Daily Record (Morris County, NJ), April 13, 1997, Opinon p. 1.
The cloning of a sheep from the DNA of a single parent has shaken many people. The New York Times ran one banner suggesting, “Genius, long seen as a gift from God, could be shifted to human hands.” Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a professor of Jewish medical ethics, mused that cloning another Einstein “might be nice.”
Commentators joke about cloning another of themselves so that “they can be at two places at once.” These ruminations and jokes make no sense when applied to the possibility of cloning people. They may express deep-seated human fantasies and anxieties, but they have little to do with genetics and the way humans develop.
Creating exceptional or unique people, from a Hitler or Einstein or, to use more local examples, a Whitney Houston or the Jets’ Neil O’Donnell, is more than a matter of cloning DNA.
Ian Wilmut inserted the DNA from an adult sheep into a single egg cell, which developed into a viable sheep fetus. But a person’s entire cellular structure cannot be reproduced to create another adult version of the person. The image of cookie-cutter Michael Keatons in the film Multiplicity is a Hollywood creation.
The new, inchoate organism created in this way will also not grow into an exact replica of the adult from which it is cloned. This is most obvious in the cases of the exceptional individuals that people often imagine cloning.
The Boys from Brazil is a book and film about the cloning of little Hitlers. But what would it take to reproduce the lived experience of Einstein or Hitler? Both men entered the world at particular times, in particular milieus, that allowed their special gifts to express themselves in monumental ways, one for good and the other evil.
Even in the case of these highly exceptional individuals the expression of their genes was far from a foregone conclusion. Both were late bloomers. And the careers of both peaked early. The greater part of Einstein’s latter career, when he was universally worshipped, was disappointing scientifically.
This is because Einstein’s special talent of envisioning the universe was most productive at a certain stage in physics. As the field moved to the subatomic level and relied on experiments conducted in cyclotrons and acceleration tunnels, breakthroughs on the scale Einstein conceived became implausible, and a less valued scientific activity.
For his part, Hitler was an enlisted soldier and barroom philosopher. There is virtually no possibility that the incredible set of circumstances that thrust him into world leadership will be recreated.
More fundamentally, a cloned genome of Hitler or Einstein would not become the historic figure we know without experiencing the circumstances that formed each man’s outlook and personality. For one thing, it is not likely that Hitler’s anti-Semitism and megalomania were genetically based. Likewise, Einstein’s intellectual talents did not emerge whole cloth from his DNA.
One enterprise has already been organized based on the idea that genius can be passed genetically across generations — the Nobel Prize winner sperm bank. This scheme has less chance of succeeding than the breeding of race horses (which is itself a very chancy business).
Nobel Prize winners are original thinkers and dedicated researchers — and fortunate people who were in the right place at the right time.
Some portion of this is certainly genetic. Some portion is environmental. Some portion is good fortune and happenstance. The men who donate their sperm in the hopes of creating a superior race of people like themselves — like those who aspire to clone their DNA — are likely to be disappointed in the products.