I love dogs. I really, really love dogs. I sleep with my dog. I cook for my dog. Here is a picture of my dog.
Cute, right? So please take what I am going to say fully in the context of my love for dogs.
Dogs are not people.
Don’t @ me.
Yes, the headlines are true: Barbara Streisand has cloned her dog. In an interview with Variety and later in a statement in the New York Times, Streisand revealed that her new puppies, Miss Violet and Miss Scarlett, were produced using genetic material from cells in the mouth and stomach of her fluffy white Coton de Tulear, Samantha, who died last year.
Now you may find this icky. Almost anything novel that involves tinkering with the machinery of life provokes a natural and universal feeling of ickiness. And ickiness is a feeling that should be taken seriously. Like pain, it is there to warn you. Like pain, it can signal that something has gone awry, or it may merely represent the achy aftereffects of exercising new muscles. Should we respect this ickiness as a warning sign or just push through it? That’s a question worth thinking about, and the decision should not be based on a simple “is-it-weird?” test.
Plenty of people think it is weird, that’s clear. Critics have not been shy about expressing their disapproval since the news broke. Fox News documented an entire collection of “adopt don’t clone” complaints on Twitter. A PETA spokeswoman agreed, telling the NY Post that cloning was unacceptable when adoptable dogs languish in shelters. But is this logic in any way unique to cloning? Cloning produces a vanishingly small number of highly sought-after dogs; it is the reverse of a puppy mill. Barbara Streisand could choose to adopt a rescue dog, but is it fair to make that a demand? It’s not practical to solve the problem of pet homelessness one celebrity adoption at a time.
There were other complaints. A columnist for the Guardian ghoulishly insisted that one of the main benefits of pet ownership was learning to deal with death. “Little by little, pets equip you with the tools to deal with grief.” Streisand, he intuited, was failing to grieve properly for her original dog.
Honestly, Ted Williams’ children got less grief when they decided to freeze the head of the Baseball Hall of Famer.
Sure, Streisand could have donated the more than $50,000 she spent on preserving her beloved pet to a worthy charity. But that is equally true of every penny spent on caviar and Manolo Blahniks by every rich person in the world.
Fun fact: the first cloned mammal was a sheep named Dolly, whose birth in 1996 launched a thousand “Hello Dolly” headlines, almost as though Streisand’s use of the technology had been foreseen. But the name was actually a less subtle reference to the anatomy of another musical icon, Dolly Parton, in acknowledgement of the mammary gland cell that provided the DNA used to create Dolly-the-sheep.
Those concerned about cloning have complained that it devalues the individual, much as replication devalues lithographs or, say, currency. And since individuality is a cardinal feature of humans, as well as snowflakes, the loss of it is a scary thought — for people. Dogs, on the other hand, are charmingly predictable. There is nothing more delightful than the lumbering bulldoggishness of the bulldog, and the good-will-to-all dimwitted cheer of the Labrador retriever.
In any case, clones are not perfect replicas of their DNA donors. They are often described as the equivalent of identical twins. But they share less than identical twins, who come from a single egg and develop in the same uterus, swimming in the same amniotic fluid. Of course, even identical twins are not exactly identical because chance plays an important role in development. The impact of happenstance, of interest to neither the environmentalists nor the geneticists, is often overlooked. And yet, in development as in life, being in the right place at the right time — or the wrong place at the wrong time — can be crucial.
How closely Miss Violet and Miss Scarlett resemble their DNA donor remains to be seen, according to their new mommy. In her interview in Variety, Streisand said that she was still waiting to discover if they possessed the same “brown eyes and seriousness” as her beloved Samantha. As a geneticist, I would bet on the eyes over the seriousness, because eyes, though they may be the windows to the soul, still, like most windows, conform pretty strictly to manufacturer’s standards. Personality, not so much.
In 2008, the New York Times ran a very similar story about a man who produced two clones of his mother’s dog in an effort to market his dog cloning business. Inconveniently, however, his mother pronounced the new dogs and the original “not at all alike.” In fact, she rejected the new dogs, adding that “in looks, they are a little bit, of course. But, I mean, the puppy is delicate and aggressive. Missy was robust and completely calm.”
“It’s kind of weird,” said her son, with what can only imagine was bitterness, “they spent ten years waiting for this to happen and then they don’t even want the dogs living with them.”
If Streisand is similarly disappointed, what will be the harm? She will have wasted some money. Viagen Pets, the Texas-based company that produced the puppies, charges $1600 to preserve the donor’s DNA, and $50,000 to use the sample to produce clones.
By the way, it’s $25,000 to clone a cat, which you can — should you wish — interpret as the final word on the relative value of cats and dogs. But since some of my nearest and dearest are cat lovers, I will add that dogs have proved to be more of a technical challenge than cats so maybe that’s the reason.
Either way, it’s a lot of money to me and not so much to the Barbara Streisands of the world. Rich people gonna do rich people things. The odds that a $50,000 pup will end up languishing in a shelter seem low. As a societal problem, woman clones dog is right up there with man bites dog. A larger point is that not everything that seems icky turns out to be a big deal. Sometimes things that seem icky turn out to be 8-pound bundles of fluff.