“Genetic Engineering” (SB 4.14.43)
Does biological cloning create life, or simply meddle with it? Does a living cell have a soul? Thompson considers these and several other classic metaphysical questions, while exploring topical references to Jurassic Park, computer viruses, original sin, and the transmigration of the soul.
TRANSCRIPT: Srimad-Bhagavatam, Canto 4, Chapter 14, Text 43. “Genetic Engineering.” Alachua - 2000 / (028)
After making a decision, the saintly persons and sages churned the thighs of the dead body of King Vena with great force and according to a specific method. As a result of this churning, a dwarf-like person was born from King Vena's body.
Purport by Srila Prabhupada:
That a person was born by the churning of the thighs of King Vena proves that the spirit soul is individual and separate from the body. The great sages and saintly persons could beget another person from the body of the dead King Vena, but it was not possible for them to bring King Vena back to life. King Vena was gone, and certainly he had taken another body. The saintly persons and sages were only concerned with the body of Vena because it was a result of the seminal succession in the family of Mahārāja Dhruva. Consequently, the ingredients by which another body could be produced were there in the body of King Vena. By a certain process, when the thighs of the dead body were churned, another body came out. Although dead, the body of King Vena was preserved by drugs and by mantras chanted by King Vena’s mother. In this way the ingredients for the production of another body were there. When the body of the person named Bāhuka came out of the dead body of King Vena, it was really not very astonishing. It was simply a question of knowing how to do it. From the semen of one body, another body is produced, and the life symptoms are visible due to the soul’s taking shelter of this body. One should not think that it was impossible for another body to come out of the dead body of Mahārāja Vena. This was performed by the skillful action of the sages.
So, the mystery of producing a body from the thighs of Mahārāja Vena! Of course, this has been compared to the process of cloning. So, I'll say a little bit about that. You could say that this is the Bhāgavatam's version of Jurassic Park. So, the idea there of course was that if you could get a hold of the DNA of a dinosaur, perhaps preserved in amber in the body of a mosquito that had bitten the dinosaur, then in principle, you can recreate the dinosaur and bring dinosaurs back to life again. This was the idea. Of course, not too many people think that this can be done with dinosaurs. Although I understand someone is trying to do it with woolly mammoths, because dead bodies of mammoths that are not decayed are sometimes found up in Siberia. So the idea is that if you can get some DNA from the dead body and appropriately manipulate it you can produce a new mammoth in this case.
Cloning however, as it exists at present, is something far less ambitious in scope. Basically for cloning you need to have a living cell from the body of some organism, let's say it's a human being. The idea is that every cell in the body has the DNA for the entire body, the hereditary material. So if you can take a cell from anywhere in a person's body and trick that cell into thinking that it's a fertilized egg cell, then it will grow to form an embryo and you'll have a new body which has exactly the same hereditary material as the old one. And so it should, in principle, look the same or be the same. According to the principle that the living being is simply the body, one would have to conclude that the cloned body is identical to the body of the original person except, of course, for changes brought about by environmental circumstances.
So the process of cloning... Well the way it works at present is you take an egg cell from a female and then replace the nucleus of the egg cell with a nucleus of the cell in the body that you want to clone. And once that nucleus is inside an egg cell it thinks, “Well, this is a fertilized egg.” So, it then proceeds to divide and form an embryo. That's the idea, and I understand they have to repeat the process maybe a hundred times or so before one takes and they actually are able to clone a sheep or a frog or something like that. But they're working on the technology; and of course, ultimately, the idea will be to clone the perfect soldier so that you can create armies of zombies with the appropriate qualities of obedience and bravery and so forth.
So in any case, in the story of King Vena... of course, King Vena was already dead so it makes it a little bit more difficult to clone him. And there's the curious phenomenon of this person `Bāhuka.’ There seems to be a doctrine of heredity in this story. Basically, the sages wanted to get offspring from the body of King Vena because of his heredity, because he was in the line of Mahārāja Dhruva. And so this would seem to indicate that he had good genes. So the problem, though, was that his genes were contaminated by admixture from his mother. It seems that Vena was the son of Mahārāja Anga, who is in the line of Dhruva, but his mother Sunīthā was the daughter of death personified. So by heredity, Vena was a very vicious and cruel person. Even as a young child, he used to kill his playmates just for the fun of it. And of course, he loved killing and torturing animals and so forth. And then of course when he became King, he was another Ivan the Terrible or Hitler or something like that. He engaged in greatly cruel activities. The indication is that this had something to do with his heredity, interestingly enough.
So can it be that a person could inherit certain personal tendencies towards sinful activities and so forth? Is there such a thing as inheritance of sin? This, of course, is a Christian concept. The idea is that everyone has inherited the original sin of Adam and Eve when they ate the forbidden fruit. So, the Bhāgavatam seems to suggest here that there's some principle of inheritance involved. However, the method of dealing with it was a little bit curious. If you look at the modern biochemical techniques, you can imagine that if there were some genes that had a bad effect in the total genome, that the scientists would just cut those genes out using some molecular methods and then they would be left with the good genes.
But in this case, the sages used a more dramatic technique. They produced another complete body of a living person and the story goes that this Bāhuka carried off, or somehow embodied, the sinful aspects of Vena – or at least to some extent. Bāhuka, first of all, had politically incorrect facial features. This is a dangerous part of the Bhāgavatam because Bāhuka had black skin, a very flat nose and he was extremely short with very short legs. But fortunately for the story he had copper colored hair, and I don't think we know anybody like that. So we are saved from political incorrectness in this story. But it's described that Bāhuka went to found the society of Naisadas. Now when Bāhuka came to life he asked the sages, "What shall I do?" And they said, "Sit down," which was niṣāda. So he became a Naiṣāda – a person who's been ordered to sit down. And these Naiṣādas became a sort of society of thieves and plunderers and hunters who were required to live out in the remote hill country and in the forests.
So, it's an interesting story because it mentions in particular that Bāhuka was obedient. He immediately did what the sages told him to do. So, he didn't seem to exhibit the character of Vena. It's not stated anywhere that he was cruel and went around killing people the way Vena had done. So, it would appear as though the sinful qualities in Vena were transformed in some way and deposited in this being named Bāhuka. So, this suggests another theory concerning the sinful actions. Namely that these were some sort of subtle programming that existed within the body of Vena. So one can make an analogy to subtle programming.
Consider a computer virus. So you have your computer, its hardware and so on, and inadvertently you download something on the internet which, when you open a certain file, becomes activated and then it erases your hard disk, or something like that. So, what is this computer virus? Well, it's not made of any solid physical substance. It's not hardware. It's what is called software, but really what it consists of is just a pattern of electronic pulses which have the effect of causing the computer to destroy itself.
So one can make an analogy then to sinful reactions in the body of a living being as being some kind of subtle pattern of programming which takes action within the body of that being and produces various deleterious effects. So this would be a sinful reaction. So, the idea then would be that by committing sins you somehow bring about the activation of these kinds of programs and then the programs are there. And it may be a long time before the programs take action but nonetheless they're there, and in due course of time they will execute and you will be suitably afflicted then by these sinful reactions.
So according to this idea, when the body of Bāhuka was produced, this subtle programming that was lodged in the body of Vena got transferred to the body of Bāhuka and so he had to suffer the sinful reactions. Not only that, but it appears as though his entire race had to suffer the sinful reactions, which sounds again like the story of the original sin of Adam and Eve. So this is a concept then, a little bit different from the idea of physical heredity by DNA and so forth. It would seem some kind of subtle programming pattern might be passed from one generation to another. So that there is another possibility. So, those are some observations on Bāhuka.
Of course in the next phase, two beings were produced by churning the arms of King Vena. Now that his sinful reactions were eliminated and the remaining bodily substance was supposedly pure, a new person was created, actually two persons: male and female. This would be a little bit difficult to do by cloning. I guess in principle from a male body you could produce a female just by making two copies of the X chromosome. The whole idea is that in a female there are two X chromosomes and in a male there's an X and a Y. So I suppose you could make two copies of the X chromosome and you would be able to get a female.
Of course, if you did that there'd be the problem of recessive genes, which might not be a problem in this case. Namely, if two chromosomes are identical and there's a recessive gene that has some bad effect, then it won't be masked by a dominant gene on the other chromosome. And so that deleterious effect will be manifest. This is the reason that, when close relatives like brother and sister have children, very often they have genetic defects due to the fact that they wind up with the same genes on each of a pair of chromosomes. So, in any case, two personalities were produced, Pṛthu and Arci, and they were expansions of Lord Viṣṇu and Lakṣmī, it is stated. So these were, of course, not viṣṇu-tattva. They were āveśa expansions of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. So, these persons were produced from the body of Mahārāja Vena and they exhibited godly characteristics and so on.
The story of Pṛthu, by the way, is interesting. Pṛthu is described as the creator of organized city life and the bringer of agriculture, which of course leads to the question of exactly what sort of kingdom was there before since you had King Vena and King Aṇga and so forth.
So, kingdoms at that stage must have been organized differently. Then later on, because Pṛthu inaugurated organized city life. So, it's interesting that when the Greeks came to India under Alexander the Great, they apparently referred to or learned about Pṛthu and identified him with Dionysus. When the Greeks came to India, they had a rather, it would seem, unrealistic idea of what the Indian people worshipped. They maintained that the Indian people worshipped Heracles and Dionysus and one would immediately think, well, whatever they were worshiping in India, it couldn't have been Heracles and Dionysus. Maybe the Greeks never really did leave home after all. But it would appear that the Hercules that they spoke of was Kṛṣṇa.
Apparently the Greeks heard about Kṛṣṇa as being a person who is extremely powerful, had enormous strength and amongst other things, as a person who had beaten up a multi-headed serpent. So Hercules was famous for having very great strength and he also beat up a serpent called the Hydra which had many heads. That must have been a serpent that lived in the water also, just like Kaliya, since his name was Hydra, which means water. So apparently the Greeks identified Kṛṣṇa with Hercules.
So, it was a little bit more difficult to figure out who they had in mind as Dionysus, but it seems that at one point it was stated that Dionysus was famous for having been born from the thigh of his father. And that's pretty close to the story of Pṛthu being born from King Vena. Of course, there are a couple of additional steps there with Bāhuka and Pṛthu ultimately being born from the arms. But the story is pretty close and apparently, Dionysus was famous as the creator of Agriculture and the bringer of organized town and city life in the Greek tradition. So, it would seem there may even be some connection between the stories of Dionysus and Pṛthu. But anyway, apparently the Greeks had Pṛthu in mind when they went to India under Alexander the Great.
So anyway, I'll stop there. Are there any questions, comments? Yeah?
Answer: Ah, the question of the living cell: Does a living cell have a separate soul? Prabhupada was asked that question several times and he gave different answers depending on how the question was put to him. And so the possibility may be that a cell may or may not have a soul depending on the circumstances of the cell. In one place cells were described to Prabhupada as being like bricks in a wall. These would be like epithelial cells in the skin. And he said, well. “No.” The bricks of the apartment are not living beings. The person who lives in the apartment is the actual living being. So in this sense, the cells would be like bricks and so the body would be like the apartment in which there's one soul.
But on other occasions, it was pointed out to him that cells were capable of independent existence. Most bodily cells can be made to live and reproduce in a culture medium; so you can take a cell from your skin and put it in a suitable medium with nutrients and so forth and it will divide and continue to grow. In fact, some cells outlive the person from whom they came originally.
This is true in particular of cancer cells. Of course, cancer cells have a runaway tendency to reproduce. They are sort of like cells that mutinied within the body. So, there are lines of cancer cells that have lived long after the body of the person who they were originally taken from. So it would appear that they must be living entities and therefore they must have souls. And it would seem logically then that when a cell divides and becomes two cells another soul has to be brought in. Of course, when Bāhuka was produced, one would have to say that a soul for Bāhuka had to be introduced also. Of course the same thing comes up with plants. If you take a shoot from a tree and plant it, the new tree springs up. Then one would have to argue that a new soul was imported into that shoot. So, anything else? Yeah?
A: Well the question is, could you perhaps produce a Bāhuka from one of our bodies to carry off the sinful reactions so then we would be very pure and elevated and so forth? I don't know. But of course, the point that was raised was that Mahārāja Vena came in a very exalted family and apparently genes do count. His body had very high class genes, let's say. And so the only problem was that these had been contaminated by these sinful reactions that had come from some source, apparently originally Vena's mother. So the question is: “If you took one of these modern day Kali-yuga bodies, would you be able to also eliminate the negative elements and have left over something that was positive?”Hopefully, you could make some improvement. Of course, would this be fair to the person playing the role of Bāhuka? Let's say you clone a person and you produce a whole group of really sinful horrible people and you clone one last time you get somebody who's really very good. So anyway... Yeah?
A: It would appear so. Yeah, you might ask, “Well, what became of Vena's killer tendency?” Because he was a vicious killer, even from childhood. So, that didn't even manifest in Bāhuka, so where did that go? Apparently it was somehow transformed into something less harmful.
A: Yeah. Various possibilities. Yeah?
A: I have no indication that it's a fake. And in principle, it should be possible because it happens by accident all the time with identical twins. Because basically what happens in the case of identical twins is that the egg cell divides once and somehow the two cells get dislodged and then each one separately forms an embryo. And these are considered to be genetically identical and indeed typically they look very similar and may even have similar behavioral traits.
It may be worth mentioning however that in the case of identical twins, there are similarities that seem to go far beyond what you could explain by genetics. Because there are very curious stories; for example, two identical twins are separated in very early childhood, brought up in different parts of the country by completely different families who don't know each other. And then lo and behold, it turns out that each twin becomes a fireman, each one grows a mustache that looks a certain way, each one has a dog named Ralph. And not only that, the dog in each case is the same kind of dog. So you think, wait a minute. I don't think the person could have had genes for having a dog named Ralph. So it would seem that somehow some kind of subtle programming is also inherited by both twins, something that you couldn't explain just in terms of DNA. So there's probably more to this whole business than DNA.
And, of course, one may say, “Well, the scientists don't have the knowledge or power to really create life.” But they're not creating life, they're just meddling with it. That's the thing. Of course, now that they're doing genetic engineering and splicing genes from one organism to another, they are coming closer and closer to the point of trying to play God. So, who knows what's going to happen now with transgenic crops. I mean you could make a tomato with a hemoglobin gene spliced into it and have a tomato that produced blood or something like that. So, it remains to be seen what the outcome of all this will be. One more question.
A: Well, the egg is one cell.
A: Namely, which one gets to be the real soul?
A: Yeah. Well of course, then consider how many sperm cells there are because each one of them has a soul, in which case only one of the souls makes it. And of course if each cell in the body has a soul, then as that egg cell divides and subdivides, two, four, eight, sixteen and so on and so forth, then you have to suppose that more and more souls keep coming in to occupy those cells. And you have a bit of a problem of logistics in transferring souls. And perhaps it happens like that. It may be that one of the cells has a level of consciousness suitable for being the soul of a... I mean one of… I keep saying cell instead of soul. One of the souls has the karma for being the soul of a human body and other souls that are there have the karma for being souls on a cellular level, perhaps. One would have to suppose something like that.