tom thinks

date 2001-03-12:12:39
Biology I have a completely general solution to all of the supposed social, ethical and legal problems created by cloning human beings.

I know there's a whole industry out there making money writing dire comentaries on the perplexing problems of cloning, and I know my solution is:

  1. Correct
  2. Simple
  3. Complete

so I am certain that it will be ignored absolutely, never discussed by anyone, and generally dismissed without comment. But I'm not bitter.

Tom's Law of Human Cloning: In any discussion about the "problems" or "issues" raised by the prospect of human cloning, replace the word "clone" everywhere with the word "child" and the "problem" or "issue" will either go away or turn into a familiar issue that humans have been dealing with since the Stone Age.

A child is a child, no matter how created. A child created by cloning is a child. A child created by surrogate parenting is a child. A child created by divine intervention is a child.

There is no problem or issue raised by human cloning that is not already raised by human procreation via more common means. This is not to say there are no problems or issues, merely that there are no new problems or issues. Creating a human child by an awkward and inefficient laboratory procedure raises no issues that aren't already raised when creating a human child by an awkward and inefficient bedroom procedure.

The perception that there is something different appears to be due to the strange belief that there is no difference between a person's DNA and a person. One would think that the well known existence of pairs of people with identical DNA who are nevertheless not the same person would make it hard for anyone to entertain this belief, but that's apparently the way it is.
Anomalies The Fortean literature is full of interesting anomalies, variously attested to. I'm not going to repeat any of them here because they're available elsewhere and many of them are pretty dubious. Some, like the man who walked around the horses, are well-known but so far in the past that it's unlikely we'll ever know what happened.

The thing that anomalies have in common is that they're rare. If something happens a lot, it isn't too hard to bring the machinery of science to bear upon it, and figure out what's going on. But singular or nearly singular events aren't easily subject to that kind of scrutiny. Stanislaw Lem has written extensively about the limits this places on scientific understanding, and I think he has some valid concerns. We know that the harder we look for rare events, the more we see that we don't understand, and one has to wonder if there aren't really rare events that would point the way toward entirely novel forms of physical theory. But if they only occur once every billion years, we might have to wait a while for one to happen.

The current thrust of research in particle physics is to look for "physics beyond the Standard Model". The Standard Model is a collection of non-unified theories that seem to account for all known phenomena pretty well. Thus, the search for physics that the Standard Model doesn't explain is to a degree a search for anomalies. There are whole experiments--MACRO, for instance--that are not much more than giant anomaly-detectors. And you know what? They've found some.

But those anomalies aren't all that interesting, because when go fishing for such things you're bound to drag something up, and the odds are good that the anomalies they see are just some small experimental effect they've not quite accounted for properly. Every experiment has a margin of error, and this is theirs.

Other experiments have seen more interesting peculiarities. The Kamiokande detector, which is a couple of thousand cubic meters of ultra-pure water buried deep underground and surrounded by highly sensitive light detectors, has seen events that light up the whole detector. These might just be written off as some sparking in the electronics somewhere--although hunted down and eliminated if at all possible--were it not for the fact that after these events there seems to be an increased rate of radioactive decays in the detector, and all these decays seem to lie on a line. This is what you'd expect if some very high energy particle passed through the detector and smashed up a bunch of nuclei along the way. The problem is, there isn't any very good candidate for what such a particle would be, unless the laws of physics aren't quite what we expect at very high energies.

The notable thing about the Kamiokande events is that they've been published, unlike many other anomalous events in the particle physics community. Part of the reason for this is the desire not to contaminate the literature with mistakes, and that's what most anomalies are certain to be. As someone who did his Ph.D. following up on work that turned out to be erroneous, I can appreciate the virtue of this philosophy. But there's also a vein of conservatism in the scientific community that tends not to like anomalous results, and that's a less satisfying reason for not publishing results that don't seem to fit with the rest of our knowledge.
Reading Sometimes it's fun to go slumming.

I've been reading Steven Gould's Blind Waves, which reminds me why I don't read much popular fiction anymore. The story is enjoyable, the characters entertaining and the whole thing surreally impossible. This is generally the case with "hard" SF novels--despite the supposed plausibility of the situation, the plots and characters are completely unrealistic. For one, the universe is just a hell of a lot less co-operative than generally depicted in such books.

Consider a typical literary novel--something by Anthony Trollope, for example. A whole book can revolve around the problem of a single, minor appointment in a rural parish. Time and chance apparently conspire to gang the best laid plans as agley as can be imagined. And it's still a hell of lot simpler than real life.

Books like Gould's--and I enjoyed it a lot--are a kind of pornography. Porn has been defined as art that creates a sense of easy, ubiquitous sex, where every desire is instantly fulfilled without noticeable effort. Popular literature is the same, except that the desires focused on are broader--not only do boy and girl wind up happily having sex, they also foil the villains, win the contract, etc. But like all pornography, it gets boring after a little bit, and the harder the porn, the littler the bit.

Blind Waves is middling-soft-porn. The characters have to work a bit to get what they want, and they spend more time--metaphorically and literally--out of bed than in it. But they still knock down problems five at a time, everything they plan works pretty much the way they plan it, and the overall sense is that life is a series of challenges to overcome, each supplying the ego with suitable gratification. There are days when this vision of the world provides a refreshing break from reality, just as pornography does.

It can also provide a contrast object that emphasizes the difference between how we would like our lives to be and how they are--it can lead us to ask, "Hey, how come my plans never work out like that?" But like any pornography, it can also create unrealistic expectations, especially amongst the young and inexperienced. Unrealistic expectations are not always bad--you can accomplish a lot while pursuing an impossible goal--but they need to be treated with caution.

In the real world, I think most people are motivated primarily by the desire to maintain particular views about themselves and others, and this is something that popular novels just don't touch on. Characters are motivated by simple, external things, like the desire for money or fame or sex. In literature, both comic and tragic, characters are typically at least in part motivated realistically--by the way they want to see themselves, to be seen by others, and to see others. Othello wants to see himself as honorable and Desdemona pure. Leer wants to see himself as the loving father of loving daughters. Malvolio wants to see himself as sexually attractive.

The interest that gets created, in art and life, is in how characters respond to their own desires to see and be seen in a particular way. They can modify their behavior to the extent possible until they actually are the way they wish to be seen, or they can foster illusions in themselves and others through a wide range of stratagems. And in seeing others as they would have them be they can encourage the person to change, or they can lie to themselves about what they see.

The basic forms of story (and I've now slipped seamlessly from "Reading" to "Writing", but not even Caro can devise a program flexible enough to deal with my diffuseness) are, in this taxonomy:

  • An aware character dealing with the unawareness of others
  • An unaware character dealing with the unawareness of self and others
  • An unaware character dealing with the awareness of others
  • An aware character dealing with the awareness of others

The stories I've called pornography fall into the last category--a tale told by an economist, full of perfect information, signifying nothing. By "aware" I mean "seeing one's self and others as it they are" and by "unaware" I mean "not seeing one's self and others as they are".

Most literary novels fall into the middle two categories, with the first of them predominating--in literature, as in life, hardly anyone is fully self-aware. A common theme, of course, is the growth in self-awareness of one or more of the characters. Comedy is often focused on an unaware character dealing with the awareness of others, where the central character's inappropriate, funny behavior is driven by a persistent set of illusions about self and others.

There are many sub-types implied by this taxonomy, depending on the nature of the lack of awareness and the specific illusion that stands in for reality.

The first category--a self-aware character dealing with the unawareness of others--is a fairly minor species. I can't think of any literary examples, although in many cases villains in tragedy probably fall into this category: think of Casio, for example. But while pivotal, self-aware characters are rarely central, mostly because they're boring.

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