By Abbas Zaidi

There is an allegory amongst some tribes of indigenous people (called orang asli) on the Island of Borneo about how the gods destroyed an ancient world when a master physician was on the verge of creating a human. Why? Because creation is their (the gods') domain, and only theirs. Now that Dolly the sheep has been successfully cloned, cloning of humans is expected to be next. This time, however, it is not a god or gods who has interfered with creation but the superpowerful head of the world's only remaining Superpower. Were the Soviet Union still in existence, we would be seeing an all-out race to clone humans, or even superhumans. Instead, we see a general outcry against human cloning and a ban in the US specifically by President Clinton, each offering basically two sides of the same argument: humans should not play God--"should not" either because they ultimately cannot, or else because they will necessarily and (self-)destructively fail.

President Clinton justified his decision by citing vague but "serious" ethical questions that the cloning of Dolly posed. Dr Ian Wilmut, the midwife extraordinaire who cloned Dolly, adds what has been dubbed the "intuitive" argument. Says the Doctor, "All of us would find [cloning] offensive."

That man should not play God is a religious/moral argument: an immortal game played by mortals has the cards stacked against it. However, in a world in which religion does not usually play a dominant role, cloning is not finally going to be an issue for clerics to decide. It will, though, raise serious questions in political, legal and intellectual circles if scientists succeed in cloning not only living people but major figures out of the past. What would be the status of such recreations?

For example, if science succeeds in cloning long-dead pharaohs, when these pharaohs grow up and come to know that Egypt used to be their undisputed kingdom, will their claim of legitimacy be honored? Or will they end up as just a band of young (read: modern) and old (read: ancient) pretenders? Will the argument of modern anti-absolutist political theory hold any water for them? Pharaohs were born to be almighty, and they die almighty. The ancient Egyptians believed that after death the pharaohs would continue to reign whether resurrected within their tombs or elsewhere. The bottom line was that a pharaoh could not be anybody but a pharaoh.

But now the new pharaonic CV will state: Born a Pharaoh, died a Pharaoh, reborn/cloned a Nobody: a pharaoh without pharoahness. A cloned pharaoh would be like a tiger that feeds on grass; a lion that bleats; a Mike Tyson who excels only at badminton.

Cloning of humans could even mean the negation of history, the lilliputianisation of those who could once move heaven and earth [could bruise the heel of Achilles]. After all, the clone of a great historical figure or athlete cannot be expected to achieve even half the greatness of his or her original. You can, as Shakespeare said, thrust greatness upon someone, but it cannot be genetically engineered: You might be born the first child of a king, and hence ultimately become king yourself: you can inherit kingship, but [not the king himself]. Shakespeare could not beget another Shakespeare; Casanova's father was not known to be a fraction of what his child became famous for; and Shahjehan, India's great emperor and builder of Taj Mahal, could only manage to sire a weirdo who caused the fall of the great Mogul Empire. Genetic features such as intellect and physical strength do indeed get passed on to succeeding generations, but not unchanged.

In the surreal world of cloning, the heroes of the past could end up as clowns or at best their own vanquished shadows. A cloned Saladin, a Napoleon, the Duke of Wellington would at best be objects of transient curiosity. We might find a militant Mahatma Gandhi marching in a BJP anti-Muslim rally; the Shah of Iran studying theology in Qum; a gay Freud condemning early 20th century psychology as anti-feminist; Dr. Goebbels a guest of honor at a Holocaust commemoration; James Joyce an illiterate laborer; Arnold Toynbee an office boy; Nietzsche a workshop mechanic. In a Manhattan bookstore Joe McCarthy could be signing his best-selling History of the Capitalist Witch-Hunt of Socialists in America: 1950-54. We might see Rabbi Lenin and Ayatollah Rushdie locked in a struggle to take over Jerusalem, while Karl Marx is making his fortune on Wall Street.

Cloning of humans would turn everything upside down, with the result that the world and the future history of mankind would suffer a total and permanent mutation. If Dr Stephen Hawking is any reliable clue, in the distant future computers will write the history of their preceding species, Homo Sapiens, and wonder why such an advanced species decided to write its own obituary.

Historically, every great scientific advancement has been considered a scientific impossibility until it was brought to fruition. Until early in the present century, most respected scientific authorities spurned the very idea that a human foot would ever touch the soil of the moon. Now, just a few decades later, those nay-sayers enjoy the intellectual respectability of a band of cobblers discussing metaphysics on their lunch hour.

Just because cloning of humans is not taking place at the moment does not mean it can not or will not happen. "Cloning is not yet fully ready for use on human cells" (Scientific American editorial, May 1997) does not mean "A Scientific Impossibility" or "Never!".

The reason the issue of human cloning has invited such wholesale condemnation is because of the deep moral issue it raises. As such, it has become a succes de scandale as offensive as the Freudian Id. But the question is not whether human cloning is possible (the fact that the developed world has imposed a ban is itself deeply significant); the question is: what will be its consequences when it inevitably becomes a reality.