Eva Hoffman (Secker & Warburg, ?15.99)
Eva Hoffman’s novel is an ambitious attempt to sketch out the difficult choices that cloning may pose. It makes the subject urgent by taking recognisable situations and pushing them to their limits. And it gives priority to the feelings and dilemmas of the cloned person herself, something that few people in the novel-and perhaps in real life-do.
In The Secret, a talented but self-centred woman ends up without a partner and finds herself to be infertile. When pressured by her mother to produce grandchildren, she can only do this through the technology of cloning, which has just become available-in the book’s chronology, a few years from now. However, her family is repelled by her choice and she brings up the child alone, its origins a secret. The novel is about her daughter, Iris-the discovery of her origins and her attempts to develop a separate self.
The mother’s explanation to Iris, “I decided to take my fate in my own hands… I wanted to love someone,” is full of contemporary echoes. Many women now face single parenthood or are obliged, by diminished fertility, to resort to men in white coats. So why the special unease that we feel about a human clone?
One explanation lies in our search for origins. Every society has its creation myth, and every child a story of where it came from. People often feel troubled if their beginnings are clouded, for example by adoption. But even an adopted child knows that somewhere, a biological mother and father did exist. In comparison to cloning, IVF looks positively homely: two people are still making a new life together, just bypassing some bad plumbing. But how will a cloned child think about itself or tell its story?
Another cause of unease is the elimination of chance. Chance is a vital component of creativity and change. The deliberate making of an exact copy represents a break with the act of creation. At the heart of this unease is an uncertainty about science and modernity in general. The idea that there is a solution to every problem can be diminishing. It is disturbing to read interviews with scientists who see no grounds for doubt about a new technique and for whom there is no such thing, ever, as unintended consequences.
At the same time, keeping scientific innovations at arm’s length can lead to some peculiar contradictions. Under current medical rules, for example, a pregnant woman is allowed to abort a four-month-old foetus if congenital problems are discovered, but an IVF clinic is not allowed to screen embryos before implantation to avoid creating this condition in the first place. And while we show revulsion about the practice in IVF clinics of throwing away unwanted genetic material, we do not think twice about the huge waste that occurs in nature.
I share some of Hoffman’s concerns. But other things about her vision make no sense to me. Her belief in the wrongness of cloning is too all-encompassing. The mother who chooses to clone is portrayed as so narcissistic that she cannot even bear her daughter to bring home friends from school. But we must, surely, allow for the possibility of parents who behave better than this, or who choose cloning for less self-centred reasons. In most cases, technology simply gives people new means to do what they have always done; in this case to treat their children as instruments of their own ego.
Moreover, the story of a woman who feels diminished because she is not genetically unique requires some comparisons. No one says that identical twins are not fully autonomous beings because they are a copy of each other.
The cloning challenge, in this book and in life, lies in our understanding of human consciousness. Is the mind shaped by experience or is it primarily the product of genes or chemicals? Hoffman appears to speak up for experience. When Iris eventually forms a romantic relationship, she describes how finally, “under his gaze I felt my self fill out with its very own, quirky substance.” But right to the end of the story, it is the language of cells which predominates. Even after being confirmed by the gaze of another person, Iris continues to feel “contingent and double… a trick of artifice.” She talks of having knowledge “embedded so deeply… within me that it might have been part of my cellular structure.”
But if one believes in experience, it should be possible to imagine a clone as fully human, whatever the dilemmas that its creation poses. The thing that makes us unique and human is our existence in the world as a separate being, a unique mix of physical make-up and lived experience. A person whose genetic make-up is obtained by cloning still meets that criteria.