Experience Versus Genetics: The Question of Identity in Ishiguro, Descartes, and Modern Science

March 3, 2022 by Essay Writer

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go, while the genetic makeup of the model does have some bearing on the life of the clone, it is severely limited by the increased importance of individual experience in the development of identity and personality. In order to be perfectly identical clones in all aspects, mental and physical, every facet of the clone’s life must mirror that of the model precisely. Philosopher Rene Descartes asserts that the mind, the place where independent thought takes place, is what determines existence– by that logic, the mind is more important to the self than the body. While identical genetics play a very important role in not only determining physical appearance but also any predisposition for developing certain diseases and disorder, any effect genetics has on the mental development of a clone is overpowered by the clone’s differing experiences throughout his or her formative year, as experience shapes the deep, intrinsic core of a person’s identity. Moreover, the formative years, as well as adolescence and young adulthood, are the basis for individuality; any difference in experience drives the identity of the clone away from congruence with that of the model. In brief, though genetics can influence life, personal experience develops and shapes it in a way that a purely physical variable cannot, thereby making it impossible for a clone with a different life to perfectly mirror his or her model.

The identical genetic makeup of the clone and the model cause certain facets of their lives to resemble one another through twin anatomical structures and the genetic predisposition towards certain traits, diseases, and disorders. Naturally, the model being physically identical to the clone down to the last nitrogenous base in his or her DNA results in some similarities, indicating that the model of a clone does have some significance beyond a simple technical necessity. Body type influences the activities a person participates in: naturally athletic, fit people are encouraged to play sports, while a child who is smaller or uncoordinated might instead become adept at chess. Tommy, for example, inherited impressive “size and strength” (Ishiguro 15) from his model, and throughout his time at Hailsham excels at sports, often seen playing football. Kathy describes him as a “good runner” who could “open up ten, fifteen yards” (Ishiguro 15) between himself and the rest of his male peers. Because Tommy’s model is physically identical to him, the model would have the same physical prowess and intimidating stature, though perhaps specializing in a different sport. In addition to the obvious physical component, particular genes cause “a high risk of acquiring [a disease]” (“Genes and human disease”), meaning someone with a particular gene or combination of genes is more susceptible to developing a certain mental or physical disease. Two individuals with perfectly identical genes have exactly the same risk of developing the same diseases.

The scope of diseases potentially affected by genetic predisposition is extraordinarily wide, including powerhouse diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, as well as obesity and even mental illnesses. For example, if Tommy’s model had had a genetic predisposition towards developing asthma, or cardiac disease, or even cancer, Tommy would have as well; in fact, Tommy’s nasty temper and lack of friends could be the result of a genetic predisposition towards borderline personality disorder, a mental illness causing “intense mood swings, impulsive behaviors, severe difficulties with relationships, and [low] self-worth” (“Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)”). Essentially, though genes affect the lives of the clones and models, they affect them in identical ways, thereby causing certain facets of their lives to be the same.T he model cannot be a perfect blueprint for the life of the clone due to the bearing individual differences in their experiences throughout life have on the development of the complete person, and the relative importance of the mind in determining one’s existence.

Indeed, the clones and their models were raised in wildly different environments from birth, thereby altering the relative congruence of their identities. Clones were raised in highly variable environments, ranging from “deplorable conditions” to “humane, cultivated environments” (Ishiguro 261), both of which diverge from the average childhood of the time. Furthermore, the clones are always somewhat cognizant of the fact they were not average children, particularly at Hailsham, where they are “told and not told” (Ishiguro 81) of their purpose. Though they were not fully aware of why, every student knew he or she was “different from the people outside” (Ishiguro 68), and constantly reminded of such by the Guardians. The constant differentiation between the clones and their counterparts creates a conscious divergence in the two identities; while the counterparts see themselves as normal, the clones recognize that they are different in some fundamental way. Equally important, the different people influencing the clones throughout their lives significantly alter their personality. While the average child has parents, siblings, and other family members surrounding them as they grow and develop, clones have only the Guardians and their own peers. Although the Guardians could be viewed as parental figures, they were not permitted to show physical affection or display any favoritism– such behavior was considered “bending the rules” (Ishiguro 60). Any parent shows favoritism towards his or her own children, such is the nature of parenthood; the clones have no one in their lives telling them that they are special among the others, no one who they know for certain love them best. They grow up without the support system of a family, not knowing the feeling of acceptance that comes with loving familial relationships. Naturally, this alters their perceptions of others and of themselves. In the same way, the clones’ peers could be seen as siblings, but their propensity towards having sex with one another defies the bounds of kinship.

As a general rule among intelligent societies, siblings by blood or otherwise should not have sex with one another, not only due to the potential consequences affecting any child born of those relations but the principle of the act. The clones know this, as they are well educated and aware of the conventions of society; that being said, they have no issue having sex with one another, and therefore do not see one another as siblings. Without siblings, the clones do not have the same intensely competitive, yet protective and loving type of relationship that siblings share. Moreover, Rene Descartes states that as long as he can convince himself of it, as long as he thinks he exists, “then [he] certainly existed” (Descartes, 17). This explanation of existence places the utmost importance on the mind, as it is where thought takes place. He also says the physical senses often deceive, and “it is prudent never to trust completely those who have deceived us even once” (Descartes, 12), casting doubt onto the very existence of the body. If the body does not truly exist, then it cannot hold more importance than the mind in the process of human development. Therefore, the mind will have more effect on the development of a person than the body. He proclaims it in the full title of his Second Meditation, “The nature of the human mind, and how it is better known than the body”; though his project is one of radical skepticism in which he doubts the existence of all that which seems certain, Descartes’ logic asserts that the senses and the very existence of the body are unsure, but the existence of the mind, the center of thought, is certain. The differences in the environments the clones and models grew up in, as well as the different relationships developed throughout their lives, prevent perfect congruence with one another; simply put, they lived different lives and are therefore different people.

Consequently, although genetics links the clone and the model together, it is the mind and the development of the full human person which dictates the course of the clone’s life, as the mind is the true substance of the self. The model is more than a technical necessity, yet is not so important as to determine precisely the course of the clone’s destiny. Though he or she may look exactly the same as his or her model, a clone is a unique individual like any naturally produced human. They are entirely capable of independent thought and form their own personality with idiosyncrasies and flaws through the same process of cognitive development that any other human would; the only difference between the average human and a clone is their point of origin. In fact, cloning as it is described in Never Let Me Go continues to dominate ethics discussions around the world, in classrooms, courtrooms, chambers of legislature and beyond. Humanity strives to heart disease, struggles to help terminal patients receive the vital organ transplant they need for a chance to survive; right now, those organs come from organ donors who recently died. When the technology to easily and efficiently copy humans becomes available, cloning will become a polarizing issue in politics both national and international, but the issue at its core will not change. People will still have to die in order for others to live. The clones will be people, admittedly created in a nontraditional manner, yet people with personalities and thoughts all the same. What the world has to decide is whether or not they are willing to make these people’s origin determinate of their destiny.


1. De Chant, Rosie. “Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).” Sutter Health. Ed. Nancy Brown. Palo Alto Medical Foundation, n.d. Web. 05 Oct. 2016.

2. “What Does It Mean to Have a Genetic Predisposition to a Disease? – Genetics Home Reference.” U.S National Library of Medicine. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 05 Oct. 2016.

3. “WHO | Genes and Human Disease.” World Health Organization. World Health Organization, n.d. Web. 05 Oct. 2016.

4. Ishiguro, Kazuo. Never Let Me Go. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. Print.

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