The Great Tower

R. B. Laughlin
Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology
373 Guseong-dong, Yuseong-gu, Daejeon 305-711, Republic of Korea

Chosun Ilbo, July 2, 2005

The last time I flew to San Francisco I flirted with a beautiful baby. It occurred while I was standing in the lavatory line at the back of the plane. She was peering over the shoulder of the man carrying her, and was looking around in that hesitating, unfocused way babies do, when she chanced to look over at me. Her eyes locked in and began twinkling, and her face lit up with a warm smile that could have melted all the ice in Antarctica. She was definitely flirting. No doubt about it. She could not have been more than six months old.

I was about to compliment the father on what a handsome and special child he had when he turned, saw what was going on, and broke into a smile himself. She was indeed special, he admitted, because she was on her way to an adoptive home the US. He was not her father, just a courier. Her mother was a Korean student.

I was stunned. I don't know why. Babies get adopted all the time. It's the way of this world. It wasn't that the child was emigrating, for I honestly don't think that matters. It was just that her young mother and father, whoever they were, were suffering a loss vastly greater than they could comprehend. This baby was extraordinary. They must have been especially capable and handsome students.

My complex feelings in that plane capture very nicely the nature of the controversy surrounding Seoul National University Prof. Hwang Woo Suk's successes in making human clones. I am a big fan of Dr. Hwang and his work, but a lot of people aren't. The reason is that it raises the possibility of creating embryonic clones of yourself to harvest for spare parts, a process that would initiate, and then abort for reasons of expediency, the creation of a person. A lot of people think that babies are so wonderful they should not be sold for parts, even if the baby is a copy of yourself.

Koreans cannot just ignore this problem. For better or worse the responsibility has fallen upon them to create world-class law to match their world-class technology. I believe they will rise to the challenge. I hope that Korea and other countries will eventually adopt the principle that cells are not people. Researchers like Prof. Hwang will then be allowed to work in peace. The adult human body contains approximately fifty million million cells. Every one of them has the "capacity" to grow into a person. That means each of us contains enough genetic material to create five hundred times more people than have ever walked on earth. The idea that every cell in your body is a person is ludicrous. You can't just legislate it to be otherwise because the problem is not caused by "technology" but by life itself.

The capacity to be human, which is contained in cells, is different from actually being human, which is not. It's like the difference between a grain of sand and a beach, or between air molecules and wind. In either case, the thing of importance is made up of specific small parts, but also transcends them, in that other parts would have done just as well. Rather than becoming human all at once at conception we do so in stages. That implies that our rights should grow in stages too. Principles of this kind are already incorporated into most bodies of law, in particular through the differences between the rights of children and adults.

The conflict between microscopic and "emergent" meaning in nature is not just a problem in reproductive biology but a crisis playing out simultaneously in many areas in modern civilization, notably in my own discipline of physics. I have recently written a book about this, and I refer anyone interested there for details. The key point is that the conflict is ideological. The idea that the meaning of a thing is contained in its parts is a belief, not a fact, and so deeply rooted in many people's thinking that it cannot be dislodged even by experiments. In physics, where the systems in question are primitive and the experiments simple, there is overwhelming evidence that the idea is false. Whether the lessons of physics generalize to biology is debatable, but I think they do because I think life is physical.

The child on the plane was obviously a human being fighting for life the way babies do, by making you love them. Her trouble was not failed cells but failed relationships, something that would have been fatal in a more primitive society. The lesson she teaches is that a human life, like the human body, is not cells but a great tower of relationships. That is what we have to protect.

[Copyright 2005 R. B. Laughlin. The author grants permission to copy, distribute, display, and perform this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.]