May 13, 2004

An Open Letter to Peggy Noonan

Dear Peggy

I've always looked forward to reading your columns in the Wall Street Journal. You have been a consistent source of information and inspiration. I was therefore extremely disappointed to read your most recent piece, ("Bada Bing? Bada Boom."), dated May 13.

While I agree with and share your fears about the dangers of terrorism on US soil, I found your views on the (completely unrelated) subject of human cloning to be both ill-informed and wrong-headed.

Specifically, you wrote:

Whenever I think of cloning, I think of Sam Ervin during the Watergate hearings. He quoted the Bible to Richard Nixon's malefactors: "God is not mocked." Indeed he is not. Once we can have cloning, we will have cloning. Once we can have cloning we'll be cloning replacement-part humans to make new hearts for aging baby boomers. We'll throw the rest away, or mine these beings for other organs and elixirs. Once we have cloning, we'll start growing cloned armies. Why shouldn't they fight for us? Once we have cloning, a lot of things will happen, including that we'll be opening the mouth of hell.

As scary as the "dirty nuke in Port Newark" scenario is, I find that I am nearly as chilled by the scientific illiteracy displayed in the above quote. It would appear that you have learned everything you know about the subject from watching the Star Wars movies.

Cloned armies, indeed.

There is an enormous difference between reproductive and therapeutic cloning. The latter need not require the production of an entire "replacement human;" it may be possible to grow "replacement organs" on their own, or to develop stem cell lines that can be used to treat a wide variety of illnesses and injuries. How precisely this will open up the "mouth of hell" is unclear.

Reproductive cloning raises serious moral and ethical issues, but "cloned armies" is not one of them. The ability to produce armies would require not cloning, but a technique popular in (uninformed) science fiction movies that might properly be called Rapidly Growing Large Numbers of Sentient Adults in Vats. That I know of, no one is currently working on developing that technology — not even in New Jersey.

Peggy, you are too serious a journalist and too valuable a voice to entertain such nonsense. If you would take some time to learn what cloning is really all about, I'm sure that you would have something significant to say about both the potential risks and the potential benefits of this technology.

In the mean time, I suggest you stick to subjects you're more familiar with.

Your Faithful Reader,

Phil Bowermaster

Posted by Phil at May 13, 2004 11:15 AM | TrackBack


I'm a fan of Ms. Noonan's work also. There is a sweet, lyrical quality to her writing that reminds me of Kathy Hanson.

When it comes to writing about patriotism or character there's no one better. But she got a little out of her depth on this subject.

I'm sure her position is influenced by her religious faith. If you believe that an individual's life begins at conception, then any cloning would be abhorrent to you, even therapeutic cloning.

For reasons I gave here:

I believe that life begins at differentiation that point at which a blastocyst begins to organize itself into different tissues. This position is both logical and practical in that it would allow therapeutic cloning, and moral in that it would prohibit the creation of organ donating zombies or a clone army.

Posted by: Stephen Gordon at May 13, 2004 02:11 PM

It's perfectly clear from everything discovered about embryology in the last decade that differentiation and organization begins within hours of conception. Polarity is established almost immidiately. Any position that recognizes differentiation as important would be forced by these new findings to reject all embryo research, including therapeutic cloning. More importantly, the notion that you can grow organs directly, without first creating an embryo, is not supported by any science, present or soon to come. It's nonsense. I don't share Noonan's worries, but the problem with them is not scientific.

Posted by: Kelly Richards at May 14, 2004 11:05 AM


Thanks for your comments.

You wrote:

More importantly, the notion that you can grow organs directly, without first creating an embryo, is not supported by any science, present or soon to come.

You're correct. There has to be an embryo in order to generate a line of stem cells from which organs can be developed. I may disagree with Peggy Noonan on what constitutes a "replacement human," but don't know of any way (today) to grow organs without starting with a an embryo.

However, I am less willing than you are to make categorical statements about what developments are or are not "soon to come." The world has a way of surprising us.

With that in mind, maybe I should retract the entire letter. It's possible that we'll figure out a way to convert adult stem cells into the equivalent of embryonic stem cells (thus eliminating the need for an embryo), but then it's also possible that we'll develop Rapidly Growing Large Numbers of Sentient Adults in Vats technology, making Ms. Noonan's fear of cloned armies all too real.

You never can tell!

Posted by: Phil Bowermaster at May 14, 2004 12:44 PM


If you are correct, differentiation would be less of a point in time than a process. That seems logical.

Still, I'm sure you agree that there are important differences between the days-old hollow blastocyst with a couple of hundred undifferentiated stem cells:

and a month old fetus:

Within the blastocyst there is no brain or neural tissue that can process pain. There are no identifiable organs or structures at all except those necessary to attach to the uterine wall and nourish the growth of the embryo.

So where would I draw the line? Here is a strong possibility:

You spoke of polarity. The axis of the embryo is not established until this point - day 18. After this point the process of differentiation takes off.

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