The James Clayton Column: Do clones dream of romance and replica ducks?

In this week’s column, James meditates on the philosophical connection between water fowl, René Descartes, Bruce Lee and Blade Runner…


Please note: there’s a spoiler for something revealed early on in Never Let Me Go in this article.

If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, maybe it’s a clone of a duck.

Ergo, if it looks like a human and quacks like a human and has the volatile emotions of a human, maybe it’s a clone of a human.

(And if it says “ergo”, which no regular person says, perhaps it’s the Architect from The Matrix Reloaded, though he could also, of course, be a clone. Maybe he’s just a standard duplicate of an old man who accidently got locked in a room full of TV screens and in bored desperation decided he’d put on this pseudo-intellectual act and waffle nonsense to confuse Keanu Reeves. This is easier to understand than many of the theories that attempt to explain the overall meaning of the Matrix trilogy).

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Accepting that ducks, humans or, indeed, any creature might be a clone and not an authentic, we come to a whole set of head-spinning quandaries. First, though, we have to accept that cloning is science fact and not out-there science-fiction. Dolly the Sheep was a real organism produced through somatic cell nuclear transfer processes in Scotland a few years back.

Visions that once seemed farfetched and fanciful, like those of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example, now seem possible or even feasible in our modern world of advanced technology and artificial intelligence. This stuff isn’t impossible fantasy any more.

If a sheep can be cloned organically, then so could a duck, I suppose. Though would these animals know that they were a lamb or a duckling? Assuming that animals do have cognitive capabilities (I believe this to be the case. Just look at how smart Babe the sheep-pig is), would cloned creatures have any sense of being different or ‘special’ within their species?

No animals will be harmed or upset in the making of this column and I’ll be focusing on humans to avoid animal ethics debates and stick to surer territory. Plus, I am a human being. Or am I?

What if I’m not a human, but am actually a copy of one? Could it be that I’m a cyborg replica, an incredible virtual manifestation of some kind or a biologically realised reproduction? How would I know that I’m not a genuine article? What’s the definitive feature that makes me, or anybody, human?

“I think, therefore I am” says René Descartes, but the ‘Father of Modern Philosophy’ never confronted a computer or experienced the artificial intelligences that power and prop up the present day. You think, therefore you exist, maybe, but it doesn’t make you human. For all we know, René could have been a robot. (“They are no match for Droid-Descartes”)

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To find answers, it may be helpful to heed the philosophical words of Bruce Lee: “Don’t think, feel.” Perhaps being human is about qualities of empathy and the ability to feel, things like the way we respond to our sensory perception when prompted by stimuli. This is the case in Invasion Of The Body Snatchers where the alien pod people are identified through their cold lack of feeling and the absence of individual personality.

I share Bruce Lee’s pain when he learns of his master’s murder. I run through the whole emotional spectrum and experience an array of memories and nostalgic associations when I watch a Star Wars movie. I come in from the cold to a hot drink and appreciate both the physical and psychological warmth it offers, as well as the taste. Do these things make me human, or just a movie geek tea freak?

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is arguably the best film to touch upon these immense, existential issues. To recap, the replicants that Rick Deckard pursues and ‘retires’ are renegade androids manufactured by the Tyrell Corporation and are artificially crafted beings with a built-in 5-year life span.

Yet, the Tyrell slogan of ‘More Human Than Human’ and the poetically sensitive Roy Batty’s tears in the rain raise questions and blur boundaries. Likewise, Rachael is revealed to be an android whose memories are implants, though she believes herself to be human and in love with Deckard.

Is Deckard himself a human or a replicant? Is playing the piano and dreaming of unicorns a sure indication that you’re a genuine animal and not a construct programmed with culture and identity by some external creator?

Similar soul searching is central to recent release, Never Let Me Go, though Mark Romanek’s adaptation of the Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel delves even deeper and consequently makes for a disquieting, affecting motion picture.

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Instead of the sci-fi fittings of, say, Blade Runner, the film’s backdrop is a very recognisable Britain of posh boarding schools and country cottages. In spite of this, it’s still a movie about replica humans, though Never Let Me Go deftly uses this as subtle contextual backdrop on which to explore the idea of being human.

As clones carefully raised and conditioned for a life of three organ donations before ‘completion’, the characters played by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley are forced to face their mortality and their status as ‘non-humans’.

They are thinking, feeling, living, loving, biologically identical beings, but they aren’t categorised as ‘human’, because they’ve been bred for a purpose as part of a systematic process and have been specially separated as spare parts.

These disposable people figure the only way they can exert their own free will and extend life a little longer is by proving they have a soul. In Never Let Me Go, the protagonists reckon that strong romantic relationships and the ability to produce artwork attest to characteristics like compassion and creativity.

It’s debatable whether that proves anything, though, when you’re dealing with the abstract notion of a soul and a controlling system that already has plans for you.

The truth is that the troubling questions about human identity raised in Never Let Me Go apply to the audience off-screen. Could you honestly show that you had a soul if challenged? Human behaviours and norms can be mimicked (copied from TV or films, for example), memories are unreliable and emotions can be affected.

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If we can be physically imitated and if technology can fulfil all the functions, what’s the distinctive essence of the authentic human? Really, how do you know you’re human?

We could just be replicate creatures, conditioned by overarching systems and culture that confine us in an insular existence of tragic ignorance, just like ducks in a pond. If it acts like a duck…

James’ previous column can be found here.

You can reach James on his Twitter feed here, see his film cartoons here and more sketches here.

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