From the March, 2002 issue of Touchstone

Opening Saint Exupery’s Box by Caleb Stegall

Opening Saint Exupery’s Box

Caleb Stegall on Cloning & the Knowledge of Man

Antoine de Saint Exupery’s The Little Prince is one of the twentieth century’s best-loved stories. It is a fable about the secret of happiness. The Little Prince begins when a fictional Saint Exupery crashes his airplane into the Sahara Desert and encounters a most unlikely interplanetary visitor—a boy, the Little Prince. The boy is a traveler from a tiny planet no bigger than a house where he has lived alone with his fabulous possessions. But pride in those possessions has driven the Little Prince on his stellar journey and landed him in the middle of the Sahara.

The boy immediately, but politely, demands of Saint Exupery, “If you please, draw me a sheep.” Saint Exupery, taken a bit aback, begins to draw—to great cries of disapproval from the Little Prince. Saint Exupery’s sheep simply does not capture the essence of sheepness. Finally, in frustration, Saint Exupery draws a square box and explains to the Little Prince that the sheep lives inside the box.

Delighted, the boy is satisfied, content with the sheep he cannot see that meets all of the sheep qualities of his imagination. In this opening sequence of the story, Saint Exupery hints at the “very simple secret” the Little Prince will later learn more explicitly from another character: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

In early 1997, the sensational story of Dr. Ian Wilmut and his scientific team’s achievement of cloning a sheep awed the world. Saint Exupery would have relished the irony. For here, Wilmut demonstrated skill in the representational arts far surpassing that of the fictional Saint Exupery—with a sheep nonetheless! One wonders if the Little Prince would have been more satisfied with Wilmut’s sheep than he had been with Saint Exupery’s drawings.

Picking up on the theme, the French Paper Courrier International soon ran a story with the ominous headline “Draw Me a Man.” The Courrier recapitulated the demand of the Little Prince—only upping the ante from sheep to man—and wondered implicitly which course we would take: Would we choose the new man science could “draw” for us, or, like the Little Prince, would our heart’s eye choose to know imaginatively the man housed in Saint Exupery’s box?

Unanswered Question

This question remains, as yet, unanswered. But it looms near, as fundamental as any with regard to the ultimate direction and character of the nascent century.

As I write this in late November, the New York Times reports that “a small, privately financed biotechnology company said yesterday that it had created the first human embryos ever produced by cloning.” President Bush says that he is “unequivocally . . . opposed to the cloning of human beings either for reproduction or for research.” The House of Representatives last summer passed a bill (H.R. 2505) that would ban the cloning of all human beings, including human embryos. Currently pending in the Senate is Kansas Senator Sam Brownback’s version of the House anti-cloning bill.

Meanwhile, proponents of the potential benefits of cloning technologies to human health and happiness are carrying big rhetorical sticks. Representative Jim McDermott argued on the floor of the House this summer that opponents of cloning are like the pope who “told Galileo to quit making those marks in his notebook. The Earth is the center of the universe, he said. We all know that. . . . Now, here we are making a decision like we were the house of cardinals on a religious issue when, in fact, scientists are struggling to find out how human beings actually work.” Thus the passage of H.R. 2505 would be a “papal event,” he said.

Similarly, in 1997, a seemingly outraged Senator Tom Harkin declared that there could be no “appropriate limits to human knowledge.” To those “who are saying ‘Stop, we can’t play God,’ I say ‘Fine. Take your ranks alongside Pope Paul V, who in 1616 tried to stop Galileo.’”

Certainly the use and abuse of scientific knowledge is a hot topic in the political and cultural arenas. But one fascinating and less often discussed aspect of this debate is its rich treatment within our literary tradition. From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, writers have long been fascinated with the implications for society of scientific manipulation of human beings.

The warnings typically center on some experiment gone monstrously awry, or some mind control technology turned by a malevolent government against its citizenry. These stories, however, tend not to accurately project the uses of bio-technical wizardry. Rather, cloning will likely be put to less fantastic but more practical uses in the real world: curing infertility, curing disease, extending life, and generally making us happy. At least that is what the proponents of the cloning gospel would have us believe.

Two early pioneers of cloning—if not of the science, at least of the public relations campaign—Gregory Pence and Lee Silver, make sure to argue this point emphatically. According to Pence and Silver, the soothsayers’ tales of an underling race of clone-slaves are nonsense. Cloning is only feared because it is not understood. And what needs to be understood, from the perspective of Pence and Silver, are the wonderful potential benefits cloning offers.

Pence imagines a time 100 years from now when perfectly healthy centigenarians will “thank [their] parents” for cloning them from healthy genomes. These old ladies and gents will remember their parents as “real pioneers” who gave them “35 extra years of good life because of what they did.” Silver, though not quite so optimistic, comes to the same conclusion: “It is individuals . . . who will seize control of these new technologies” and use them “to help their children achieve health, happiness, and success.”

Kass’s Repugnance

Emerging as the leading voice of dissent from the Pence/Silver line of reasoning is ethicist Leon R. Kass, who argues that the “wisdom of repugnance” counsels strongly against cloning. Kass makes his case essentially from natural law; from what we all “intuit and feel, immediately and without argument.”

For Kass, cloning represents the most intimate “violation of things that we rightfully hold dear.” Our naturally imbued defense against such things is repugnance. “Repugnance . . . warn[s] us not to transgress what is unspeakably profound” and “may be the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central core of our humanity. Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.” Kass makes an effective and necessary argument against cloning.

However, the wisdom of repugnance will likely be viewed as strangely remote, even inappropriate, in the face of such miracles as therapeutic cloning—a technique that would allow your doctor to extract a few of your own cells, clone them, and then zap them in just the right way so as to stimulate them to grow into a new heart to replace your old, worn-out heart. Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds says Kass “simply thinks that it’s a bad thing for people to live longer, healthier lives and that it’s desirable for us to die at around 70.” To which Reynolds adds, “you first, Leon.”

Reynolds’s discussion is a deliberate caricature of Kass’s argument. He recognizes that the issue is more complex, but his point is well made—and well taken. Are ethicists truly prepared to stand in the way of cloning, particularly of therapeutic cloning, which promises people the opportunity to give themselves, their spouses, and their children the chance to be cured, to be happy, and to live a better life?

The great double-cross of the cloning debate is that cultural conservatives who decry the advances of cloning science are doomed to be defeated—rhetorically at least—by that which they hold most dear: the preciousness of the gift of life. For the wisdom of repugnance will recede like flood waters when a parent is confronted with a child from whom that gift is slipping and a doctor who thinks cloning technology just may save him.

Still, Kass is doing valuable work because he makes clear that there are truths that all people “intuit and feel, immediately and without argument.” But against repugnance must be set another truth all people intuit without argument—that it is good to heal and that death is unnatural. When arguing against a new method of bettering life, more than an appeal to natural repugnance is needed. Otherwise, the response, to which there is no reply, will always be, “you first.”

The faint outlines of that “something more” that is needed can be found, I think, by dipping again from the well of literary wisdom. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Birthmark” is a cautionary tale directed, for all practical purposes, at the likes of Pence, Silver, and Reynolds. Its lesson is that scientific zeal for the material good can cloak a failure to pursue the greater Good.

The central character of the story is the scientist Alymer. Alymer’s beautiful wife, Georgiana, has only one flaw: a birthmark scarring the side of her face. Despite Georgiana’s near perfection of character and figure, Alymer becomes more and more obsessed with her birthmark.

In a desperation born out of a confused mixture of selfish pride and genuine love for his wife, Alymer works frantically in his lab to concoct a potion that will remove the mark. Finally successful, Alymer presents Georgiana with the draught; and it works. The birthmark fades, and disappears. But Alymer’s triumph turns to despair, for soon after the mark is gone, Georgiana is overcome by the potion and dies.

Alymer’s mistake, hidden from his own understanding by his desire for Georgiana’s bodily good, proved deadly. In the context of cloning, it remains to those of us trying to apply the brakes to bio-technological progress to determine and articulate the contours of the mistake we suspect is being made by cloning apologists. It is a mistake that is philosophical rather than scientific in nature, a mistake not in the physical results but in the doing itself.

Known by Heart

Cloning may “work” in the scientific sense, as Alymer’s potion did not work. However, it will fail on more fundamental counts if we accept what the Little Prince would not: that the essence of sheepness (or humanness) is merely genes and cells and bodies.

In so doing, we will forsake that which the Little Prince did not: call it heart-knowledge. As the poet Wendell Berry has said, there are “things that can be known only by cherishing.” These things must be known “not just conceptually but imaginatively as well. . . . They must be pictured in the mind and in the memory; they must be known with affection, ‘by heart.’”

When boxes are opened, when human cells are cracked, when genetic codes are broken, secrets tend to be forgotten. If we are destined to open Saint Exupery’s box and lead clonal man out—which we seem to be—it is essential that we discover new ways to remember “by heart” the old secrets. The secret that the Little Prince learned: that “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” The secret that Alymer learned: that the ultimate cure for the blemishes of humanity will not be found in a lab.

It is the secret that, in the words of C. S. Lewis, “pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.” It is the secret that we were not made for this world—and neither can we make ourselves for this world. It is the secret of happiness.  

Caleb Stegall is a practicing attorney in Topeka, Kansas. He and his wife Ann have three sons and live on their farm in rural Kansas.

Caleb Stegall is a lawyer and writer in Perry, Kansas. His forthcoming book on the history of prairie populism and the future of American regionalism is due out from ISI Books in 2009. He and his wife Ann have five boys and attend Grace Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Lawrence, Kansas, where Stegall serves as a ruling elder.

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