Cloning as solace

You all may recall the memorable, late Tito the wonder dog. Hank Fox has done something thought-provoking: he has frozen away some of Tito’s cells, on the chance of cloning him.

At 325 degrees below zero, the essence of Tito sleeps.

I got a call today from Genetic Savings & Clone, the company that stores tissue samples of pets, and they told me the culturing of the samples I’d sent them was successful. I now have about 10 million cells waiting for the future moment — if ever — when the technology and the money coincide to allow me to clone him.

This is a personal decision, and I wouldn’t argue one way or the other about what Hank should do; it sounds like he’s wrestled over the issues already. All I can say is what I would do if I were in his sorrowful position.

I wouldn’t even try cloning.

I disagree with his first sentence up there: the essence of Tito isn’t reducible to a few million cells or a few billion nucleotides. While the genome is an influence and a constraint—a kind of broadly defined bottle to hold the essence of a dog—the stuff we care about, that makes an animal unique and special, is a product of its history. It’s the accumulation of events and experience and memory that generates the essentials of a personality and makes each of us unique.

Even if cloning were reliable and cheap, I wouldn’t go for it. It would produce an animal that looks like Tito, and would be good and worthy as an individual in its own right, but it wouldn’t be Tito.

Hank mentions that “Even we atheists grapple with mortality, and entertain hopes.” That’s true. But I think that what we have to do, the honest part of being an atheist, is to recognize that mortality is inevitable and that things end. Grief and loss are the terrible prices we pay for living in a world that changes, and that has produced us, so briefly. The dead are gone forever, never to return, and all we can do is fight as hard as we can to delay it, rage at our inevitable failures, and eventually, reconcile ourselves to the reality.

I think Hank is still fighting when the battle has already been lost. That’s a noble effort, I suppose, but Tito is not in that dewar of liquid nitrogen, I’m sorry to say.


  1. says

    Yeah- gotta hate that death while you’re young. I sincerely hope when I’m ninety and have done all the wonderful things I always meant to do and haven’t done yet, I’ll see death differently- I’ll kinda know when I’m ready to lie down and rest in peace.
    Vis cloning: as the father of identical twins (yes, I am running experiments! (evil laugh)) I always chuckle when people think genes are our “essence” and talk about cloning as a way of recreating a living individual.
    And I try to politely contain my disbelief when people tell me identical twins have a “special (by which they mean “psychic”) bond”. When I hear this the picture that springs to mind is the hilarious (you had to be there) sight of two 5-year-old identical twin girls negotiating mutual back-scratching- and the subsequent communication with regard to exactly where the itch was. “Psychic bond” my eye!

  2. says

    Tito’s essence may not be contained in his DNA, but it’s defenitely contained in his brain. If we can figure out how to get and reproduce that information, he *could*, for all intents and purposes, have Tito back. Same thing for people. It’s just a matter of time (barring dystopias or the end of the human race) before technology gets to that point.

  3. bmurray says

    I honestly think everyone is better served by finding a new and at least equally worthy animal from the SPCA and saving it than by creating hopeful replicas. Even if the result was exactly the same as Tito in all regards, that strikes me as rather less noble than saving a new animal that’s already started out with odds against it.

  4. Bleach says

    I think you’re going too far on this one. You’re definitely playing the informed intellectual part by reminding the plebes that while we may not have souls, our DNA doesn’t determine everything. Well and good, but are you sure it applies to dogs too? At some point you get to something simple enough that the behavior is approximated by their DNA. Are there not races or lines of dogs that are particularly memorable for being brutal, playful, inquisitive, bad tempered, lazy, or excitable?

    I’ll be the first to admit it isn’t true for humans. It seems like the smallest of choices, along with luck and the overwhelming influence of family/upbringing has influenced what I am today. And it may sound insulting to suggest this for what is after all man’s best friend. But I think it’s a little idealistic to assume dogs are so complex.

    One thing’s certain, if he does clone him it seems like a test bound for failure: Hank will surely be the one who has changed the most.

  5. says

    I’m not sure the dead are gone forever. Personally I find that the world seems to be full of people who can’t tell the difference between me and my brother. If we were identical twins it wouldn’t be so bad, but we don’t even look that much alike. I mean my chin is manly where as his is an enormous monstrosity that threatens to spear through his chest cavity if he ever agrees with someone too vigourously. Anyway, although we look different, and we do have different skill sets and kind of different personalities, we are pretty much interchangable for most practical purposes. It makes me think we are hung up on very superficial differences. Which makes me think that if I die and my brother lives on all that the world has really lost is a handsome chin, an odd sense of humour and one copy of the program called “I” that everyone seems to have and makes most of us think we’re unique individuals. “I” exists in over six billion people on this planet alone. Once my personal “I” is gone it shouldn’t be such a big deal, as “I” will live on in others, although I suppose the passing of my chin will be kind of sad.

  6. Warren Terra says

    As I suspect many readers of this blog do, I agree with PZ, but what got me was that quote “at 325 degrees below zero”.
    Full marks Mr. Fox for catering to his largely American audience, but seeing a combination of Fahrenheit units and a hope (however misguided) of high-technology assistance is really odd.
    Also, does anyone who needs their temperature given to them in Fahrenheit really care about the difference between minus 325 and minus 195?

    P.S. In fairness, Mr. Fox says he is merely going to go to great expense to get the best odds of a dog that will remind him of the one he lost. And while I think it’s impractical, and hugely wasteful, there’s nothing really wrong with it.

  7. Torbjorn Larsson says

    “But I think it’s a little idealistic to assume dogs are so complex.”

    Without getting into a nature vs nurture debate, it seems to me dogs are personalities too. They *are* that complex.

  8. craig says

    I don’t want to be too critical here because it’s a painful subject for Hank, etc… and I can understand to some degree the impulse – just as people selected dogs for breeding by their temperament, you would think that a good dog’s genes would result in another good dog.

    But I can’t get past the feeling that spending a relatively huge amount of money for a made-to-order dog is immoral when we are killing good dogs by the thousands every day for want of good homes.

    My friend Zeke was a dog in the pound until Chris and Becky found him… the thought of him there is heartbreaking, he’s so sensative, he had to be miserable. The whole cloning pets idea feels to me like one of those “decadent western society” throwaway-culture obscenities.

    I guess that does sound very critical. No offense intended, Hank, it’s not aimed at you personally, but rather at the company and the concept.

  9. says

    just as people selected dogs for breeding by their temperament, you would think that a good dog’s genes would result in another good dog.

    Ahh, if only that were always true. I can tell you from experience that it is not, as I have a very “special” dog (i.e. not for the faint of heart) that was mothered by one of the nicest dogs you will ever meet.

    “Even we atheists grapple with mortality, and entertain hopes.”

    This one got me too. I took this to be more of a statement about us humans than about our dogs. I’m not sure what Hank means by entertaining hopes? Does he mean we all long for a few extra years or rather that we aspire to cheat death permanently?

    I’m with you PZ. I do what I can to hold off premature death because I like living, but I’m perfectly fine with my impending natural death and likewise, I feel the same about my beloved pets (which, since I don’t have children, are spoiled rotten).

  10. BC says

    There was an episode of This American Life last year (7/1/05) where some people talk about cloning a bull. It’s an interesting commentary on the whole genes = personality issue.

    Ralph and Sandra Fisher, who run a show-animal business in Texas, had a beloved Brahmin bull named Chance. Chance was the gentlest bull they’d ever seen, more like a pet dog than a bull. They loved him, kids loved him. He had a long career in movies, on TV, performing at parties. When he finally died, Ralph and Cindy were devastated. Around that same time, scientists at Texas A & M University were looking for animal subjects for a cloning project. They already had some tissue from Chance because they’d treated him for an illness. So Ralph and Cindy offered up Chance’s DNA for the experiment. Second Chance was born. And he was, eerily, just like Chance. Except he wasn’t. Which they found out the hard way.
    You can listen to it through RealPlayer (21 minutes):

    By the end of the story, they realize that Chance’ clone was not the same as Chance. They said it was hard because when they looked at the clone, they thought “It’s Chance”! But, it wasn’t. The clone might’ve been more gentle than the average bull (like Chance was), but after the clone turned on them and gored one of the owners, they realized that they could never trust Chance’ clone like they had the original Chance. The clone wasn’t the same as the original animal.

  11. Keith says

    The curse of the living is to have to bury the ones they love. It’s really as simple as that, and I’m kind of surprised that someone who has gone so far as to deny the existence of a higher power that allows one comfort in the face of death, still seems to have difficulty in coping with that reality. Granted, death is never easy, but this seems a little too much like having faith in ressurection, even if through the means of science.

  12. says

    Seems to me it’s more about keeping a little piece of your loved one around, a living, breathing memorial to a dear friend. Obviously it will never possess the same “personality,” but I can see how just knowing that some spark of that other life continues could be of solace. Of course there are other animals to adopt, but that argument could be used against parenting as well as pets. Besides, in some small way, it helps scientific research proceed. One could argue that it isn’t psychologically healthy in some ways, but that is hardly the most dreadful fixation somebody could have. Clone away, enjoy your new friend, just don’t try to persuade yourself they are your old friend and enjoy them as what they are – a new, distinct entity that just happens to be closely related to an earlier fellow traveler.

  13. says

    Eh. In a country as generally wealthy as the USA, the market will inevitably produce things like this, along with a whole host of other stupid stuff: pet psychology, BK chicken fries, The Will, and Steve Gutenberg. I have no intention of cloning my cats when they die, and that’s not just because it’s creepy and morbid.

    But if some schmoe with more money than brains wants to blow a hefty chunk of cash on some bit of silliness that harms no one but himself, who am I to tell him otherwise?

  14. bad Jim says

    Dogs I’ve known: Bark, Brunhilda, Sine, Tangent, Guru, Rojo, Yeti, Osa. Betty, Marlie. Nigel, Bella, Martini. Rusty, Maggie. Crystal, Max, Ivan. Gaia, Luna.

    Of these, I’d have high hopes of clones of Brunhilda, Sine and Bella, dogs of knowledge, preternaturally clever, intrepid explorers, ingenious inventors. They surely wouldn’t be the same dogs, but they just might be smarter than the average pup.

  15. craig says

    “that argument could be used against parenting as well as pets.”

    It could – IF we were killing by the thousands any children that weren’t adopted within their 5 day claim period.

  16. JC from NC says

    I don’t know, but I feel like some of these comments are being a little unfair… Hank does keep referring to this giving him “a puppy from Tito”, so it sounds as though he at least in his head knows clone=/=Tito. And he does acknowledge that there are many dogs left wanting for good homes, and that should he be ready to provide one, that’s the first place he’ll look. He just wants to hold out hope for a piece of his dog. I don’t see anything wrong with that.

  17. speedwell says

    Hank has every right to do what he did, and every reason as far as I can see. He is not answerable to us for the state of his emotions, and he has no perceptible responsibility with respect to the sad waste of dogs that get killed every day. If his wife died, he wouldn’t need to ask our advice before marrying a woman who looked just like her, and he would have no duty to marry one of the legions of poor down-and-out spinsters just because she wouldn’t have a home otherwise.

  18. Cheeto says

    Bad Jim, “preternaturally clever”?

    So the dog would be as smart as a vampire or werewolf?

  19. says

    Gosh, Craig, you are so insightful. Of course, letting these kids rot in foster home after foster home where many of them are frequently physically, psychologically, and sexually abused until they are finally cut loose at eighteen to go try to survive in the real world, bewildered and unprepared and tightly wound to a hair-trigger hypersensitivity after years of loathsome neglect is nowhere near as bad as killing them outright. Right?

  20. says

    I’m all for cloning, for many reasons, but people who think that it can be used as a way to cheat death are sadly mistaken. As you’ve said, the essence of the object being cloned comes from its history. Although, it’s possible to clone the biological parts, you can’t clone the events that have shaped the development of the object. Even if it were possible, the memories of the cloned object wouldn’t be its memories, but those of the object from which it was cloned.

  21. BMurray says

    Milo suggests:
    Of course there are other animals to adopt, but that argument could be used against parenting as well as pets.


  22. QrazyQat says

    Are identical twins exactly alike? No, they aren’t, and they’re more closely clones than clones are. Identical twins have the same MtDNA, because they actually come from the same cell, which splits. Clones don’t. Yet even identical twins are really identical.

    If you want a new dog who reminds you greatly of your old dog, look for a puppy who has the same characterisitics — one who looks and acts like your old dog did. That’ll get you just as close, perhaps closer, to your old dog than a clone.

  23. Dawn O'Day says

    uh, Professor – most parents I know are amazed at what a large fraction of their kids’ personalities were present at birth – i.e., nature, not nurture. I’m guessing that a Tito clone would share many personality traits (along with physical appearance, of course) with the original Tito. So, this may not be such a bad idea at all.

    Of course, whether those characteristics that do differ from the original would be really disconcerting or upsetting is another question. humans have shown themselves to be amazingly malleable and adaptable emotionally, however, and that’s another factor in favor of tito-clone….especially given that by the time the technology is available, the memories of the original Tito will be somewhat hazy.

    the more I think about this, in other words, the better idea this sounds. for another approach – the revivification of the dead – read Robert Silverberg’s Nebula winning novella Born with the Dead

  24. Dawn O'Day says

    oops – just read the Chance story, which appears to support my point. yes, the clone will be similar, but no, not similar enough. but, assuming no one gets gored, time and love may patch over the difference.

  25. mafisto says

    I think there’s a lot more drama being put into this than is strictly necessary, including from PZ. Hank is open about what he believe this will be: a puppy from Tito. There’s no indication he’s trying to cheat death or railing against the unfairness of the universe. He simply wants what many of us want from the animals we’ve (responsibly) sterilized.

  26. Anne Nonymous says

    Yeah, I’m inclined to agree with mafisto. There are perfectly sensible reasons to clone a beloved pet even if you don’t share in the ridiculous mysticism that the clone will somehow propagate the original pet’s soul.

    Like any responsible pet caretaker, I spayed and neutered my cats, because I couldn’t afford to raise any kittens they might produce, and because I wanted to be able to offer them a life that was more than just an endless search for sex (for the males) or an endless cycle of kitten-bearing (for the female). But they’re damned good cats, and it seems sad to me to take whatever good there may be in their genetic material out of the feline gene pool entirely. I’d really prefer it if I could reverse the neutering temporarily and allow each of them one mating, so that there could be a bit of mixing and matching, but failing that, cloning seems like the best alternative available.

    That said, it’s far too damned expensive, and probably will be for the rest of their lives, and anyway, the shelters are filled with needy cats, so I doubt I’ll do it. But still, I don’t think cloning is entirely foolish.

  27. Bleach says

    Warren, I saw that too. The obvious guess is that it’s a bigger number, so it must be even colder, right? And what are the chances that Hank is the one who converted to Fahrenheit (a word not even used in the post, iirc)? More likely the technician used it–blame him.

  28. Dan S. says

    “Like any responsible pet caretaker, I spayed and neutered my cats, because I couldn’t afford to raise any kittens they might produce, and because I wanted to be able to offer them a life that was more than just an endless search for sex . . . or an endless cycle of kitten-bearing . . .”

    I exceeded my lifetime bee-in-bonnet fixations quota years ago, and unfortunately this is one of those topics. Now, I know all the arguments – most of which are quite reasonable – and in fact we had our cat neutered – but that last part of the quote just rubs me the wrong way. I certainly don’t doubt your motives, sincerity, or care, but

    a) while the economic argument is quite reasonable, the offering them a better (since non-sexual) life part, to my mind, takes us out into some decidely odd ethical/etc. territory, with rather uncertain footing. How can we judge such a thing? Applied to humans, such reasoning would be repugnant – but cats aren’t humans. What would they want – and is such a question even meaningful in any sense? In the case of, say, solitary indoor cats, I can see an argument, but otherwise . . . I don’t know. In my experience (well-fed, sheltered) mother cats with kittens act in a manner that appears satisfied/happy (also tired/put-upon – like humans!). They certainly get a major status boost. My perception may be incorrect in various ways, but the opposite position
    “. . . cats are not aware of the miracle of birth. They function instinctively, and probably would be much happier if they didn’t have whining kittens to take care of” (Arden Moore, The Kitten Owner’s Manual, p. 141)
    seems just as iffy (and in this case, arguably implicitly self-contradictory)
    On the other hand, as you bring up, domestication has resulted in much more frequent and larger litters.

    b) Take someone saying: I’m going to a) have my cat castrated because (among other reasons) otherwise he’ll spray urine everywhere and get into fights and that’s too inconvenient for me, (b) have her uterus and ovaries removed because the whining is just unbearable/kittens are too expensive, etc. To my mind, this is far more honest about the reality of pet-keeping – sure, we pamper our little furballs, buy ’em toys, feed them, etc. – but we also may constrict their movements, control their reproduction, and don’t even get me started on declawing! They might be family members, but they’re also owned creatures. I have no reason to think this is the case with you, but when I hear this ‘give them a better life’ argument, I often wonder if this isn’t a form of mystification, a kind of self-deluding or candy-coating about the relationship between pets and people. But people are people, and anyway, perhaps they are trying to redefine this relationhip . . .

    Practically, of course, there’s not much of a question, unless we want an even more enormous stray/feral cat population and round-the-clock cat-killing. Although -as you almost touch on – I wonder about the long term effects, if this general policy continues on and becomes almost near-universal (not the most pressing worry). I could imagine it resulting, at least within regions, in a more domesticated professionally bred population (presumably calmer, less alert, and less cat-like, but maybe not), and a rather less tame (but smaller) feral population, since we’d presumably be inadvertantly selecting for the most wary/shy/fearful of humans/etc. cats . . . .

    Anyway, I know what you mean about gene-pool removal regret. The little lost kitten we found has grown up into a rather handsome (to the extent that people repeatedly remark on it), frighteningly intelligent (both my wife and I have caught him acting in a way that could be seen as suggesting he understood that other cat in the mirror was actually him – I’msure we’re misinterpreting, but I’m not about to drug the poor guy and dye a dot on his forehead to find out), and almost always good natured (unless provoked, of course, and let me ask you, what kind of timid little vet office insists that they won’t see a patient unless he’s sedated first!?*)

    * Perhaps toxoplasmosis explains the cat-owner’s blind spot phenomena?

    Anyway, I’d love to see research on attitudes on spaying/neutering . . . (I’d guess that guys would tend to get a bit squinchy about neutering, but who knows . . .)

  29. Torbjorn Larsson says

    “Torbjorn Larsson: It seems to me an empirical question as to how much of a dog’s (or cat’s) personality is dictated by its genes.”

    Which is exactly why I both managed to state that dogs empirically are personalities, and that I’m not going to discuss nature vs nurture unnecessarily. :-)

  30. Torbjorn Larsson says

    Empirically are personalities within different breeds, I meant to say, since that was the original question. There are dogs (or cats) that doesn’t fit their breeds default behaviour well. Now, one can certainly argue that this is due to varying genes. But it nevertheless questions the original argument that breed behaviour is direct evidence for totempotent gene control.

    So, yes, we agree. I wish I had used your formulation instead, it was shorter and more to the point. ;-)

  31. with a Y says

    Logical or not, Hank is a member of our family here and he has earned our respect and deserves our caring. His path would not be mine, but it is his path and impinges not upon mine.

    Best wishes Hank as you press forward without your dear companion.

  32. Anne Nonymous says

    Dan S. —

    You’re right that my choice of lifestyles for my cats involves, to some degree, a value judgement about how I think they’ll be happier, a judgement which is moreover necessarily made without true knowledge of their desires and without obtaining their consent. I can make analogies to human choices — given the opportunity to control our fertility and limit the number of children we have, most humans do so, in order that we may have more varied and fulfilling individual lives. On the other hand, in our “natural state” we humans, like cats, pretty much breed until we can’t breed anymore. However the pure drives of genetics and instinct don’t always take into account what might make the individual life most pleasant, so access to the tools of civilization (even if it’s as simple a tool as coitus interruptus) may result in different choices. Granted, I can’t really know if this analogy is good, because it’s very hard to ask a cat. But they too are mammals and carnivores, and their brains are in many ways very similar to ours, so it’s not an entirely unreasonable leap to expect that choices which are beneficial for individual humans might also be beneficial for individual cats.

    On the other hand, I’m not really very happy about the ownership aspects of pet-keeping, because my preference is to respect the individual autonomy of other creatures (human and otherwise) as much as possible. But given the power disparity between humans and cats, and the impossibility of ascertaining the cats’ true desires, educating them about their options, and so forth (if they even had the capacity for thinking those kind of thoughts), well, I’ve already made a decision about what I think will make them happier by bringing them into my home. I make other such decisions when I vaccinate them, treat their illnesses, have their rotten teeth removed, put them on diets if they get fat, and euthanize them if I believe they’re in too much pain to continue living.

    So, anyway, I don’t think it’s completely mystical to think that keeping sex and kittening from being the dominant forces in my cats’ lives might be an improvement (given the human analogies). And I think that value judgements about what betters feline lives are already implicit in stray adoption (maybe they’d be happier to be “free”), especially when you contrast it to adoption from a breeder, so it seems to me that it’s not inconsistent to make further value judgements about what would improve the adopted cat’s quality of life.

    I don’t think this is really the position you were arguing against. I just wanted to sorta lay out my thinking more clearly.