Don's Diary

March 21, 1997

Sunday

I buy a Sunday paper. As a genetics news-watcher, the Sunday Telegraph's headline catches my eye: "Abort babies with gay genes, says Nobel winner." The article reports that James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA, said women could abort foetuses with "gay genes" if they wished. Was Watson exhorting mothers to abort their foetuses? Not at all. In a long interview he simply gave his pro-choice views about abortion. Seems unremarkable to me. Watson recognises that as yet there are no confirmed "gay genes" but it is unclear whether the newspaper does.

Monday

The Times publishes a story, "Stately homo backs call for aborting gay babies". Really? Did a Times reporter call well-known gay spokesman Quentin Crisp in New York and ask him what he thought of Watson's quotes? The Daily Telegraph has a short piece "Gay-gene abortions attacked as 'Nazi"'. One non-news story begets others. The Evening Standard reports: "Why hating your greens is down to your genes." Oh boy. Now we know why some of our children are fussy eaters; they are "supertasters" who find the bitter taste of broccoli or spinach unpleasant.

Tuesday

Finally some clear thinking. George Monbiot, in The Guardian, points to real pitfalls. "The moment at which something can be fixed is the moment when it becomes widely perceived as broken: the possibility of eliminating purportedly gay fetuses will surely contribute to the public disparagement of homosexuality." Indeed.

Friday

The Times front page: "Life insurers demand gene results." The Association of British Insurers rules that people applying for life insurance will be required to disclose any genetic test results of risks for inherited disease. Will this produce a genetic underclass?

Monday

Big news today. Scientists in Edinburgh clone a sheep from a single cell of an adult sheep. "Dolly" is now a year old and she is going public. She stares blankly at us from her news photo. This is the scientific breakthrough of the year, maybe the decade. Newspapers do not seem to treat it as a triumphant accomplishment for British science, but quickly jump to the perils of human cloning. They speak of cloning a lookalike generation of obedient workers or a stable of superstar athletes or musicians, or cloning brain-dead copies of humans for "spare parts". Whoa.

Tuesday

More stories about the perils of human cloning. This is like splitting the atom - a technology that can be used for improving the human condition or committing dastardly deeds of doom. Libby Purves in The Times warns of identical herds of genetically designed sheep, cows, or pigs, easily managed and marketed, but perilously vulnerable to wipe-out by a single scourge.

Friday

Reporters seem to be running out of angles. The Daily Mailfront page proclaims, "Could we now raise the dead?" Since the scientist used frozen tissue for cloning Dolly, could we locate frozen tissue and resurrect some of our ancestors? Weird. Therole of genes is easily overstated. They are basic, but isn't life experience and socialisation more important? Even identical twins are different.

Sunday

Monkeys have been "cloned" in an Oregon lab, albeit not from adult cells. Today's front page of The Independent: "Gene science will predict the date of your death." Is this something I really want to know? The discovery of telomeres, part of the chromosome thought to act as the body's "timer", has raised the issue of tests that will measure people's natural life span. Wait a minute, what about lifestyle habits, exposure of toxins, accidents or other external factors? Sounds like a new astrology to me.

Tuesday

So many people struggle with obesity and weight that it must be a relief to see The Times front page "Genetic breakthrough gives slim hopes to all". The story reports discovering a UCP2 gene that burns off excess body fat. Does this mean that we will be able to control weight by controlling genes? Obesity is a big market.

Thursday

What's going on? Nothing for two days.

Friday

Human clones are back. Every London paper carries headlines similar to The Guardian's "Human clones in two years". Dolly scientists say that their technique could be used to "photocopy" humans. Maybe they ought to simply "leave it a clone!"

Peter Conrad

Professor of sociology at Brandeis University, Waltham,Massachusetts. This year he is a distinguished Fulbrightprofessor at Queen's University, Belfast.

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