A close friend of mine from Florida has a talking parrot that I’ve never felt very comfortable around. True, I’m not much of a bird person—I prefer my pets’ pelages to be conducive to cuddling; feathers and scales just leave me feeling cold. However, even those without such biases would likely find this particular bird unsettling. It’s a man-hating, ill-tempered, unkempt old creature on the wrong side of forty, known to draw blood from the petting hands it entices through its deceptive cooing. And yet the parrot “speaks” (loquaciously, I might add) with the sweet, crackly voice of a little old lady.

It’s not so much the striking disconnect between the bird’s irritable temperament and the gentle tenor of its voice that makes me uneasy. Rather, it’s the fact that the voice is the voice of my friend’s long-dead, wheelchair bound mother, a sweet-natured woman from whom my friend inherited the bird about twenty years ago.

My friend claims that she finds it comforting to hear her mother’s voice everyday—singing, humming, chuckling, and blurting out the odd quip. Now, she’s a bright, rational person, but secretly I think my friend, at some level, has tangled up her mother’s identity with this peculiar bird. For example, she confided in me once that if the bird were to die, it would feel as if she’s losing a bit of her mother again too.

Although it’s not entirely clear why most people would find a parrot speaking in the voice of the dead so disconcerting, I suspect this aversive reaction is similar to the psychological confusion we tend to experience when pondering the subject of reproductive cloning. With reproductive cloning, we are similarly confronted with an organism whose personal identity is unclearly differentiated in our minds from a duplicate organism. Just like with talking birds that seem to channel the dead, we mentally stumble over the whereabouts of a person’s real “essence” in our thinking about clones.

Of course, for as long as there has been such a thing as reproductive sex in the animal kingdom (a few billion years), nature has had its own unique brand of cloning in the form of homozygous twins. Yet identical twins—unlike clones such as Dolly the sheep that are created through biotechnology —do not seem to trigger the same onslaught of heated debates regarding personhood. Those who read my earlier article in Scientific American Mind about our species' penchant for belief in the afterlife already know how I feel about the existence of souls—they’re a cognitive illusion. But for researchers who are interested in people’s attitudes toward such a hot-button ethical issue as cloning, it’s the way such beliefs influence our emotions, decisions, thoughts and attitudes about the issue that are of interest, not whether the belief itself is true or false.

You might expect religious affiliation to play a strong role in people’s attitudes towards cloning. But it isn’t that straightforward. For example, in a 2007 report published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, University of Surrey psychologist Richard Shepherd and his colleagues found that, “religious affiliation did not emerge from the various analyses as playing a major role” in focus groups’ weighing the pros and cons of cloning. And yet:

Invocations of the status of the embryo and the sanctity of human life functioned to exempt speakers from further more complex discussions of the permissibility of cloning technologies and other embryological research.

That is to say, although participants in these (British) focus groups seldom mentioned God or souls or even religion in passing, the subject of what it means to be an individual human being in essence crept up liberally—and authoritatively—in their spontaneous conversations.

Although conscious, moralistic concerns about “personhood” seem to be at the heart of many people’s rejection of cloning research, these concerns may be motivated by unconscious, unshakeable ideas about unseen personal essences—otherwise known as souls. I don’t know about you, but as narcissistic as I may be, the thought of bottle-feeding and toilet training my own genetic doppelganger is just creepy. Yet I also couldn’t explain to you exactly why it’s so creepy. I find this aversion of mine puzzling, since I know, rationally, this child wouldn’t really be “me” and, furthermore, I don’t believe in anything as crackpot as souls and spiritual essences. It’s the same type of subtle confusion I’d feel if anything bad were to befall my friend’s mom—er, talking parrot. (For a wonderful and accessible book on the subject of “commonsense dualism,” see Yale psychologist Paul Bloom’s Descartes’ Baby).

Oddly enough, though, I’d clone my beloved dead dog, Kit, in a heartbeat if it could be done safely and I had the money to burn, just as one wealthy Boca Raton couple recently did for their dog, Sir Lancelot (cleverly calling the new version “Sir Lancelot Encore”). Personally, I don’t see anything unethical about or wrong with cloning dead pets, since I know it’s just the animal’s artificial identical twin. Yet I also know that no matter how convincingly I expressed to you my scientific understanding that even identical twins have different environmental experiences starting from their different positioning in their mother’s womb, and the fact that this hypothetical canine clone was its own unique organism, my emotions would still fail to wrap around these empirical facts and I would indeed feel intuitively as though the puppy were Kit reborn. If my attachment to my dog is anything to go by, it’s easy to understand why so many of the participants in Shepherd and his coauthors’ study expressed concern over cloning technology falling into the hands of dubious biotech firms willing to exploit grieving parents.

Lurking behind popular conceptions of cloning seems to be the belief that a human clone would somehow be less than human. In fact, as part of a larger study on people’s folk reasoning (or everyday notions) about bodies, minds and souls, University of California at Riverside psychologist Rebekah Richert and Harvard University psychologist Paul Harris, discovered that although most people believe that a clone would have a mind, much fewer were convinced it would have a soul. The difference between minds and souls is a very subtle one, and most people struggle with teasing the two apart. According to the authors, however, people differentiate minds and souls on several shady grounds.

First, minds are more believable entities for most people than souls. Richert and Harris report that, out of 161 undergraduate students surveyed, 151 (93.8 percent) claimed that the mind exists whereas only 107 felt the same about the soul (66.5 percent).

Second, people tend to conceptualize the soul as coming into existence earlier than the mind. Whereas only 8.1 percent of study participants believed the mind begins “prior to conception,” 26.1 percent stated that the soul predated the union of egg and sperm. An equal number of students thought that minds and souls appeared simultaneously at the moment of conception, but more people thought the mind begins at some point “during pregnancy” (35.4 percent) than the soul (12.4 percent).

Third, more people conceptualize the mind as changing over the lifespan (86.3 percent) than they do the soul (51.6 percent). Whereas only 4.4 percent of the study respondents claimed that the mind remains unchanged over the lifespan, 28.0 percent were certain that this was the case for the soul.

Finally, for most people (83.9 percent) the soul is envisioned as continuing on “in some way” after death, whereas the mind is more likely to be seen as ceasing to exist at death (70.8 percent).

When Richert and Harris asked their participants whether they thought a human clone would have a mind, 67.1 percent said “yes,” 21.1 percent were unsure and 11.8 percent said “no.” In contrast, only 32.3 percent thought a human clone would have a soul, 34.4 percent were unsure, and 33.5 percent were convinced it would be soulless. 

Furthermore, the more “spiritual” the participants considered the soul to be (in terms of performing special spiritual functions such as journeying to the afterlife and connecting to a higher power), and the more they distinguished between the mind and soul, the less likely they were to support using embryos for stem cell research, disconnecting people from life support, and cloning humans. Interestingly, just like in the previous study by Shepherd and his colleagues, Richert and Harris discovered that, “people’s concepts of the soul predicted their ethical decision making [on these issues] independently of religious affiliation.”

The science of soul beliefs is an incredibly fascinating affair—one that bioethicists, cloning researchers, and even theologians might be wise to consult before assuming a firm stance on either side of the polemical fence. However, a future filled with soulless clones should be the least of our worries. Human beings might be lazy about many things, but not reproductive sex. And as long as those evolved moral sentiments of ours serve to roadblock scientific progress, I’ve a hunch most of the world’s babies will continue to be made the old-fashioned way. 

In this new column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen's University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Ever wonder why yawning is contagious, why we point with our index fingers instead of our thumbs or whether being breastfed as an infant influences your sexual preferences as an adult? Get a closer look at the latest data as “Bering in Mind” tackles these and other quirky questions about human nature. Sign up for the RSS feed or friend Dr. Bering on Facebook and never miss an installment again.