Congress is currently working up a list of dreadful penalties for anyone who even attempts human cloning, bandying about threats of 10-year prison terms and ruinous fines. The message to scientists is simple: create new life and you forfeit your own.

Facing such severe threats, who would be crazy enough to attempt human cloning? The answer: a group of people who believe humans were created by space aliens.

That is the article of faith at the base of the “Raelian” cult, founded in the 1970s (of course) by a French chemist who claimed to experience a revelation — brought to him by aliens, not angels — telling him that extraterrestrials had used cloning and genetic engineering to create humans. In the Raelian theology, mankind has a duty to repeat that feat. Thus, a group of Raelians started a company called Clonaid, which claims to be on the cutting edge of cloning research and now claims to have created two cloned human babies.

There are many reasons to doubt that claim, yet it raises an important question: why have we abandoned the aggressive pursuit of scientific progress to a bunch of loonies?

Only a few legitimate scientists have ventured into research to discover a reliable process for cloning human beings. Partly, scientists have been scared off by the prospect that this research will be made illegal in America and Europe. Why push forward the frontiers of technology when your reward is likely to be a prison term? But there is also a deeper issue: science and technology are languishing from a lack of moral support.

“Bioethics,” the field that is supposed to examine the moral issues involved in biotechnology, is a perverse field that largely condemns the science it studies. Its most vocal advocates are divided among the religionists of the right, who condemn genetic engineering as “playing God,” and the religionists of the left, environmentalists who condemn mankind for transgressions against their god, “Nature.”

Both sides are agreed in their portrait of the biotech pioneer: a crazed Dr. Frankenstein type, drunk with hubris and heedless of the consequences of his work. The unhinged lunatic is the kind of person they dream up, incongruously, as their representative of science and reason. The Raelians fit this mold, so the opponents of biotechnology have been quick to take Clonaid’s claims seriously, using the specter of oddball cultists to drum up support for a cloning ban.

In reality, the Raelians have very little to do with actual science. Respected scientists doubt that Clonaid has much more expertise or equipment than a high-school chemistry lab, and their recent cloning claim is looking more and more like a hoax. Michael Guillen, a science reporter who gathered a team of independent researchers to verify Clonaid’s assertions, was forced to abandon the project on Monday because the Raelians reneged on their promise to cooperate. The Raelian cloning claim is now being dismissed as a fraudulent publicity grab, cynically targeted for the slow news week of the Christmas holiday.

I suspect that the Raelians are not primarily concerned about external publicity — which will be largely negative, anyway. Their cloning claim is probably meant for internal consumption. If their whole religion is based on the idea that its followers should be masters of cloning and genetic engineering, what better way to back that up than by claiming to be the first to clone a human? Cult insiders can be counted on not to be too fastidious about seeking independent verification. The Clonaid hoax is just another one of the lies religious movements tell their followers to prop up their faith. It is the Raelian equivalent of the Shroud of Turin — and has just as much to do with a genuine regard for science.

The Raelians can be dismissed with a laugh, but actual cloning is neither a trivial nor a capricious undertaking. The science of cloning promises real benefits, from a way to help infertile couples have children to the use of “therapeutic” cloning to grow replacement organs. But now the real scientists who are working on cloning fear being lumped in with the loonies — and targeted by the same punitive legislation.

The blame for this rests, not with the Raelians, but with the commentators and so-called experts on ethics who refuse to make any distinction between the motives or results of the real scientists and those of the kooky religious frauds — and they are working hard to keep the rest of us from telling the difference.

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Robert W Tracinski

Robert Tracinski was a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute from 2000 to 2004. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Mr. Tracinski is editor and publisher of The Intellectual Activist and TIADaily, which offer daily news and analysis from a pro-reason, pro-individualist perspective. To receive a free 30-day trial of the TIA Daily and a FREE pdf issue of the Intellectual Activist please go to TIADaily.com and enter your email address.