Human Cloning: Terminology Troubles

                In a century in which scientific and technological advances are prevalent, we are discovering that two realms previously considered discrete are actually inextricably intertwined: science and language. Actually, once considered, it seems illogical that the two should have ever been thought unrelated or opposite. Language is fundamental to humanity and defines every part of his existence.

                While many people consider the language of science to be jargon- technical and specific- one actually finds scientists and science teachers employing ambiguous and casual language. In science classes, imprecise terms often describe scientific processes: cells “squish” through veins, electrons “zoom around” in orbitals, DNA is a “ladderlike” structure. In fact, science is not as technical and precise as the rigid scientific methods that children memorize in grade school and scientists are not cold, robotic men in white lab coats but rather, are human people who use language as much as the rest of us.

                Scientific processes and structures can often be described only through models. In this way, words are employed as symbols to convey scientific knowledge just as words function as symbols to express the world we perceive. “Squirrel” is a symbol that evokes images of the furry, scampering, nut-consuming rodent in the same way that “DNA ladder” is a symbol connoting the idea of a microscopic genome. Even on this very fundamental level, the marriage of language and science is evident.

                Recently, however, language is carving a new role in the realm of science. As contentious issues such as human cloning and stem cell research have arisen in the scientific field, there has been a call for language to better understand and resolve these divisive issues.  Repeatedly, councils and individuals have highlighted the need for debate as new technologies become possible. This is an overt role of language in science: the power that the spoken word and communication have in defining and shaping scientific discoveries and their implications for society.

                Language also plays a powerful role in how scientists and the media present discoveries and ethical issues to the public. The President’s Council on Bioethics (available at http://www.bioethics.gov/reports/cloningreport/execsummary.html)  acknowledges the importance of language and this trouble with terminology early in their report on human cloning, stating:

“There is today much confusion about the terms used to discuss human cloning, regarding both the activity involved and the entities that result. The Council stresses the importance of striving not only for accuracy but also for fairness, especially because the choice of terms can decisively affect the way questions are posed, and hence how answers are given.”

Although the Council gives this caveat and exercises caution in its use of language, troubles of terminology still arise throughout the report. Even in setting down a simple definition for the process of “cloning-for-biomedical-research”, the Council must make decisions that oversimplify the issue and divide the public. For example, the definition of “cloning-for-biomedical-research” in the report reads, “Production of a cloned human embryo, formed for the (proximate) purpose of using it in research or for extracting its stem cells…” Here, even before the Council further discusses the issue and before the report presents various viewpoints on ethical issues, a conscious choice has been made in defining the issue. In addressing the morality of stem cell research, many opponents claim that the embryo is a human person. The Council’s definition, however, has already eliminated that possibility by describing the embryo in terms of the neutral, third-person pronoun: “it”. Here, language becomes a factor that limits the expression of all possible viewpoints on the issue. In order to use a pronoun to describe an embryo, a choice must be made: either ‘he’ or ‘it’. Either way, one viewpoint on the issue of human cloning will be negated. The embryo must either be described as a person, ‘he’ or as a lifeless object, ‘it’. Before an open debate has even begun, language has been used (either consciously or subconsciously) to define the issue and to sway public opinion.

Later in the article, another example of the role of language in defining scientific processes appears. When describing the issues of in vitro fertilization and human cloning, questions arise as to whether these processes will define a person’s identity. It seemed almost ironic when, a few paragraphs later, the report describes the first case of IVF:

“The birth of Louise Brown in 1978, the first baby conceived through in vitro fertilization (IVF), was also an important milestone…”

Here, the very grammar of the sentence reflects the gravity of the identity issue. In this sentence, an appositive describes and identifies a subject. Louise Brown is the subject, and she is defined and identified by the appositive “the first baby conceived through in vitro fertilization (IVF)”. Although Louise Brown certainly has an identity apart from her mode of conception, this report chooses to identify the person Louise Brown as a baby conceived through IVF. Ironically, the assertion that IVF or cloning will not define a person’s identity is negated by a simple appositive in the report which does just that.

These few examples from a single report on cloning reflect the important role of language in science. As we attempt to define contentious scientific issues and technologies in the future, a very important consideration must be given to the language with which we define the issues and resulting policies. Language is an essential part of every aspect of life, and it will continue to become even more important as we struggle to define ourselves as humans in the midst of dizzying scientific progress. Let us not ignore the troubles of terminology, for if we do, we will have ignored the ethical and moral issues themselves.

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~ by kellyb243 on January 20, 2008.

2 Responses to “Human Cloning: Terminology Troubles”

  1. A very interesting point! There has been much speculation about the power of language to shape our perceptions, not only of science but of reality as a whole. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, for example, argues that language shapes a person’s understanding of the world. The pattern of language shapes a pattern of behavior. Without a word for a concept, action, or object, an individual simply cannot conceive of it. thus, we can never accurately and fully express the world through language because language itself is inadequate. While this hypothesis has been hotly debated, the importance and influence of language is certainly evident, as you point out, especially in as delicate an issue as this.

    -Anna Musun-Miller.

  2. I agree with Anna. You identify a crucial feature of scientific practice.

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