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Bryan Caplan Inspires a Real-Life Discussion About Mini-Me

April 21st, 2010 No comments

Bryan Caplan, in a laudable effort to sell more of his upcoming book, “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids,” has asked readers of his blog whether he should keep this paragraph in, or take it out:

I confess that I take anti-cloning arguments personally. Not only do they insult the identical twin sons I already have; they insult a son I hope I live to meet. Yes, I wish to clone myself and raise the baby as my son. Seriously. I want to experience the sublime bond I’m sure we’d share. I’m confident that he’d be delighted, too, because I would love to be raised by me. I’m not pushing others to clone themselves. I’m not asking anyone else to pay for my dream. I just want government to leave me and the cloning business alone. Is that too much to ask?

First let’s stipulate that Caplan is of course going to leave this paragraph in the book; it’s provocative, and now that he’s already said it, removing it would only deprive him of sales. Asking the question is a very clever sort of pre-publication publicity. For that, I guess he deserves props.

But what about the underlying question he raises? You can find a range of whimsical, serious, thoughtful, scientific (or pseudo-sciency) and downright batty comments both on Caplan’s site and here. If you have some time to explore the cool question Caplan has raised, scroll through the many postings.

Here’s another take on the proposal: On its face, it seems quite consistent with the problem that the title of the book itself raises: “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids.” Assuming that he’s talking about “having” biological as opposed to adopted kids, then his proposal is just the reductio ad absurdum of the selfishness that, let’s face it, is behind every decision to have children — not just “more kids,” but any kids. Given that there are countless thousands of neglected, abandoned, abused and orphaned children in need of a home, then should  those who can afford adoption seriously consider it? In addition to helping the kids, you also help the planet by caring for an existing child rather than creating a resource-hungry new one.

Put down those cudgels you’re now aiming at my head! People do all kinds of things for selfish reasons — some even argue, tautologically, that all of our actions (even the ones that look altruistic) — and this seems like a pretty defensible one for spiritual, emotional and practical reasons (for most opposite-sex couples, it’s just easier to have procreative sex than to adopt). So is this cloning idea any worse, any more selfish?

Given current science, surely yes. Even if it were possible to create a clone right now, it will be a long time — if it ever happens — before the process will reliably produce  healthy, “whole” human beings. Remember that even the well-resourced Dr. Evil had no luck, as his clone was a tiny biter. But let’s assume that Caplan is engaging in a thought experiment rather than a realistic wish for the near future. What then?

Canny marketing ploy aside, Caplan should leave his paragraph in, on the chance that it will actually spur some thoughtful debate on the issue of cloning. As some of the commenters have noted, so far the principal objection seems to be that it’s “icky”; not a reason that gives me great comfort. Given the therapeutic promise of cloning and the religious and ethical issues the practice increasingly raises, it seems that we should be engaging in spirited national debate. So far, most of that debate is taking place in academic circles only.

I have one more observation. As an adoptive parent, it’s clear to me that your kids are your kids, whatever their family of biological origin. And they’ll delight, confound, and surprise you every day. At bottom, Caplan’s wish seems to be to remove much of that mystery by creating himself all over again. But it won’t work, because no amount of genetic engineering can counter Walt Whitman’s profound observation:

THERE was a child went forth every day; And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became; And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.