Nap's over

"Technological imperative" is a phrase that stiffens the hairs on my neck. Beneath the jargon - scientific discoveries that force social and cultural institutions to adapt and change - it really means that, like it or not, a worldview I'd previously held will have to bend.

The most challenging "imperatives" come in the life sciences. Examples are numerous, but here are some touchstones: A South African doctor performs the first successful heart transplant; inexpensive birth-control pills become universally available; heart-wrenching images are beamed from England of newborns deformed by the drug thalidomide; the first successfully cloned large mammal, Dolly, contentedly munching hay in a Scottish barnyard; four biochemists doing DNA research grow a human ear out of the back of a mouse.

Pardon me if at times the pace of such change arouses nostalgia for Washington Irving's character, Rip Van Winkle, an everyman overwhelmed by change. Asleep for 20 years, he wakes to a world that has passed him by.

But at least it's a world - after rubbing his eyes and stretching his sleep-sodden body - he can begin to recognize. A world he has a chance to catch up with. For most of us, the pace of scientific discovery feels like perpetual free fall - without the 20-year nap.

The Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe recreates in his classic novel "Things Fall Apart" the psychological disintegration of a heroic Ibo leader unable to cope with the onslaught of alien mores forced on him and his people.

Achebe is astute enough to portray some of the changes in Ibo customs as positive. For example, prior to the arrival was abandoned in the forest to perish. Leaving infants to die is never a good thing. But in the Ibo worldview, there was no allowance for conflicting or confused identity. Achebe touches on the tremendous unease humans feel when identity is confused. This is the deeper issue being forced on the Ibo - their identity as non-Western people.

Just think what that befuddled Knickerbocker from the Hudson Valley might feel if, while he slept, someone had taken a lock of his hair used the DNA in it and cloned him? Rip's humorous confusion after a 20-year hiatus would be a lot less funny, were he to wake and confront, face to face, the young man he was.

Cloning touches us in the deepest realms of our being. It calls into question who we are, where we come from, where we are going - the ontological issues of the metaphysicians are no longer the abstractions of college philosophy professors.

At first, we will likely pass laws to stop the cloning onslaught - but does any of us think this will be permanent?

Autopsies were outlawed in 15th-century Venice. And doctors built hidden trap doors to lower dissected remains into the city's canals beneath their homes, should the authorities come knocking. Dolly seemed to appear like the Greek goddess Athena, sprung from the head of Zeus, fully grown.

Jane Lampman's article (page 15) helps us open our eyes and wake up to the matter of cloning. She examines some of the moral shoals and hidden ethical rocks we face as cloning of a human being becomes imminent, confronting us not with a what if, but rather, what now?

It's time to start rubbing our eyes.

E-mail Ideas@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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