Cloning trees – Anne Frank’s chestnut tree

“18 April 1944
April is glorious, not too hot and not too cold, with occasional light showers. Our chestnut tree is in leaf, and here and there you can already see a few small blossoms.”

Sixty-three years later, this tree is still standing, but very sick. It’s being attacked by a fungus and a moth, and if it should fall over it would likely damage neighbouring buildings.

Any other tree in this situation would be immediately cut down. But this is not any other tree. The quote above is a quote from Anne Frank’s diary, and the chestnut tree stands in the backyard of the house behind the Anne Frank House. The tree is mentioned in several of Anne’s diary entries, as it was a huge part of the tiny fragment of outside world that she saw day in and day out.

The museum has proposed taking the tree down and replacing it with a graft of the original tree. A clone, in other words. But many people were not happy with the idea of a tree-clone, and would rather try to save the original, dying, tree. Tree experts have been called, and a recent court hearing gave them a few weeks to find out if there was a safe way for the tree to remain standing without posing a threat to the surrounding buildings.

The argument of those opposed to felling the tree is that the graft would not be the original tree that Anne saw from her window. The museum argues that the dying ugly tree isn’t what Anne saw from her window either — she saw a healthy tree.

What happens to other famous trees? Cloning trees has some precedent. The apple tree that is thought to have inspired Newton is long dead, but clones of the tree are still in existence. Redwoods are being cloned, and the oldest tree in the world has been cloned. Several grafts of the Anne Frank tree have already been made. One was given to actress Emma Thompson when she launched the

Several grafts of the Anne Frank tree have already been made. One was given to actress Emma Thompson when she launched the tree’s website last year. Yes, the tree has a website, that’s how famous it is.

It’s not the cloning of the tree itself that people oppose, but the idea of replacing the original with a genetically identical one. The second tree is NOT the first tree. The tree has been given a personality, and that’s not in its genes. The grafts are linked to the original, and people associate them with the famous tree, but it’s not the same tree. It’s somehow inferior.

If replacing famous trees with a clone of the original brings about such a strong emotional response, imagine what could happen when human cloning goes mainstream. Even if everyone is okay with the ethical and moral issues concerning cloning (as we are all collectively okay with the concept of grafting trees) there is still the problem that the clone is NOT the original. If even trees have perceived personalities, imagine the problems we’re going to have when a real person is copied.

On the surface, it appears that all the ethical issues of cloning are in the cloning itself. Can you make a copy? Is that morally right? But the example of the Anne Frank tree shows that there’s more to it. Making the clones wasn’t the problem. When is it okay to replace an original with a clone – that’s the issue here, and that issue will be even more pronounced with animals, including humans. A recent New York Times article describes the difference in opinions on cloning in the Eastern and Western world. It all depends on how different religions and traditions see the concept of the soul, and whether it’s coupled to the physical body or not.

Trees generally don’t have a soul, so you can clone them. But it’s clear from the Anne Frank tree story that it suddenly gets complicated again if the tree does acquire some sort of personality. Is it the same tree or not? Is a dead tree more meaningful than a living genetic copy?

Whatever your point of view on the matter of the tree, it’s obvious that it’s all going to be even more complicated once we’re dealing with animals and people, and the tree debate is already quite a media circus (for a tree…)

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Eva

Eva Amsen is a writer, science communicator and blogger. She has been writing about science and scientists in art/culture/life since 2005, both on this blog and for other sites and publications. Portfolio | Twitter | Contact

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