The summer of 1998 will be remembered not only for baseball sluggers and Oval Office sex but also for animal cloning. Reports of cloned cows and mice and even the cloning of a nearly extinct breed of New Zealand cow trickled in from around the globe. Curiously, though, the new spate of clonings brought a reaction different from the concern that greeted the announcement almost two years ago of a sheep named Dolly -- the first animal ever cloned from an adult mammal.

The general response to Dolly was, How do we stop this thing from being done to humans? President Clinton promptly banned federal funding of human cloning and asked the private sector to go along voluntarily. Warning scientists against playing God, the president ordered the National Bioethics Advisory Commission to investigate the question and report in 90 days. The commission's report called the cloning of humans "morally unacceptable for anyone in the public or private sector" -- though it recommended only a temporary ban, pending scientific advances and public debate. (Skeptics wondered whether the commission were only buying time until scientists could perfect a cloning technique, making it safe to try on humans in due course.)

In June 1997, the president sent Congress legislation that would prohibit the cloning of humans for five years. And there was every reason to think that such a bill would pass. The vast majority of Americans oppose human cloning, and 20 European states have banned it. But little happened, at least until, in December 1997, the scientist Richard Seed announced his plans to clone a human being. The FDA quickly asserted its regulatory authority to stop anyone who would attempt to clone a human, and there was a flurry of activity on Capitol Hill. But again, nothing happened.

Conservative Republicans were ready to act, but they wanted to outlaw both human cloning and experiments on human embryos. Democrats were willing to back the former goal, but they (and some Republicans) argued that a ban on embryo research would block advances against cancer, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, diabetes, and other diseases. The upshot: no legislative ban.

By this summer, the concern had somehow dissipated. The public seemed blase. In August, a wealthy Texan reportedly donated $ 2.3 million to researchers at Texas A&M University to clone his pet dog, Missy. And Dr. Lee M. Silver, a Princeton molecular biologist and the author of Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World, told the Washington Post, "In six years, you'll be calling me to ask me what I think about the first human clone."

Why did nothing happen? How did we move so casually from calls for a five-year moratorium on human cloning to predictions that a human will be cloned within roughly the same time? Part of the answer lies in the transformation of liberalism over the last quarter century from a public philosophy with a vibrant moral center and real intellectual ballast to one that is merely the shell of its former self.

The debate about human cloning made its first appearance in the 1970s. James D. Watson and Francis Crick had published their work on the structure of DNA in 1953, and scientists had had some limited success cloning frogs in the '50s and '60s. By the early '70s, the wisdom of human cloning began to be widely discussed, by Watson in the Atlantic Monthly (against), Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg in the Washington Post (for), and Leon Kass in the Public Interest (against). In the debate that ensued, some of liberalism's most important spokesmen raised their voices against human cloning, including the New York Times Magazine and liberalism's leading constitutional scholar, Laurence H. Tribe.

In 1972, the New York Times Magazine published a powerful critique of human cloning by Columbia University psychiatrist Willard Gaylin. In his article, Gaylin gave expression to the principal liberal reasons for opposition. He articulated a principle of "humanness." Science offers mankind endless possibilities, he argued, but we do not choose to travel down those paths that we deem inconsistent with our given nature. So too Tribe, in a series of articles in the early '70s, opposed cloning on the grounds that it would detract from our "humanness." It would do so in several ways.

As many commentators have pointed out, cloning is but a step along the way towards the genetic manipulation of the species. Dr. Silver argues that it is cloning that will take genetic engineering out of the realm of fantasy and make it a reality. But man's ability to reconstruct human nature is, Gaylin pointed out, "by definition, the capacity to destroy himself through transformation into another creature -- perhaps better, but not man."

In the choice between man and superman, Gaylin affirmed liberalism's faith in man. And I would point out that whether the eugenics is organized from above, by, say, a totalitarian state, or opted for from below, by yuppies who wish to improve, by genetic manipulation, the SAT scores or physical appearance of their offspring, the practice is objectionable. (Obviously, we are not talking here about uncontroversial efforts to ensure health.) Liberalism's opposition to the eugenic transformation of man into superman was always based on more than whether the process was state directed. The objection was to the thing itself -- to the very idea of creating a superman.

Other arguments against cloning also flowed from this principle of humanness. For instance, Tribe in the early '70s emphasized that cloning and similar technologies would turn human beings into mere objects. Certainly, many technologies are supportive of human dignity, but, as Tribe argued, human cloning and related technologies are not among them. By making human nature increasingly subject to external, scientific control, such technologies would make it difficult to conceive of the resulting products as "free and rational" agents. The upshot, as Tribe then saw, would be disastrous: "In a society that came to view its members as just so many cells or molecules to be manufactured or rearranged at will, one wonders how easy it would be to recall what all the shouting about 'human rights' was supposed to mean."

Another anti-cloning principle articulated by Gaylin had to do with liberalism's core belief in the value of life and the right to life. Any attempt to clone human beings, he warned, would produce failures along the way. And what, he asked,

Will we do with the discarded messes along the line? What will we do with those pieces and parts, near-successes and almost-persons? What will we call the debris? At what arbitrary point will the damaged "goods" become damaged "children," requiring nurture rather than disposal? The more successful one became at this kind of experimentation, the more horrifyingly close to human would be the failures. The whole thing seems beyond contemplation for ethical and esthetic, as well as scientific, reasons.

This danger strikes at liberalism's heart. At the point that liberalism begins to make distinctions between human life that is worthy of preservation and that which is not, entitling some to rights but not others, it ceases to be entirely liberal.

Finally, Gaylin and Tribe made the connection between liberalism's concern to preserve the natural environment and what should be its concern to preserve man's nature. On this point, one would do well to recall that Gaylin's and Tribe's articles were written soon after the environmental movement took off. In 1962, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was published, and in 1970, Sen. Gaylord Nelson kicked off Earth Day. The parallel between preserving the planet and safeguarding man was obvious to Gaylin: "The unpredicted complexities of environmental intervention, with the resulting ecological disasters, should serve as a warning model." What Rachel Carson had argued DDT was to the natural environment, Gaylin suggested cloning was to human nature. What was the use of protecting Mother Nature if one did nothing to preserve human nature?

That was liberalism circa 1972. Twenty-five years later, liberalism has all but forgotten its powerfully reasoned arguments against human cloning. After the February 1997 announcement of Dolly's birth, Gustav Niebuhr began a front-page news story for the New York Times as follows: "The cloning of an adult mammal offers a striking example of how technology can outpace the moral and social thinking that would guide it." The Times's lead editorial just a few days before had begun with the same observation: "The startling news that scientists have cloned an adult sheep . . . is a reminder that reproductive technologies are advancing far faster than our understanding of their ethical and social implications." Had the writers at the Times failed to search their own archives? Or was it simply that they had rejected liberalism's old understanding of the ethics of human cloning and gone searching for new understandings?

In the years between Gaylin's prophetic article and Dolly's birth, liberalism underwent a transformation. To begin with, liberalism came to advocate an absolute right to abort a fetus (even if exercising this right meant performing the ghastly procedure known as partial-birth abortion on a third-trimester fetus). For this reason alone, liberalism would eventually have to say yes to the research on human embryos that will make cloning possible: On what principled ground could one insist on the right to abort a fetus while objecting to experiments on it?

Gaylin himself predicted that liberalism's embrace of abortion would have "broad social effects" on issues of life and death. And he was right. In the early 1970s, before Roe v. Wade had wrought its effects, liberals could not help but shudder when confronted by Gaylin's chilling question, What is to be done with cloning's "discarded messes," its not-quite-human failures? Not so today. Liberalism has come to view such "discarded messes" as a means for conquering disease. The reason liberals in Congress gave for opposing the Republican-proposed ban on cloning, including the cloning of embryos, was that it would slow or even halt medicine's advance on many important fronts. One must admire the humanitarian impulse behind such scientific endeavors. Who can lightly turn his back on cures for terrible diseases? And as Gaylin acknowledged, it is very difficult to say what precisely is lost in the bargain.

But one can wonder, as Gaylin did, whether an unrestrained effort to relieve suffering will eventually vitiate our very humanity. Already there are signs of such an effect. In the matter of doctor-assisted suicide, for example, well-meaning liberals advocate the killing of the sick and dying as a way of ending undeniable anguish. An unrestrained fear of death and suffering apparently makes us fearless and heartless. Even the idea of humanness itself, on which Gaylin and Tribe built their case against cloning, has lost its moral content. In the summer of 1997, a group calling itself the International Academy of Humanism issued a declaration defending human cloning and related research for its "potential benefits." These newfangled "humanists," including the late Isaiah Berlin, Harvard philosopher W. V. Quine, and Harvard sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson, found the question of human cloning no more morally "profound" than that of computer encryption.

But if Gaylin foresaw true humanism's many vulnerabilities, he could not have imagined what happens when liberals go postmodern. Such liberals are, at best, indifferent to the question of human cloning; at worst, they view cloning technology as something to be embraced in the name of liberation and experimentation. Today's cloning technology thus heralds a new ideological force in American politics. Once suspicious of technology -- think of liberal opposition to nuclear power -- liberals of a postmodern persuasion will ally themselves with the new technologies of human cloning and genetic engineering because of the liberating potential of those technologies. And thus will experiments in science come to the aid of lifestyle experiments.

For example, in a remarkable piece published in the New York Times in December 1997, and in an elaboration published in Clones and Clones: Facts and Fantasies about Human Cloning, Laurence Tribe turned his back on his old liberal arguments against cloning. "Who was I -- who is anyone -- to forecast which technologies will over time generate transformations sufficiently deep . . . that we may confidently favor the[ir outright prohibition?" he now exclaimed. "How can any of us feel so confident that the meaning of humanity will be degraded by human cloning in any and all circumstances that we are prepared to shut [it] down?"

Having gone postmodern, Tribe now finds it impossible to distinguish between what degrades man and what supports his dignity. Instead of worrying about treating humans as objects, or destroying human nature, as he did 25 years ago, he now rails against "essentialism" and puts the words "natural," "unnatural," and "human nature" in ironic quotation marks. And, chastising the opponents of human cloning, he warns that "when fear of the unnatural drives a campaign to ban some innovation, then that very fear may be more fearsome than the innovation that spawns it."

One of the great divides between old liberals and their postmodern cousins is just this lack of belief in human nature. To postmodernists, the idea of human nature is nothing more than an outdated social construct used to oppress "difference." As the postmodernist Richard Rorty once wrote, "There is nothing deep inside each of us, no common human nature. . . . There is nothing to people except what has been socialized into them." Thus the importance to postmodernists of personal experimentation and "self-creation."

Yet, what is harmless wordplay in the mouths of college philosophy professors, perhaps at most encouraging impressionable young men and women to do things they otherwise might not have done, becomes in Tribe's hands a reason for embracing human cloning. As he puts it: "A society that bans acts of human creation that reflect unconventional sex roles or parenting models . . . for no better reason than that such acts dare to defy 'nature' and tradition . . . is a society that risks cutting itself off from vital experimentation and risks sterilizing a significant part of its capacity to grow." Why of course! If we are for "selfcreation" and "vital experimentation," what could be more wonderfully "transgressive," as the postmodernists like to say, than the technology of human cloning and eventually of genetic engineering?

Now that the old liberal arguments against human cloning have fallen into desuetude, it's not clear what kind of political suasion can stop it from eventually happening. Of the three main elements of the conservative coalition -- social or religious conservatives, libertarians, and the business class -- only religious conservatives have expressed any serious opposition to cloning. The business class sees in the burgeoning cloning industry money to be made. As New York Times reporter Gina Kolata points out in her book Clone: The Road to Dolly and the Path Ahead, we owe little thanks (if that is what is owed) to government or university scientists for the technology of cloning. Most of the scientists who gave us animal cloning worked in industry; and their aim was not to save man or uncover new knowledge but to make a buck.

As for libertarians, they make the same old arguments against a moratorium on cloning that they have long made against the government's passing laws against drugs or pornography or gambling: It's none of the state's business. Some of them have spiced this old libertarian argument with a dash of techno-enthusiasm. They see in cloning new possibilities for the improvement of "man." Or they argue that any sort of ban on human cloning would be pointless since law and politics can never stop scientific and technological progress -- and they may be right. But what's the consolation in that, since a science that inevitably overcomes law and politics can also overcome the political liberties that libertarians, liberals, and conservatives all support?

However that may be, our intellectual disarmament before the science of cloning leaves human cloning likely to occur in the near future. Since the liberal arguments against human cloning no longer resonate, perhaps a more ancient treatment of the subject is in order. In Paradise Lost, Milton describes how "Sin" springs forth from Satan's head; whereupon Satan falls in love with the creature -- who is both his "perfect image" (his clone?) and his daughter. Then Satan copulates with "Sin," impregnating her with "Death" -- whom he will later call "thou Son and Grandchild both." If the cloners have their way, we too shall someday speak such frightening words, being both parents and siblings to our children.

Adam Wolfson is executive editor of the Public Interest.