In His Image: The Cloning of a Man

   Author: David Rorvik

Reviewed by Theresa Welsh

Did a Man Secretly Have Himself Cloned back in the 1970s?

This book, published in 1978, is the author's story about helping a wealthy man who came to him with an unusual request. He wanted the author, a respected science writer, to help him create a clone of himself. He had never married and had no heir to the considerable international fortune he had amassed. The book describes the author's qualms about the project, but his final belief that human cloning can be done and should be done. The author locates a scientist willing to take on the task, and the wealthy American, known as "Max," sets him up with a laboratory somewhere in the Pacific regions. The author disguises names and places, but wherever they did the work had nutmeg trees and a warm climate. The end result is a pregnancy and a live birth, a baby born in 1976 as a result of cloning.

Is This Book a Hoax? A Court Said it is, But is it?

The book was a sensation back in 1978 when it appeared, but most who read it did not believe it. The US Senate held hearings on whether human cloning should be banned. A scientist mentioned in the book sued the publisher and that resulted in an apology from the publisher, J. B. Lippincott, and a court ruling that the book was a hoax.

But was it? The author, David Rorvik, has always maintained that the story he told was the truth. He included a great deal of technical descriptions of the techniques used to clone Max, and they are the same ones used to subsequently clone mammals. He says in his Afterward to the book that he does not expect his story to be accepted, since he can offer no proof. He says he saw the baby, and it was a normal healthy baby. He was never shown the genetic proof that the baby was actually a clone, but he says that Max told him he had seen the verification that the baby was in fact his genetic duplicate.

I did an internet search on Rorvik and found many references to this book, and no consensus on whether it was fact or fiction. There are a number of references to it as fiction or a hoax, but in an interview with Omni magazine in 1997, Rorvik says the story is true and that he has continued to be contacted by people interested in cloning. However, he has nothing to say about Max, whether he has been in touch with him or seen the child, who would be an adult man who may or may not know he is a clone.

A Cast of Charcters, But Who Were They?

I admit I found the tale irresistible, and could hardly wait to turn the page and discover the outcome of this incredible "project." It's a small book, and you can get through it quickly. It's out of print, but used copies are fairly available. I got my copy at a used book sale. Although I've read some reviews of it in which the reviewer claims he/she quickly saw the book as a made-up tale, I have to question why they thought so.

If the author had intended this as a novel, he surely could have dreamed up more drama. Most of the book deals with ethical, medical, and practical considerations of cloning and revolves around the author's own involvement. Ok, that might lead some to think he wrote it to spark debate on the pros and cons of human cloning, but why not put more space into additional details about Max, and why not take it a bit further and tell us what happened to Max and "Sparrow" (the woman who gave birth to the baby)?

He tantalizes us with the information that Max might marry the girl and have her raise the baby, or he might adopt her (she was still a teen-ager) and encourage her to marry the offspring. That seems weird enough; would the author make up a detail like that? The book ends abruptly with the birth of the baby and the author going off to concentrate on a fellowship he'd received, seemingly done with the cloning project. But if it's all made up, why end the book this way? Why not add another chapter with more information about the baby? It seems more likely to me that there was no extra chapter because the author had no further information. Or he felt any more information might give away the identity of the mysterious "Max."

And what about the scientist-doctor? He was pictured as a brooding type who was obsessed with his work, but also liked the native girls. Why not develop his character a bit more? On the other hand, if the story is true, here is a man deprived of the credit he deserves for his accomplishment, along with his two research assistants, whose contributions were considerable. Max insisted on anonymity, and that no one involved with the project reveal anything. Rorvik gives out few clues to the identity of the cast of characters in this book.

What's so Bad About Cloning?

Cloning is just another way to make a baby, but instead of the genetic material being the fertilization of an egg with sperm, it results from the contents of the nucleus of a cell from the donor replacing the nucleus of the egg. The egg, with its new nucleus, is induced to divide and grow into an embryo which is then implanted in a woman's womb, in the same way as in vitro fertilization. The baby is carried to term and is born in the usual way.

But at the time this project was carried out, there had not been a successful cloning of animals, let alone a human. There was a lot of strong feeling that cloning was just not right, that it was "playing God" and we should not do it. It conjured up images of the "mad scientist" trying to create human life. People were against it.

A Route to Immortality? Not Likely!

It seems to me that the objections to cloning come down to a number of misunderstandings. People talk about cloning as a way to immortality, as if a clone of me is me. But that is not the case. The clone has the same genetic material, but is a separate person in the same way that identical twins are separate people. Someone who's been cloned, like Max, will die and his "immortality" is no more a reality than anyone who has children has a claim to immortality. We pass on our genes, but so what? We are each still responsible for our lives and how we live them.

At one point in the book, Rorvik is looking at the doctor's embryos and says "Each of these little spheres, I suddenly realized, was already potentially another Max. Each of these nuclei contained a complete and precise blueprint — the architectural plans for making a man…each of these unassuming microscopic specks contained the complex genetic schemata of his brain, his mind, and I assumed, his soul." He then adds, "Well, perhaps not his soul."

Therein lies the problem, and the main problem I have with Rorvik. How is someone's soul connected to their genetic material? In my view, they are not connected, and each human has a unique pre-existing soul. This being the case, a cloned person has his own soul and is his own person. Cloning Max's genetic material certainly does not constitute cloning his soul!

In that sense, those who think they are getting some kind of immortality out of cloning themselves may be very disappointed. The controversy over cloning shows how much we think of our physical self as our whole self or our essential self. If there is a spiritual part of ourselves or some "inner self" then it must be contained in our genes, according to this view. Of course these concepts defy proof. Only by actually cloning people would we gain some information about the differences between a parent and a cloned offspring. I find it interesting that in the experiments with multiple cloned cows, they were not even all physically the same. These were spotted cows and the spots had variations, attributed to the differences in the surrogate mothers and conditions of pregnancy. A clone, it turns out, is not necessarily an exact duplicate.

Perhaps cloning has few advantages over simply choosing male and female genetic parents and creating a baby from their egg and sperm. Cloning is a more complicated way of making a baby, but it does seem to guarantee a certain level of good health, intelligence, and beauty — that of the genetic parent. If it could be safely and efficiently done, why not? It is one more way to make a baby, and if the result of cloning is healthy, beautiful and intelligent babies, what is wrong with that? Ultimately, cloning is not likely to be a big hit with the human race because it does not actually improve us, it only recreates what already is. It is far more likely that people will begin to design their children, maybe using their own genetic material but removing all the defects, like poor eyesight and pimples.

Vanity and Arrogance and Maybe Unfulfilled Desire for Intimacy

It is always possible that David Rorvik did write this book just to spark debate on the subject. I found the most objectionable part of the story the way the female subjects at the clinic were kept in ignorance of the project, and even the surrogate mother was not told the truth until the pregnancy was quite advanced. Also Max insisted the girls chosen as possible surrogates had to be virgins and had to be beautiful. That was strictly for his own vanity. The doctor who created the clone engaged in practices that almost anyone would find unethical. The work was done in an unnamed Asian country because it would not have been allowed in the US. If Rorvik had wanted to present a picture of cloning as an unalloyed social good, he would have made up more socially palatable circumstances than these. Obviously, there was a lot of unflattering self-interest here from a man who could buy whatever he wanted, including a copy of himself. The very fact that cloning is complicated and expensive means the wealthy will have access to it, and they can use poor women for their purposes.

The book tantalizes us with bits of information about Max that are never developed further. Like his story of not knowing his own parentage and believing he had a twin. The desire for a clone, the story implies, was part of a deeper desire to bring back his twin, whom he believed was dead. Is the desire to be cloned not just a desire for immortality, but also a yearning for intimacy with another who understands us? Haven't we all sometimes envied twins their closeness?

The baby, if there was a baby and the story is not just a fable, was destined for a life most of us would envy; he would have the best of everything and become heir to Max's fortune. If the story is true, I would sure love to know what happened to this father and his unusual offspring. But you can understand why, if the clone is a real person, he would want to keep his identity a secret. Will David Rorvik, or the man himself, ever come forward with more information? Or will we never know any more because the story was a fabrication meant only to give us something to think about?

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