In terms of shock value, February 4th's The New York Times Magazine feature, "A Desire to Duplicate" by Margaret Talbot -- or, as it was titled on the comic book style front page, "Lab of the Human Clones!" -- will almost certainly live up to expectations. The story's gist was neatly summarized by the cover's campy exclamations: "Parents Seek to Duplicate Dead Child!"; "Is This . . . Madness?"; "Rich U.F.O. Sect Behind Scheme!"; "Scientists Say, 'It Can Be Done!'"
Believe it or not, none of this is hyperbole: The article describes a plot by a wacko sect of alien-obsessed futurists, called the Raëlians, to clone a human child. How seriously one should take the Raëlians is highly debatable; Talbot herself expresses misgivings. But considering the well-orchestrated spook factor in its presentation, Talbot's article could help spark a new public debate over human cloning (technically, "somatic cell nuclear transfer"). This could include a reexamination of the current, highly spotty regulatory framework, which consists of a federal moratorium on public funding of cloning -- all but worthless since it doesn't affect private research -- combined with bans enacted by just four states (California, Rhode Island, Louisiana, and Michigan).
Among media outlets, the New York Times Magazine has a hallowed reputation for its week-in-week-out production of powerful, cutting-edge cover stories, frequently blending top level investigative reporting with persuasive argument and advocacy. Above all, the magazine has a proven knack for generating controversy, often publishing pieces that go against the grain of the Times' traditional center-liberal political leanings. Memorable examples include Andrew Sullivan's withering critique of hate crimes legislation, "What's So Bad About Hate?" published in 1999, and John Tierney's 1996 anti-environmental article, "Recycling is Garbage," which drew more protest letters than any other piece ever published in the Times Magazine.
So one would expect Talbot's cloning article to be thought provoking and controversial. When it comes to being cutting edge, however, it falls far short. In fact, the piece is in many ways a duplicate -- dare one say a clone? -- of a previous New York Times Magazine cover story, which also stoked public fears about cloning. The article in question -- "The Frankenstein Myth Becomes a Reality: We Have The Awful Knowledge to Make Exact Copies of Human Beings" by the Columbia psychiatrist and soon-to-be professional "bioethicist," Willard Gaylin -- was published in March of 1972.
Considering that the cloning of Dolly the sheep was not reported for another 25 years, Gaylin's "article" seems today like a sensational piece of science fiction. Nevertheless, as the Times science writer Gina Kolata explains in her 1997 book, Clone: The Road to Dolly and the Path Ahead, it terrified people when it was published. This wave of hysteria was quite helpful in generating funding for the Hastings Center, the bioethics think tank Gaylin founded along with Daniel Callahan around the same time.
Gina Kolata flags Gaylin's New York Times Magazine article as a key factor in triggering the "emergence of the ethics movement," which in turn "generated the Greek chorus for the cloning debates" following the cloning of Dolly. And now, Margaret Talbot has joined this Greek chorus. Viewing her article next to Gaylin's, the question naturally suggests itself: Did The New York Times Magazine scoop itself by 29 years? And, on a related note: Should we view Talbot's article with skepticism, given the magazine's history of drumming up unwarranted fears about cloning?
To a significant extent, Talbot engages in the same type of unproductive fire starting as Gaylin. For one thing, she makes up her mind about cloning roughly two-fifths of the way into the piece, and thereafter simply proclaims those who defend the technology wrong, or "confused." Their confusion, according to Talbot, springs from a misunderstanding of the almost antediluvian distinction between nature and nurture: Cloners think they can bring back the dead, but a cloned being will be affected by vastly different environmental factors than the clonee, and thereby certainly will not be the same person. Yet in one summary of anti-cloning arguments, Talbot lists several that make precisely the same mistake, without bothering to point out the inconsistency. "Wouldn't it be horrifying," she writes, "to know so much from such an early age about your own fate -- what diseases you'd be likely to get, what personality flaws?" So much for eschewing simple-minded genetic determinism. Perhaps those who oppose cloning don't have a monopoly on common sense after all.
Actually, the most objectionable aspect of Talbot's article is the way she unabashedly attacks a straw man in order to debunk cloning. Her incarnation of technophilic cloning madness is Raël, the guru of a bizarre futuristic cult, the Raëlians; "In some ways," Talbot thinks, Rael "is merely the surreal version of more respectable biotech utopians." Near the end of the piece she finally meets this bozo, a former race-car driver, and duly makes fun of him: "I kept wondering why it is that futuristic prophets so often have to wear jumpsuits and medallions and whether we'll all have to wear them in the future." This mockery keeps Talbot from having to seriously engage prominent thinkers who have defended cloning: Bioethicists, scientists, and others who have emphasized, among other things, that cloning has the potential to increase reproductive freedoms for a variety of groups, including infertile, gay, and lesbian couples. These scholars point out the basic inevitability of human cloning -- it will happen soon enough, and no one's going to be able to stop it. Given this fact, shouldn't we stop scaring people about clones, so that these living, breathing, thinking human beings will not be viewed and treated as grotesque outcasts?
Pro-cloning intellectuals include the Princeton biologist Lee Silver, author of Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World, and Harvard's legal superstar Laurence Tribe. Tribe, who joined Willard Gaylin in opposing cloning in the 1970s, has since come around. In an op-ed published in the New York Times in 1997, he expressed a newfound concern that "the very decision to use the law to condemn, and then outlaw, patterns of human reproduction -- especially by invoking vague notions of what is 'natural' -- is at least as dangerous as the technologies such a decision might be used to control." Despite the fact that he has been a prominent figure in the cloning debates virtually since their inception, Tribe is mentioned nowhere in Talbot's article.
Yet despite these flaws, Margaret Talbot's Times Magazine article does make some strong and persuasive arguments against cloning -- or at least, arguments that favor approaching the technology with extreme caution. In particular she points out that, at least in animals, cloned offspring have a stunningly high rate of fetal abnormality and neonatal mortality, a consideration that should obviously weigh strongly against trying to clone humans in the near future. But this important point -- and others like it -- gets lost in a larger miasma of innuendo and jump-the-gun judgmentalism.
If there's one truth to be gleaned from the cloning debate thus far, it's the same point that comes with all controversial new technologies: We need calm, reasoned thought and argument, not knee-jerk reactions. What we don't need are showy magazine cover stories. And we really don't need their journalistic clones, even ones that, because they came into being decades later, have been subjected to different "environmental factors" and aren't exactly identical.
One might say, actually, that this week's New York Times Magazine story is an ironic example of the triumph of nature over nurture. Sure, the Magazine published the two articles 29 years apart. But they share the same genetic disposition against new technologies. Viewed next to Willard Gaylin's 1972 New York Times Magazine story, Margaret Talbot's article this week is just similar enough to be unhelpful.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)