The Council of Europe has just agreed a protocol to its Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine which says “Any intervention seeking to create a human being genetically identical to another human being, whether living or dead, is prohibited”. The usual word for such a created being is a clone.
Its scientific sense is the same now as it was when it was invented in the early years of the twentieth century: a plant or animal that is created from cells of its parent asexually and so is genetically identical to it. The process has been so common in plant cultivation for so long that it is quite unremarkable: most gardeners regularly take cuttings from favourite plants, so producing clones of the parent.
But clone has taken on a more sinister connotation in the past decade as researchers have created clones of animals (the most famous being Dolly the sheep) and the possibility has arisen of cloning humans. The emotional reaction to this has been intense and psychologically intriguing, reaching so far as suggestions that rich individuals might have themselves cloned to provide a stock of spare-part organs for transplantation. Some commentators, as ignorant of basic biology as they are sensitive to public reaction, have implied that such clones would be created with all the aptitudes and memories of their parents intact. But the possibility of human cloning has affected many people at a visceral or spiritual level, as being something that is variously against ethics, nature or God. It is these forces that have led to the Council of Europe directive (and similar laws in other countries), despite the fact that human cloning is not yet practicable and that millions of natural human clones already exist, called identical twins.
Part of this response has been due to a figurative usage which dates from the seventies in phrases such as Elvis clone, and from the eighties in the sense of a computer system which is designed to emulate another, as in IBM clone, so giving the word the sense of a cheap or slavish imitation of the true original. As most people rarely encounter the strict scientific usage, this negative sense has become the one they usually associate with the word. The concept of human cloning also evokes visions of latter-day Dr Frankensteins at work and of Brave New World’s ranks of identical bokanovskified clones.
So we now have a term with its scientific sense unchanged but with an everyday meaning which is frequently pejorative at best. The history of word evolution suggests this position is unlikely to reverse itself and that scientists may need to invent a new one when they wish to discuss animal cloning in public.