Patents that humble ethics

The Biotech Century - Clones and Clones
December 18, 1998

Where is commercially propelled cloning taking us? asks Mary Warnock

In 1997 when the famous cloned lamb, Dolly, was born, the public imagination, inflamed by the media, became fascinated by the prospect of cloned human babies. The purpose of this collection of writings put together by Martha Nussbaum and Cass Sunstein is to explore different aspects of this public reaction. The book is divided into five sections, though distinctions between them are not always clear. The first is a set of pieces explanatory of the science involved. Next come some comments on these scientific facts, then essays on the moral and religious implications of human cloning, followed by considerations of cloning from the standpoint of the law and the constitution; and last there is a collection of imaginative writing, a poem and short stories exploring in science-fiction style a future in which human cloning exists, or is even commonplace. Such a collection should make for interesting and varied reading, but, sadly, this is not the effect. For a reader who starts at the beginning and goes through to the end, tedium and irritation are hard to keep at bay.

Nervous readers might do well to start with the second piece. The first is the original article, published in Nature in February 1997 where Ian Wilmut et al first announced the successful cloning of Dolly. It is quite difficult for a non-scientist to understand without help; but in the second piece, help is provided. It is a shortened extract from the Report of the United States National Bioethics Advisory Commission, published in June 1997, and it is clear and explanatory. The commission had been set up by President Clinton in 1995, charged with making recommendations to relevant government agencies and research councils on matters that arose in genetic research. A special report was brought out following the birth of Dolly which recommended that the moratorium on human cloning, instantly introduced by the president after the announcement of the birth, should remain in place. These recommendations form part of the book's public policy section, and it is useful to have them available.

The remaining articles in the science section contain some science but much more opinion and judgement. Stephen Jay Gould casts doubt on the claim that cloning can be effected from absolutely any cell, taken from any part of an adult animal. How significant is it, he asks, that the cell from the adult sheep was taken from the mammary gland of a ewe in the last trimester of pregnancy? Might there not have been young undifferentiated cells in the enlarging mammary glands of the ewe, able to proliferate especially fast, like embryonic cells? The main point of his article, however, is to cast very proper doubt on the unfettered use of dichotomies in science, especially the dichotomy nature vs nurture. Unhappily the good sense is all but obscured by his jokey, allusive style.

The sole English contribution to the collection is Richard Dawkins's essay which comes next, entitled "What's wrong with cloning?" This again is hardly scientific, though it makes the by-now-familiar point that identical twins are more perfect clones than artificial clones, since they share all their genes, whereas Dolly had the few but significant genes from the cytoplasm of the egg into which the nuclear DNA was transferred, the mitochondrial cells. His article is an odd combination of two separate bits of journalism, and contains a longish and characteristically virulent attack on religious persons as members of advisory bodies. The whole piece, again characteristically, reminds one irresistibly of a self-pleased schoolboy aware that he is brighter than his teacher.

The final scientific contribution, and by far the most interesting, is from George Johnson, a scientific correspondent on The New York Times, who argues persuasively for the non-identity of any two brains, which will necessarily develop differently, even in identical twins, and even at the embryonic stage. This article, though short, is both intelligible and comforting. It enables us to think of ourselves as unique individuals, whatever our genetic origins, and reminds us that we are not "nothing but" our genes.

The weakest part of the book is the section on the ethical and religious view of cloning, the latter perhaps bearing out Dawkins's attack on the clergy as contributors to such debates. As to the fantasy and fiction in the last part, it may, I suppose, appeal to some. One of the stories was quite funny. Taking the rough with the smooth, if I were US president I would be inclined to impose a moratorium of indefinite length on the writing of books (save strictly scientific ones) about clones, especially books with humorous titles.

It is against the background of the immediate federal ban on any research which might lead to human cloning that many of the present articles are to be understood. Imposing the ban so hastily, with no time for public discussion, made the development of human cloning seem both imminent and infinitely threatening.

This explains the disaster movie tone of much American writing on the subject. Jeremy Rifkin is one of the best-known American prophets of doom. He has, as he reminds us in the introduction to The Biotech Century, been warning the public of the horrors that lie ahead for the last 20 years. His subject matter is much wider than cloning. He is concerned with the whole development of biotechnology, the genetic modification of crops, the use of transgenic animals, and the human genome project. He calls our attention to the fact that "the genetic revolution and the computer revolution are just now coming together to form a scientific, technological and commercial phalanx, a powerful new reality that is going to have a profound impact on our I lives in the coming decades".

Rifkin is perfectly well aware that there are great gains to be derived from our new knowledge of genetics, and the speed with which we can increase it and analyse it with computers. He is even prepared to allow that in the case of some of the thousands of monogenetic diseases, it may be proper, in future, to engage in gene-replacement, whether at the pre-implantation or the prenatal stage of an embryo's life. He is also aware that genetic screening may have advantages, insofar as a person who has a complete account of his own genes may be in a position to take steps to mitigate or prevent the expression of the potentially damaging genes he has inherited.

In these matters Rifkin's views are in harmony with medical and public orthodoxy in this country. Here there is probably a consensus view that any genetic manipulation must be subject to regulation, and that precautions must be taken against the unfair discrimination, in insurance, employment or education, that may result from genetic screening.

The recommendations of the Clothier Committee in 1992, on the ethics of gene therapy, and the establishment of the Polkinghorne supervisory body allayed the fears of the general public, for the most part. Even the recent decision to permit research into the cloning of human tissue, though it raised some alarm, still seemed reassuring. It positively ruled out the cloning of whole babies and seemed to be a demonstration that supervisory bodies of the kind to which we have increasingly become accustomed could prevent us going headlong down the slippery slope that would land us helpless in the hands of the biotechnologists.

Rifkin's vision of the future is designed to shake us out of such comparative complacency. It is no longer possible to believe that the hazards of biotechnology can be contained by local or national regulation or by accepted guidelines. Whether in the production of genetically modified foods or the manufacture of drugs for the treatment of genetic disease (perhaps manufactured by means of cloning), the forces at work are commercial and international; and the marriage of computer technology with biotechnology, or rather the fusion of one with the other, has made these forces apparently irresistible.

At the heart of the commercial exploitation of new genetic knowledge lies the power of patent law. Those, for example, involved in the manufacture of new drugs argue correctly that unless bits of DNA, or genetically modified animals such as the Oncomouse can be patented, then no company can profitably develop them. Therefore the concept of the patent has had to be stretched to cover not only inventions (such as miners' lamps) for which it was introduced, but living objects, used in new ways, and whether modified or not (the miners' canaries as it were). The general public are, it seems, helpless in the face of commercial forces which cross all national boundaries, and whose effect on the living environment we cannot possibly foresee. Even the universities are losing their rights to conduct independent research.

The wider the scope of Rifkin's arguments, the more interesting they become. He suggests that the fusion of computer technology with biotechnology was to be foreseen from 1953, when the DNA double helix was discovered: "As important as the discovery was the language used to describe it. Borrowing metaphors and terms from the new field of cybernetics and the fledgling information sciences, Watson and Crick referred to the helix-like nature of the gene as a code, programmed with chemical information to be discovered." In his final chapter he argues that every age has a view of the universe as a whole which reflects the new technologies developed within it. So the Darwinian universe reflected the competition made possible by the new manufacturing technologies of the time; and now the whole universe is seen as a matter of information and the response to information, whether we are thinking of electronic switches, the flatworm reacting to its sensory inputs, or at the micro-level, the DNA of animals. Information, he says, has replaced knowledge. Information is constantly changing and constantly renewed. The postmodernist rejection of all permanent or absolute truth is simply a part of the new cosmology. It is an infinite and, I would say, an absolute pleasure to read such broadly connecting speculations after the frivolities of the Dolly anthology.

Baroness Warnock was formerly mistress, Girton College, Cambridge.

The Biotech Century: The Coming of Age of Genetic Commerce

Author - Jeremy Rifkin
ISBN - 0 575 06658 X
Publisher - Gollancz
Price - £16.99
Pages - 2

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