Clone: The Road to Dolly, and the Path Ahead, by Gina Kolata. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1998, 276 pp.
Gina Kolata, a science reporter for the New York Times, was the first to write about the cloning of Dolly in a U.S. newspaper. Cloning and its media coverage are the signal events in a story that is still far from complete. This book chronicles the first six months of that story in Kolata’s characteristically lucid prose. It does not include more recent events such as physicist Richard Seed’s quasi-credible claim to be seeking private capital to clone a human, the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) assertion of jurisdiction over any contemplated human cloning experiments, lingering doubts about whether Dolly was really cloned from an adult cell’s nucleus, and rekindled interest in national legislation.
Kolata had early and unusually good access to Ian Wilmut and others who were quickly overwhelmed by a storm of media attention. She was well ahead of the pack and indeed was partially the cause of that storm, and thus had the opportunity to visit the Roslin Institute in Scotland (Dolly’s birthplace and home to the pertinent laboratory work), meet Dolly, and interview the principal characters when their reactions were fresh and spontaneous and before their answers were refined by repetition. So the story is here in full.
Scientists will wince at the apocalyptic nonsense laid bare in chapter one. For example, biochemist-turned-bioethicist Leon Kass implies that cloning will initiate an ineluctable slide down a muddy slope into a brave new world where “the future of humanity may hang in the balance.” That’s a lot of responsibility for one sheep to bear, and it’s no wonder the Roslin Institute keeps Dolly indoors where she can be protected from these crazy humans. Bishop Maraczewski, testifying before Congress on behalf of the National Conference of Bishops, asserts “there is no evidence that humans were given the power to alter their nature or the manner in which they come into existence.” This will be news to obstetricians, even those eschewing new techniques of assisted reproduction that remain off limits under Roman Catholic doctrine.
For the most part, Kolata lets loose-lipped bioethicists and scientific publicity hounds do most of the ranting-which they were more than willing to do-and holds her own more temperate analysis close to the chest until later in the book. She does lapse into an inapposite analogy, comparing cloning research with the atomic bomb and invoking Oppenheimer’s dictum that physicists “have known sin.” By implication, she casts a moral pall over biotechnologists (although her sympathetic treatment of Wilmut clearly indicates that she wouldn’t call him a sinner). Kolata lamely justifies this analogy by noting that “cloning is complex, multilayered in its threats and promises.” Readers in Hiroshima and Nagasaki could be forgiven a flash of anger at the suggestion that several hundred thousand deaths are comparable to the speculative harms of cloning. Pioneers of cloning may scratch their heads at a facile analogy between producing drugs cheaply and copiously in sheep’s milk and the frantic wartime effort to construct a monster bomb.
Gauging public reaction
Readers should not let themselves be put off, however, because Kolata is merely setting up her story and highlighting the feature that most distinguishes animal cloning from other fields-the long-standing public unease with human cloning. Public anxiety about biological tinkering goes back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the announcement of Dolly’s birth inflamed a debate about human cloning that had been smoldering for decades. The story is more about the public reaction to a real but incremental scientific advance than it is about the underlying science that Kolata so lovingly describes (it is clear where her heart is). After the opening chapter, the book’s pace quickens considerably, the prose shifts from purple to true blue, and Kolata hits her stride. We gain insight into how major public media outlets interact with the science journals. The story then turns to parallel analysis of twin themes-the underlying science and the social debate about human cloning. Public concern blends fascination with whiz-bang technology, expectations of health and agricultural benefits, and discomfort about whether society is prepared to prudently manage a deluge of new knowledge and new technologies.
The science is meticulously described, with a quick survey of human embryology and experimental attempts to clone frogs and mammals. One sidebar is the tragicomic saga of Karl Ilmensee and the still-unresolved debate about whether he succeeded in cloning mice more than a decade ago. There are few scientific mistakes, and those that remain seem much more the result of telescoping too much too quickly rather than fundamental misunderstanding. For example, Wilmut is indirectly quoted as saying that animal cloning might be valuable in creating animal models of cystic fibrosis, which of course it cannot. Cloning could only make many genetically identical animals once the animal model was created.
Although the account of how cloning is linked to the origins of contemporary bioethics is brief, the scholarship is excellent. Kolata unearthed James D. Watson’s obscure 1971 statement to a congressional panel exhorting broad public governance of human cloning, which was an early event in the efforts of Senators Walter Mondale and Edward Kennedy to create a national bioethics commission. Her review of the struggle of the current National Bioethics Advisory Commission to develop policy options for the president regarding cloning is covered in its essentials, without getting bogged down in bureaucratic arcana. This keeps the story line clean but it also limits attention to policy.
Cloning ties into the abortion debate and the related controversy over embryo research. It starkly exposes the conflicting impulses of scientists to leave avenues of inquiry open and of theologians and critics of science and technology to rein some areas in. Scientists argue vigorously against drawing lines in the sand that research should not cross (unless it clearly risks harm); others argue that preserving the sacred requires defining the profane. This is a perennial battle of conflicting presumptions. Scientists ask “why should we stop?” Cloning opponents ask “why should we let you continue?” Judgment depends on who carries the burden of proof. Probing these presumptions reveals some underlying differences. Scientists do not offer a strong, concrete reason to cross the line; cloning critics are far more forceful in asserting that human cloning is immoral than they are in explaining why. The scientific and practical benefits held out for cloning are a long way off and may or may not justify its use. The strongest argument for pursuing cloning research-that “roadblocks to inquiry might keep us from finding unexpected facts”-stems from the long history of technological surprises that have arisen from research. Among those calling for a cloning ban, the moral certainty that cloning is wrong is surprisingly bereft of justification. Some critics presume that narcissism is the only plausible reason to want a human clone; others invoke the vague notion of hubris, which is more of a general restatement of why we worry about new technologies than a precise analysis of concerns about this particular technology. So we are left with an unsatisfying situation. Scientists have offered no compelling reason to clone a human being and agree that any safe and reliable means for doing so will take years to develop. Yet confident moralists urge a ban in the meantime without a clear explanation of why human cloning is inherently immoral or will ineluctably lead to social harm. It seems to be a battle of knee-jerk political reflexes working at cross purposes: “research is good” versus “cloning is wrong,” with neither faction being particularly persuasive.
A legislative ban on cloning was a strong possibility in the fevered months after Dolly’s birth and got a further impetus in June 1997, when the National Bioethics Advisory Commission recommended a legislatively crafted moratorium. Momentum for legislative action then stalled until Seed made his proposal to raise private capital for human cloning.
Soon after the Seed story broke, FDA announced that it would review the safety and efficacy of cloning technology. A very low success rate and high likelihood of birth defects are acceptable in cloning experiments on sheep and cows but clearly unacceptable in humans. FDA’s assertion of jurisdiction means human cloning in the United States, federally funded or not, is a long way off because demonstrating safety will be impossible unless and until the methods are orders of magnitude safer and more reliable. As a practical mater, FDA has blocked the road for the foreseeable future. Yet because the real issue is about morality and its public justification, this has not stopped the political response.
Bills introduced in 1997 by Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) and Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) both suffered from definitional wobble and caused fear that they would inadvertently ban more than the creation of cloned people. The fate of those bills seemed to be quiet oblivion until Seed’s announcement revived them and spawned another group of legislative proposals. A bill introduced by Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) proposed to ban creation of a human clone as well as human embryo research, thus using cloning as a backdoor to address another perennial controversy. Early in 1998, Senate Republican leaders drafted and attempted to pass a bill, but scientific professional societies mobilized to thwart that effort, which would have banned nuclear transfer from an adult human somatic cell into an egg cell. Senators Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) introduced a bill proscribing implantation of an embryo derived from such nuclear transfer, moving the trigger point from creating a cloned cell to implanting an embryo with intent to create a baby.
Just as significant as the specifics of what would be banned, the Republican bill would create a new bioethics commission, whereas the Democratic bill calls for the existing bioethics commission to revisit cloning. This is a hint that the debate is as much about how to fill the void of public justification for policy choice in the face of moral pluralism as it is about the technical safety and efficacy of cloning techniques. Whether and when any such bills become law is highly uncertain, but the political story is as engrossing and complex as the cloning story itself.
Kolata’s account is strong on science and the media’s role. Those wanting details about the political story will have to await a more detailed book by an author more focused on policy. The main events are covered here, but the book ends long before the policy story is complete, and there is little analysis of the dynamics of policy formulation. Later authors will no doubt focus on the branches of government and how scientists and bioethicists have influenced them. But Kolata did not set out to write a book about policy. She clearly wanted to produce an accessible book for the general public about why people might care about cloning, not what we should do about it; and on these terms, she succeeds admirably.
Robert Cook-Deegan is the author of The Gene Wars: Science, Politics and the Human Genome (W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1994).