Cloning and culture

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An article in The New York Times, Are Scientists Playing God? It Depends on Your Religion, surveys attitudes toward cloning and biological engineering in general. Roughly the thesis being reported is that there is a trichotomy between post-Christian societies, traditional Christian societies and those where Eastern religions predominate. Generally I’m skeptical of these grand cultural typologies, but in this case I think there is an underlying component that explains a large part of the trend: the Roman Catholic Church has long opposed many forms of biological intervention and will no doubt oppose many forms of biological engineering which it deems unethical. Though I do not doubt the sincerity of the believers of the Roman Catholic religion in their adherence to their Church’s position here, I think this is a case where the elite formulation of the clergy and intellectuals has really made a significant impact on public policy. Reading about the anti-abortion movement in the United States during early days after Roe vs. Wade it is clear that the Roman Catholics were at the forefront, and fundamentalist Protestants joined the fray quite a bit later. Similarly, when it came to eugenics laws they were quite widespread in Protestant countries, but the Catholic Church threw up a concerted and consistent resistance to them in nations where it was an institution which could affect public policy significantly.

There are also specific and general problems with the typology. Consider the specific:

Asia offers researchers new labs, fewer restrictions and a different view of divinity and the afterlife. In South Korea, when Hwang Woo Suk reported creating human embryonic stem cells through cloning, he did not apologize for offending religious taboos. He justified cloning by citing his Buddhist belief in recycling life through reincarnation.

When Dr. Hwang’s claim was exposed as a fraud, his research was supported by the head of South Korea’s largest Buddhist order, the Rev. Ji Kwan. The monk said research with embryos was in accord with Buddha’s precepts and urged Korean scientists not to be guided by Western ethics.

Hwang Woo Suk is a convert from Christianity to Buddhism. South Korea is a nation that is about 1/2 non-affiliated, 1/4 Buddhist and 1/4 Christian. Its ethical culture has been traditionally dominated by Confucianism, and there is a powerful substratum of indigenous shamanistic religion which suffuses the practices and outlooks of Christians & Buddhists alike. Christianity is gaining ground among the youth and in the educated segment of the population, and is the dominant religion in Seoul. The last two presidents of South Korea have been Roman Catholic, and that denomination is generally considered the most well educated, affluent and liberal of the religious pillars in South Korean society. South Korea also sends out the most Christian missionaries to the rest of the world aside from the United States. Christian fundamentalists in South Korea have even engaged in iconoclastic violence against Buddhist religious art and statuary. And yet South Koreans were also rather proud of their “cloning research.”

Then there is the biggest general issue with the typology:

By contrast, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, God is the master creator who gives out new souls to each individual human being and gives humans “dominion over soul-less plants and animals. To traditional Christians who consider an embryo to be a human being with a soul, it is wrong for scientists to use cloning to create human embryos or to destroy embryos in the course of research.

I think the term Judeo-Christian is stupid. In any case, not only are there very few Jews in the world, their attitude toward biological engineering tends to be pragmatic and consequentialist from what I can tell. There is one religious group which is left out the typology: Islam. About 15-20% of the world’s population this seems like a large oversight. There don’t seem to be many laws about cloning in the Muslim world, but take a look at abortion laws. Their objection to interventions might be less coherent or precise than those of Roman Catholics, but they seem to mirror them pretty well.

The New York Times piece also points out that in the post-Christian world, such as Sweden, there is a fear of some sorts of biological changes due to a resurgence in a form of natural religion or spirituality. This shouldn’t surprise; the decline of institutional Christianity in northern and eastern Europe has been met with both a rise in a scientific materialist outlook, but even more significantly an unspecified monistic theism reminiscent of pre-Christian traditions. The Left-Right convergences alluded too suggest to me that the typology is too coarse and inchoate. There is a universal “Yuck” within our species, probably rooted in our cognitive hardware. Channeling the impulses culturally can be a tricky thing. For instance, the Japanese and Israelis are far less advanced than Americans in their acceptance or practice of organ donation, generally due to religious rationales. Obviously the Japanese and Israelis don’t share a common spiritual root or background.

Note: I place an emphasis on the Catholic Church as an institution affecting public policy because, for example, abortion rates of Catholics in the United States are at the national average. Moral suasion can only go so far, especially when individuals are making personal utility calculations.

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9 Comments

  1. when it came to eugenics laws they were quite widespread in Protestant countries, but the Catholic Church threw up a concerted and consistent resistance to them in nations where it was an institution which could affect public policy significantly. In nations where its perpetuation could be in danger, the CC remained silent to a whole host of atrocities. I suspect that as public opinion in the Third World slowly shifts with rising standards of living, and the current leadership dies off and is replaced, the CC will eventually abandon those principles rejected by its members. Especially if it begins to look as though people are abandoning Catholicism for other religious strains.

  2. “South Korea is a nation that is about 1/2 non-affiliated, 1/2 Buddhist and 1/2 Christian.” 
     
    That adds up to a 1 1/2 South Korean nation! I think you meant 1/4 Buddhist, 1/4 Christian, 1/2 non-affiliated. 
     
    Here’s what CIA Factbook says: 
     
    Christian 26.3% (Protestant 19.7%, Roman Catholic 6.6%), Buddhist 23.2%, other or unknown 1.3%, none 49.3% (1995 census)  
     
    But I’m ‘nitpicking’, good article!

  3. thanks paul. it was late :-)

  4. There’s another side besides the spiritual – the old-fashioned fear of competition. this article (scroll to “public versus farmers”) suggests that the opposition to genetically-modified food in Europe is led by farmers’ groups and is primarily protectionist in character (the article claims that Italian farmers, in particular, fear their elaborate system of controls will collapse if new varieties of crops become available).  
     
    I remember long ago reading a U.S. News article on opposition to human cloning – I was genuinely puzzled as to what non-religious arguments people would raise against it. One of the strangest was fear that “an egotistical millionaire would decide that the best heir to his fortune was – himself.” But perhaps the angry insistence we see that everyone is equal is birth lives side-by-side with a fear that not everyone is equal at birth – and that people who are born smarter or harder-working or more frugal or whatever will take what we want a shot at ourselves. (Some of the anti-Chinese protectionist rhetoric of the 19th century was pretty forthright – “We can’t outwork them, but they can underlive us” or words to that effect.) Just a thought.

  5. great point joseph. there are many issues here. on something like nuclear power or GMO the policy can be dictated by very motivated groups, not necessarily a broad-based consensus.

  6. their attitude toward biological engineering tends to be pragmatic and consequentialist from what I can tell 
     
    That is correct. Also on abortion and some other ethical issues (like this one).

  7. “the Untied States” 
     
    It seems that someone could come up with a joke based on this typo about how the states interact with each other, or how other countries view the U.S. 
     
    Sorry about the silly comment, I just thought it was kind of funny.

  8. tx! ;-)

  9. hey, was that a real typo? i can’t find it.

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