It’s pretty much a given that any person who describes himself as “eccentric, or brilliant or near-genius” is a person to be avoided at all costs. Would that society could avoid the likes of Richard Seed.
Seed, of course, is a the aptly named Harvard-educated, Chicago-based physicist who, despite having no affiliation with a credible scientific institution and being virtually unknown in the field of genetics, says he will clone human beings within 18 months — if he can find a sucker with $2 million to bankroll his lab and enough desperate, infertile couples to prey upon.
The ethical questions are staggering, the prospect of tinkering with the basic code of life to create a race of superhumans is abhorrent, but it is the practical considerations that should be of immediate concern.
Seed points to the success Scottish scientists had last year in cloning a sheep, suggesting that all he’s doing is applying a proven technique to a different species. He blissfully ignores the fact that the Scots produced 277 failures, stillborn or hideously deformed embryos, before Dolly came along. What, exactly does Seed propose to do with his mutants?
Human genetic research is one of the most intriguing areas of scientific inquiry today — the prospect of eliminating or mitigating congenital disease or defects, of solving the puzzles of AIDS or Alzheimers, of growing bone marrow for cancer victims and organs for heart, liver and kidney patients have potentially incalculable benefits to mankind. Such important work must not be overshadowed by the sideshow antics of hucksters such as Seed.
Since the creation of Dolly, tens of thousands of scientists and virtually all recognized scientific and medical associations have condemned human cloning. President Clinton issued an executive order banning the use of federal funds in human cloning experiments. Congress had before it last year a bill to make cloning illegal, but failed to take action. This time, Congress must act immediately to impose a ban — not permanent, but time-limited — that gives the scientific community’s ethics and standards the opportunity to catch up with technology.
Fortunately, Seed’s own words may ensure that his career as a baby cloner is a short one. His statement to the effect that God must want him to clone or He wouldn’t have given him the knowledge to do so should be enough to frighten off prospective financial backers and to repulse potential clients. Unfortunately, other scientists, similarly making up in arrogance what they lack in moral compass, surely are queuing up for their 15 minutes of infamy.
Seed does say one thing with which there can be no disagreement: “New things of any kind, mechanical, biological, intellectual, always tend to create fear.” Sometimes with good reason.