What is life? What exactly is the essence of this incredible, irreducible phenomenon? Although Beltway politicians are not usually known for their philosophical reflections, this question has been paramount in recent congressional debates about ”therapeutic cloning.“ Last summer, the House voted overwhelmingly to ban human cloning of any type, for any purpose. President Bush, too, is deeply opposed. Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), sponsor of an anti-cloning bill, has been pushing the Senate to follow the House‘s example — and quickly, as maverick scientists are already threatening to clone humans by the end of the year.

”I can think of few votes as important in the 26 years I have served in Congress,“ said Orrin Hatch. To his fellow Republicans’ horror, Hatch supports therapeutic cloning, because in theory the process offers a way to generate healthy new tissues, thereby raising hopes for curing a vast range of illnesses from diabetes to Parkinson‘s. But it’s a Faustian bargain, for you‘ve got to create an embryo — a clone of the person being treated — that will necessarily be destroyed. Although such an embryo would never be more than a few hundred cells, by the materialist calculus of the Right to Life movement (wherein personhood begins at the microsecond of conception), therapeutic cloning is worse even than murder: A person is being created only to be slaughtered.

Now, I was raised a Catholic, yet even as a child I found the equation of a ”person“ with a microscopic ball of cells distasteful. I am no longer a Catholic, or any kind of Christian — after long reflection I find myself unable to accept what my Jesuit friends so aptly call ”the gift of faith“ — and I support a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy with every fiber of my being. Nonetheless, I feel deeply ambivalent about therapeutic cloning. What disturbs me is not the ”murder“ thing, a categorization I reject here, but the underlying philosophy of life that has led us to this point.

For most of Western history, theologians and scientists alike thought in terms of a life force or animating spirit; now in the age of the microchip, living things are increasingly described in computational terms. Along with genetic engineering, therapeutic cloning is an outgrowth of the idea that life is controlled by a code that we can reprogram to suit our own purposes. Two years ago, scientists published a first draft of this code, a list of some 3 billion DNA ”letters“ collectively constituting the genetic blueprint for human beings. Today we take this informatic view of life for granted, but a century ago most scientists would have deemed it insane.

It was not a biologist, but two physicists who first suggested this radical vision: Max Delbruck (who initially proposed it in an academic paper) and Erwin Schroedinger, who in 1944 brought it into public consciousness in his classic book What Is Life? Up till then, Schroedinger had spent his own life pondering the quantum properties of subatomic particles — he‘s the one responsible for the infamous quantum cat, a creature at once dead and alive — but his little book ignited a spark that led eventually to the whole conflagration of gene science.

As a physicist, Schroedinger studied things like protons and crystals, the behavior of which conforms to strict mathematical rules. Since he believed that all of nature is inherently lawful, Schroedinger concluded that living things must contain some law-encoding structure, a special kind of molecule in which could be stored the instructions for each creature. By the 1940s, biologists understood that inherited characteristics had something to do with the stringlike chromosomes at the heart of each cell. In What Is Life?, Schroedinger proposed that the core of each chromosome is an ”aperiodic crystal,“ a molecular structure composed of coding elements that would function much like letters in an alphabet.

Schroedinger’s book injected into the biological sciences a reductionist sensibility and helped to instigate the new science of molecular biology. Within a decade, James Watson and Francis Crick, aided by Maurice Wilkins and the Nobel-deprived Rosalyn Franklin, had discovered DNA‘s double helix, a crystal-like form encompassing in its spiral embrace a code of astonishing power. Next April marks the 50th anniversary of this discovery, which surely equates with fire and the wheel in its potential to transform human experience.

For starters, this view of life gives concrete measure to Darwin’s insight about the relatedness of all creatures. Genetically speaking, we are 98 percent the same as chimpanzees. Why anyone resents this fact is beyond me — subjected to the spectacle of yet another suicide bombing in Jerusalem or another incursion in the West Bank, I must say I take comfort in my cousinship with these playful creatures. (At truly bleak moments, I console myself with the fact that for all our military might we humans share 25 percent of our genes with the lettuce!)

But while an informatic approach suggests a certain democracy — no one code is intrinsically ”better“ than any other — it also opens a Pandora‘s box, for if life is directed by an information code, then he who controls the code controls life itself. Ergo the dream of genetic engineering. Among the more theatrical demonstrations of this dream is artist Eduardo Kac’s fluorescent bunny, Alba. Created by a team of French scientists, Alba contains a jellyfish gene that encodes for the Green Fluorescent Protein — under ultraviolet light she shines a fetching Day-Glo green. In another recent development, scientists genetically altered a mouse to make a critter just two-thirds the regular size.

Where will all this end? Microscopic rodents the size of fleas? Parti-colored chinchillas, for that ultimate designer fur? Herds of miniature fluoro elephants flocking on the front lawn?

And then there are stem cells, the almost infinitely plastic precursors to all other cells. Again we witness the fantasy, put into practice through therapeutic cloning, that anything we want we can get by simply fiddling with the life code. In this case, rather than manipulate the code directly, scientists call upon the unique power of the body‘s primal ur-cells.

Let’s say I‘ve got liver cancer. One option is a transplant, but ideally I need a liver that’s genetically the same as my own. I could kill my identical twin and steal hers, but the best option is to grow a new one. That‘s where therapeutic cloning comes in. It begins with the same procedure that created Dolly the sheep: A cell is taken from my body and fused with a human egg to create an embryonic clone of me. There’s no intention, however, to let this clone mature; all we‘re interested in are the stem cells, which can be culled when the developing egg reaches around 200 cells in size. In principle, these can be triggered to become any type of cell, including liver cells, and because they’re genetically mine there‘s no risk of rejection.

Demonstrating the extraordinary potential of stem cells, one group of scientists has recently used these pluripotent marvels to treat stroke damage in rats; another group has generated from them the specialized dopamine-producing nerve cells that die off in Parkinson’s disease. It‘s not for nothing that Orrin Hatch and Strom Thurmond (68 and 99, respectively) have crossed party lines. Who wouldn’t want to cure strokes and cancer and Parkinson‘s?

But is this a path we really want to tread? Australian artist Patricia Piccinini has disturbingly evoked the can of worms opened up by such research. Her recent work Still Life With Stem Cells is a startlingly realistic sculpture of a little girl sitting on the floor playing with a group of stem cell–generated ”pets.“ Small, wrinkled, pre-fetal forms, they gambol around her innocently. More creepy even than the critters themselves is the girl’s loving gaze as she cradles one in her arms. Like the genetically engineered sexual ”toys“ in Rudy Rucker‘s sci-fi masterpiece Wetware, Piccinini’s pets alert us to the disturbing side of cellular malleability.

The apple has been plucked; we have eaten from the fruit of genetic knowledge. What limits will we, genetic and stem-cell engineers, now recognize? Where, in short, will we stop?

LA Weekly