Is Dolly the sheep the most important mammal of the 20th century? According to Gina Kolata, she may well be. In this book, the birth of Dolly the cloned sheep, in July 1996, is set in context in the best tradition of science writing. Seen this way, it is apparent that Dolly is an important practical and symbolic step in a body of work that has been accumulating for decades on the copying of animals. And it is also clear that the practitioners involved have never regarded ethical, political or moral reservations about their work as anything but a nuisance, and a small one at that.
Kolata is a skilled science writer for The New York Times. She begins cleverly by reminding us of the "unnatural" interventions in reproduction that we already take for granted: women giving birth at 60-plus years of age; women giving birth to their own grandchildren; IVF for people who thought they could never conceive; intercytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) to allow men to have children despite their sperm being too idle to manage the usual method; and a growing ability to attempt to perfect children by weeding out those with genetic disability. All these were big news when they first happened, but are now run of the mill. And they all have unlooked-for effects: for example, it seems that boys produced by ICSI also have sperm that are on the feeble side.
In the context of this expansion of possibilities, the arrival of Dolly shows how low-grade is the scientific community's thinking on the effects of what it does. Dolly was born as an experimental animal - but not for genetics research. Her birthplace, Roslin, is a centre for agricultural research, not advanced genetics.
The level of thought applied to the momentous decision to clone an advanced animal such as a sheep is typified by remarks by Ian Wilmut, the embryologist responsible. He saw the whole programme in terms of developing more health-care products, by producing sheep that secrete more active pharmaceutical ingredients. He was astonished that anyone should regard his work as potentially far-reaching, and was amazed at the interest Dolly created. The paper he published in Nature was deadpan scientific. Even Nature's accompanying think-piece touched only on the prospect of using the technology on farm animals. At one point Wilmut mused on creating born-to-suffer animals to help in research on scrapie and cystic fibrosis, apparently oblivious of the ethical issues despite their having been raised at length over the breeding of the cancer-prone oncomouse.
Anyone who thinks Kolata might be slightly hard on Wilmut was contradicted last month by his own remarks in a BBCHorizon programme about Dolly, in which he took a similarly carefree line about the consequences of his work. Nor does the Roslin management appear to offer much of a moral or ethical lead. Director Grahame Bulfield told the programme that if Roslin did not do the work, somebody else would.
While these researchers - employees of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council - did not see the significance of Wilmut's work and its potential public impact, the same cannot be said of PPL, the firm which has funded his research and which saw the need to think through a proper public relations response. As Kolata shows, PPL's more thoughtful position was typical of the role of the private sector throughout the cloning saga. Cloning has usually been funded by private rather than government money, so that the scrutiny reserved for public sector spending has never occurred.
Instead, there has been a persistent understatement of the technical difficulties of cloning mammals and of cloning from advanced cells, partly because the mouse, biologists' favoured experimental mammal, happens to be unusually difficult to clone.
Despite these setbacks, typified by a 1984 article in Science stating definitively that mammals cannot be cloned, there was a lively debate on the ethics of genetic research in the 1970s. It arose from a US plan to place cancer genes in bacteria which are very common in the human stomach, an idea whose possible effects the scientist reponsible had not considered. At one stage science writer and doctor Lewis Thomas assured readers of Science that "workers in this field are not about to manufacture hybrid beings," which has since happened with sheep/goat and sheep/cow combinations.
Although Wilmut is dismissive of the idea that anyone should prevent animal cloning, there have been numerous episodes, such as the the birth of Megan and Morag, two sheep cloned from the same embryo in Wilmut's laboratory, at which a public outcry might have altered the course of events. Perhaps it still will.
Will cloning matter, even if it does prove possible to clone humans? Some experts, such as Richard Dawkins, reject the idea that cloning is necessarily evil, but most, including the EU heads of government in a recent pronouncement, do not agree. Even if it is generally banned, it is easy to imagine a small laboratory in a third world country, untouched by ethical constraints, to which the members of the global superclass can go to get themselves cloned. If that sounds like science fiction, remember that films and novels, including Jurassic Park, Blade Runner and The Boys from Brazil, have raised the issues far more effectively than any number of policy consultative groups. There has already been interest in human cloning from people working in infertility clinics. One of the interesting sub-plots exposed by Kolata is the way in which people who work on farm animal cloning tend to migrate to human infertility work, where there are always willing customers.
However, it could all work out badly for would-be self-copiers. Rhesus monkeys, our close relatives, have been cloned from early embryo cells, suggesting that there may be no show-stopping technical barrier to human cloning. But until it is tried, all concerned should recall that nature has a way of biting back against attempts to mess with it.
Two quibbles about a good book. Most writers, including Kolata, have decided that a clone is an animal made by cloning. Maybe this battle is already lost, but she might have shown some awareness that until recently clone meant a group of plants or animals of identical genetic makeup, from two identical twins upwards. Second, capital punishment should be reinstated for publishers who produce fact-dense books like this without an index.
Martin Ince is deputy editor, The THES.
Clone: The Road to Dolly and the Path Ahead
Author - Gina Kolata
ISBN - 0 713 99221 2
Publisher - Penguin
Price - £15.99
Pages - 219