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Addressing Contemporary Issues in the High School — The Example of Human Cloning

Craig Holdrege

This article was originally published in Renewal, a journal for Waldorf Education (Fall/Winter 2000).

Today's youth meet myriad important questions, theories, and problems that are related to specialized fields of scientific inquiry:

  • Did the universe arise out of a primeval 'big bang'?
  • Do our thoughts and emotions reside in the brain?
  • Can and should human beings be cloned?
  • Is global warming actually occurring, or is it only a theory?

Once we begin to investigate any of these questions, we enter a labyrinth of fact and theory that could involve years of study. Entering this level of detail cannot be the aim of high school education. And yet, our students want to deal with such issues and we must address them. The question is, how? Is it possible for the non-specialist to form judgments about issues involving a high degree of specialized knowledge?

The more specialized our culture and its problems, the more critical this question becomes. If the generalist can only have "opinions," surrendering the domain of "knowledge" to the specialist, the tendency also increases to hand over the competency in decision-making to the specialist.

A major factor in the defeat of a bill to ban human cloning in the U.S. Senate in 1998 was the opposition of scientists, who argued that scientific progress would be stopped by such a law. This is a case of a party arguing for its own perpetuation-understandable, but not to the point. The question of human cloning involves much more than technical considerations. It involves our overall conceptions of humanity and of human interactions. In such questions wisdom is needed, not specialized knowledge. Wisdom is based on rich, lived experience that has been internalized and clarified by the light of thought. Wisdom means gaining an overview, yet remaining connected with life's concreteness. Wisdom is flexible and creative.

We can cultivate the roots of later wisdom in dealing with complex issues when we avoid getting stuck in the details and gain a vantage point that allows us to see the details in a larger context. The holistic, phenomena-centered approach to science teaching in the Waldorf high school has a key place in this task. This essay is an attempt to show the fruits of this approach using the concrete example of the question of human cloning.

When Richard Seed announced in January 1998 that he intended to clone a human being, I was teaching a biology block in the ninth grade. The students asked whether I thought he could and would do it. Would he really be able to create of copy of some one? Should he be allowed to proceed? I had in no way planned to address the issue of cloning in this block, but the media event and the students' questions led me to change my course. In fact, I realized that exactly the subject matter we were dealing with at the time provided an excellent basis to discuss cloning.

We were considering the factors that influence the development of the human body after birth, focusing on the skeletal system. When a child is born, it is in an open and unfinished state, both physically and mentally. How does the spine, for example, develop its wonderful structure that helps us to stand, sit, twist, climb, and swim, as well as to express our state of being, our moods, and our momentary feelings? (Imagine the slouched-over, saddened teenager who has just suffered through the break up of a relationship, or the strutting, head-held-high sophomore, who knows "I'm somebody.")

The spine of an adult, viewed from the side, has pronounced curvatures, which are related to our upright posture and essential to flexibility in all types of movement, including breathing. Anatomists speak of the cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and sacral curves (see figure 1). In contrast, the newborn's spine is very flexible, it can form half-circle arches forwards and backwards. When the newborn lies, the spine is fairly straight and there is only a hint of the curves we see in the adult. The individual vertebrae are fairly uniform in size and shape in the newborn, differing dramatically from the adult form (see figure 2). The development of the spine is therefore not just a matter of growth, but of transformation and sculpting.

[insert fig. 1 and 2 about here]

This process takes many years. The curve in the neck begins to form at about three to four months when the infant begins to hold its own head and lift its head when lying. Usually around six months a child can sit upright, with a remarkably straight back, for long periods of time-children at this age never slouch. In the sitting position, the child carries and balances the full weight of the proportionally large head with the neck and rest of the spine. The cervical (neck) curve becomes more structured (the form of the vertebrae actually changes), the thoracic curve becomes more pronounced, and the lumbar curve begins to develop.

Around its first birthday the child pulls itself to its feet to stand, walk and fall. The upright posture that began in sitting is now attained with the whole body. When the child begins to stand and walk, the spine is not the stable, yet shock-absorbing column that is most adequate for the upright posture. The necessary structural changes occur within the context of standing and moving in gravity. The bodies of the lower (lumbar) vertebrae, which carry much more weight than the neck vertebrae, become correspondingly larger. The sacral vertebrae fuse, contributing to the stability of the pelvic girdle. The thoracic (rib-carrying) vertebrae become more tightly interlocked.

With the attainment of uprightness whole new possibilities of movement open up, bringing new demands on coordination: running, jumping, skipping, throwing, hanging, and climbing. All these movements encourage muscle development, which in turn stimulates bone growth and sculpting. By the time a child enters first grade, the four curves of the spine are all quite pronounced. The spine continues to grow and with the adolescent growth spurt a last developmental reforming occurs, especially in relation to the overall increase in bone and muscle tissue.

This description shows that the spine develops within the context of its usage-which is the case for all other features of the body, each in its own unique way. The body is not simply given; the four curves of the spine are not inherited. The development of the body depends on how we live in and model what is given through inheritance. Students are always impressed by the fact that they are more than products of the dichotomy of heredity and environment.

As one ninth grader beautifully stated, "This begins to show us that we are not because of our body, but our body is because of us. We can see that we partially have the bodies we do because of our environment (if one is not allowed to freely run around, it will affect bone development), and lastly because of our habits and likes."

After discussing such phenomena and the conditions of human development, I asked the students: If scientists cloned a human being, would he or she be a "copy" of his or her progenitor? A resounding "NO" arose from the class. Because they had seen a full-toned spectrum of what constitutes development, they also could see through the emptiness and inappropriateness of the term "copy."

Even if two people are virtually identical genetically, as would be the case in cloning and is the case with monozygotic ("identical") twins, the individuals themselves are not. The way they relate to their bodies and their environment, and, reciprocally, the way their physical and human environment relate to them, is in each case individual and unique. Nevertheless, in the case of monozygotic twins "sameness" is often urged upon them by others, as the biologist Richard Lewontin describes:

…Even the fingerprints of identical twins are not identical. Their temperaments, mental processes, abilities, life choices, disease histories, and deaths certainly differ despite the determined efforts of many parents to enforce as great a similarity as possible. Frequently twins are given names with the same initial letter, dressed identically with identical hair arrangements, and given the same books, toys, and training. There are twin conventions at which prizes are offered for the most similar pairs. While identical genes do indeed contribute to a similarity between them, it is the pathological compulsion of their parents to create an inhuman identity between them that is most threatening to the individuality of genetically identical individuals. (Lewontin, 1997)

Such pressure can also lead to rebellion, with each identical twin forcefully asserting his or her own will to be recognized as an individual.

The formula "clone = copy" is a specter. It is based upon misconceptions and conjures up two polar opposite reactions. On the one side: the illusory vision of power to create organisms at will, becoming God-like in creating a being after one's own image, as Richard Seed stated (in Time, January 19, 1998). On the other side: fear of genetically manipulated copies of organisms peopling the earth. Neither view-including the emotions they stimulate-is based upon insight into life and development.

Does this mean that cloning human beings is unproblematic? Not at all, because the real question becomes: why would we even be interested in thinking about cloning another human being? Both the speculation accompanying and the motivation stimulating talk about human cloning are rooted in spectral notions such as the "exact copy" that in turn serve narrow scientific or profit-seeking agendas. For example, it has been suggested that clones genetically engineered to be brainless could provide "spare parts" for operations. When one views the human body in purely abstract, mechanistic terms, this notion loses its abhorrence. One only need add the lure of market potential and, suddenly, cloning becomes a "medical necessity" to benefit humanity.

The counterweight to being dragged down this slippery slope lies in turning toward life's concrete reality. When we learn about processes such as spine development, we build living concepts that illuminate the truly inhuman nature of most of the notions concerning human cloning. But such rich and humane concepts cannot originate out of viewpoints serving narrow (and powerful) agendas. In this respect, ninth graders who have gained a saturated impression of the nature of development may be in a better position to judge the implications of human cloning than many experts, who are driven by their specialized paradigms, their grant proposals, or their investments in biotech companies.

The idea of human cloning touches something deep in the human soul. Just because it involves superficial and erroneous views of the human being, it stimulates in us a counter reaction that wells up out of our depths: What is a human being? What is individuality? Who am I? One can't do justice to such existential questions by addressing them head-on. Rather, they can form the undercurrent of discussions and inform the way in which the teacher addresses the content. When this occurs, one can almost see with one's own eyes how the souls of the students are being nourished. They are building the capacity in themselves to be their own selves, a capacity they need in order to establish an independent and thoughtfully discerning attitude toward the ever-new issues that will confront them.


Benninghof, A., and K. Goerttler. Lehrbuch der Anatomie des Menschen, Bd. I. Edited by J. Ferner and J. Staubesand. Muenchen: Urban & Schwarzenberg, 1980.

Crelin, E. Functional Anatomy of the Newborn. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973.

Hamilton, W. J. (Editor) Textbook of Human Anatomy. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1957.

Holdrege, C. Genetics and the Manipulation of Life: The Forgotten Factor of Context. Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne, 1996.

Kranich, E.M. "Die Kräfte leiblicher Formbildung und ihre Umwandlung in die Fähigkeit, Formen zu gestalten und zu erleben." In Formenzeichnen, E.M. Kranich, et al. Stuttgart: Verlag Freies Geistesleben, 1985.

Lewontin, R. "The confusion over cloning". New York Review of Books, October 23, 1997, p. 18ff.

Lowrey, G.H. Growth and Development of Children. Chicago: Year Book Medical Publishers, Inc. 1973.

Sinclair, D. Human Growth after Birth. London: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Tanner, J.M. Foetus into Man. London: Open Books, 1978.

Text accompanying the figures:

in fig. 1.:


Adult cervical curve thoracic curve lumbar curve sacral curve

Figure 1. The spine of the newborn and the spine of the adult, each viewed from behind (left) and from the side (right). Not drawn to scale. (Modified after Crelin, 1973 and Benninghof and Goerttler, 1980.)

in fig. 2.:

Figure 2. Thoracic vertebrae from a newborn (left) and an adult (right). Not drawn to scale. (After Hamilton, 1957.)

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