzhong and Huahua are proof that we’re still trying to answer these questions about ourselves. And while we look, to the frontiers we charge.