Dolly the cloned sheep has this week provided a new cause for angst. How are we to assess the dangers and the promise of such developments?
The irony of our age is that as science advances, unreason does not retreat. Nicholas Humphrey (page 20) points out findings from the United States which show the credulousness and ignorance of large numbers of US citizens.
People who fear alien abduction or do not know that the earth goes round the sun are poorly prepared to make judgements about whether to abort a foetus with possibly undesirable genes, or whether to eat genetically engineered soya beans.
Education is clearly failing to equip people to participate in society's big decisions. Equally, the academic world is failing to explore why it is that people reach for myth when they fear reality.
Just because people do not understand the detail of genetics or artificial intelligence does not mean their views can be neglected. Experts have a poor record of predicting the possible downside of their research: with nuclear power elaborate risk calculations produced probabilities of accidents which were far too low. It does mean people must be given clear information and allowed to make their own decisions.
Educating people to cope with complex issues has never been more urgent. We now have technology that allows us to clone mammals. Some time soon it may be technically possible to manipulate the genetic content of children or even to copy people. And the society that must make decisions on these issues is a global one. There is no point Britain forbidding germ line genetic engineering on humans, as it does, if a discreet laboratory elsewhere will do the work.
Dolly marks a big change. She is no chimera, but a precise copy of another sheep. The plan is to use such cloned sheep as chemical factories to produce drugs. The company responsible, PPLTherapeutics, wants to start with a protein for treating cystic fibrosis, a crippling human disease. Normal animal breeding methods could produce the same effect, but more slowly, less reliably and more expensively. As Colin Stewart of the National Cancer Institute says in Nature this week, "clone" could replace "flock" as the collective noun for sheep. But drug production is one of the few uses for which cloning is likely to be economically viable.
Provided the sheep are treated properly - and Dolly is so valuable she will be one of the most pampered animals ever - the ethical issue does not seem to be different from those involved in other human interactions with our fellow creatures. Peter Singer suggests (page 22) that the key is whether we are causing suffering, not the advantage we gain from the use we make of animals.
But when it comes to applying such techniques to humans, more powerful considerations come into play. Such a technology would collide with overwhelming human revulsion, which may be hard-wired into us for its survival advantage - populations which lack diversity can be especially vulnerable to new threats.
The legal issues - parenthood, inheritance and the like - would be horrendous if it were possible to copy people. And, in any case, a copy of a human adult would not be that person. However similar they looked, they would have a different life history and memories. You may miss your late granny, but you cannot replace her. But despite these practical problems, these developments raise the issue that British law does not appear to make human genetic engineering based on mature cells illegal. If so, the law should be altered to forbid it.
The pace of these developments means that society must consider urgently how people can join the debate on them. How this should be done will be an issue at the Science, Policy and Risk conference which the Royal Society is running on March 18: The THES will be covering it in the paper and it will be broadcast in Real Audio on our web site.
While issues such as BSE are contested by scientists and hidden by governments, the public has little chance to form a judgement. Specialists may want to ensure that their life's work is not suppressed through public fear of the results.
But the public has a right to expect its elected governments to consider when, why and how technologies should be controlled, and to be part of that debate.
Without such involvement the tendency to unreason and superstition risks making the world a stupider and more dangerous place. It may be tempting to try to delay technological innovation while its possible consequences are explored, but it is better to equip people to cope flexibly, kindly and responsibly with change.