The Question of the Soul

imageHuman beings love to make films about clones. Eerie and action-heavy sci-fi thrillers, and, more recently (and particularly fancied by the British)—slow, introspective films about the meaning of life. The stuff of autonomous identity, authentic emotions, individual purpose, and the existence of the soul.

I wonder, though, if these highly emotional/philosophical clone films are meant to prepare us for a world in which people are grown in labs, or meant as an allegory for the way we presently treat other sentient creatures.

In 2009’s Moon, an independent British film directed by Duncan Jones, Sam Rockwell interacts with himself as various cloned versions of the same isolated man, as they piece together their reality and plot an escape. Last fall, quick on the heels of “Moon,” came another indie British film, Never Let Me Go, directed by Mark Romanek and based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, which creates a world in which “the cure” for major bodily diseases has been discovered. Basically, alternate humans (presumably clones, though the c-word is never uttered) are raised to live into their mid-twenties, at which point their vital organs are harvested to save the lives of other womb-baby individuals. Except the powers-that-be in the film call this harvesting “donation,” and murmur about the refusal to return to the “dark ages” of people dying from lung cancer and so forth.

But of course, all humans die at one point or another, and the question is broached in the film’s quietly haunting conclusion whether these clones are any less human than those whose lives they save. Whether they have souls.

What makes “Never Let Me Go” different, in my mind, from most stories about captivity—be it of regular people or science-project people—is that these characters wholly accept their lot. They try to work the system, when possible, to extend their short lives. But they know there is no escaping “completion” (another of the film’s ghastly euphemisms). They are carefully indoctrinated with the sense that they have no right to envision their own futures.

For the self-reflective or compassionate viewer, this institutionalized captivity is a direct allegory to government-sanctioned, forced enslavement and servitude of people and animals. Both of which are by no means science fiction and very real in our collective pasts and present. Both of which, further, can be easily ignored by the general populace if not made patently visible.

In the film, empathy is immediately established for the clone-individuals, who are the principle characters (Keira Knightly, Andrew Garfield from “The Social Network”, the brilliant and sad-faced Carey Mulligan from “An Education”). We experience their feelings of jealously, regret, fear, lust, curiosity, excitement, love, and rage, and we grow very attached to them.


We follow the life course of Kathy, the kind but stoic realist—and the most survivalist of her group. Though she lacks the self-determination to stand up to her friends and profess her own desires, she doesn’t let the tragic projection of her life make her wicked (like Knightly’s Ruth) or pathetic (like Garfield’s Tommy). She steels up and endures every grisly turn with surprising grace.

The film gradually and deftly reveals that the schools, cottages and care centers that house the maturing “donors” are not the highly secret outposts of evil corporations looking to profit off human experimentation and suffering.

This is a National Donor Program. The government runs it. Moreover, all of England (if not the world) knows about it. It was probably voted in by Parliament or a special election.

This explains why these youths are not caged and shackled—why they are taught a full range of curricula by school teachers, why they have cars when they grow up, and can watch television and listen to music. They are afforded basic human liberties while they are alive. They live lives with enough meaning so that they won’t end them or damage their bodies prior to donation and completion.

Sure, they have microchips on the backs of their hands that they have to scan, Silkwood-style, when coming and going from their homes and dorms, and they live surrounded by security cameras. But these physical restraints do not keep them in (have they ever, in the movies?)—the characters are caged by their unwavering knowledge that there is no other place for them in the world. That all other humans know about them, and wish—in the interest in their own health and the health of their loved ones—to keep them just where they are.

Hence the striking similarity to known, systemic structures of enslavement. Now, because I believe most non-megalomaniac, educated and empathetic individuals would agree that the sanctioned enslavement of people—based on race, gender, or ethnicity—is ethically abominable, I will speak to the possible link between this film’s National Donor Program and the present institutionalized use of animals.


The lives of the characters in “Never Let Me Go,” like those of food animals or lab animals, are managed and cultivated for, ostensibly, the greater good. The government has decided that these clones will be created and raised so that all other individuals can receive on-demand organ transplants. Likewise, the government sanctions meat and dairy farming so that humans (and other food animals or domesticated animals) can gain daily nourishment from animals’ bodies; it also sanctions cosmetic testing and medical experimentation on animals for the benefit of humans who need or want these products. All three practices—respectively, in the film and in reality—are accepted as the status-quo by those benefiting.

The film demonstrates the sentience of its principle characters, and forces us to consider their right to autonomy. The same logic easily applies to the lives of animals.

If a creature has emotional or physical feeling, if he or she or it is aware of its confines and longs to escape them, if this creature could possibly have a soul—is it justifiable to deny it an autonomous and free life, even in the interest of the public good? This is certainly not an easily answered question.

There are, of course, other options in all cases for serving the public need—if one were to concede that the creature in servitude had a soul. One friend quipped, at the end of the film, that the ‘donation’ issue could easily be resolved if the pink organ donor dot on one’s driver’s license were compulsory. However, the very fact that it is voluntary is another issue of the soul. One’s spirituality may not allow her to have her body gutted after death or as death approaches. In this case, the souls of the clones of “Never Let Me Go” again have less value than those of humans (who have the right to opt in or out of the donor dot).

(It is also worth noting that this story may not be too far from fiction. At the cost of tens of thousands of dollars, private planes and helicopters often fly to poor regions to retrieve vital organs and deliver them to patients in elite hospitals. Why not spend the money on delivering critically ill patients to well-funded hospitals, rather than just their organs? Are the lives of some worth more than the lives of others? Again, the question of the soul.)

As to the alternatives to the institutionalized use of animals: Since the advent of cell culturing (thanks to an unknowing contribution by Henrietta Lacks—but that is another story) doctors and scientists can test the benefits of drugs on non-sentient human cells. Of course, the results of such research would not be as thorough as experiments also applied to captured animals and volunteer humans (but who volunteers, and with what incentive?), so the question returns of whose souls are more worth saving—sick humans or non-speaking animals?

Considering farm animals, it is my personal belief that humans can live well on a plant-based diet, so I see there being no need to use animals for food. However, as I accept that many others do not share this belief, I would propose a world in which humans individually capture and consume their own animals for food (animals who live freely and do not fear/expect the end of their lives). This scenario posits less the human soul against the animal soul, but rather the human’s comfort, convenience, and tastes against the life and well-being of the animal.

Sadly, I can’t know (and hesitate to believe) whether it was the intention of Romanek or Ishiguro to raise issue with modern-day human captivity—let alone animal enslavement. But I would challenge any viewer to not shudder at Kathy’s, Ruth’s and Tommy’s lack of choice, lack of individual life purpose, and lack of foreseeable futures.

The one element scarcely touched on in this film was interaction between biblically-conceived humans in this fictional England and our dear, tragic clone humans. I found it hard to believe, within the story’s seams, that there would not be a human rights uprising somewhere in the country in the interest of these forcibly indentured peoples. There are many who would not chose the lengthen their own lives at the cost of other individuals they knew to love, feel and exist very much like themselves.

In fact, I believe we all have the capacity for great, unforeseeable empathy if given the tools to access it. There is a reason we don’t see what happens behind the closed doors of vivisection clinics, why we have our meat prepared in strips and chunks unrecognizable as the animal it once was, why we prefer to read stories about those who enjoy their wealth lavishly rather than those imprisoned by their poverty and/or social class.

If we saw how equivalent the visceral and emotional feelings of other creatures, human or non, were to our own—how their capacity for joy, their desire for comfort, their fear of suffering, their susceptibility to pain… to loss… was just like ours… would we continue to choose our souls over theirs?

08:00 am, by jessicalanglois 1  |  Comments

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