Led by the nose into clone cuckoo land

March 21, 1997

The practical impact of the cloning of Dolly the sheep on the commercial cloning and genetic engineering of farm animals has barely been mentioned in the flood of words unleashed by the possibility of cloning human beings.

The technique used to produce Dolly, at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, will radically ease the production of genetically engineered animals. Until now engineering farm animals has been an almost prohibitively accident-prone, inefficient (and hence expensive) operation. The new technology will make it possible to get the genetic engineering right in adult cells, a much cheaper procedure, and then clone from an unlimited supply of engineered cells.

No one has noticed that the same thing applies to humans: the Roslin technique will remove a major technical barrier to genetically engineering human beings, and circumvent legal bans. Although such a possibility is subject to a moratorium, many scientists, as well as patients' organisations such as the Genetics Interest Group, are assiduously propounding the medical benefits of such euphemistically termed "germ-line gene therapy".

Of course, a medical application can always be argued for almost any piece of biological research, and Dolly is no exception. But the main use of farm animal cloning will be in production agriculture.

The ethos of farm animal cloning is nicely summed up in an enthusiastic passage from one of the leading scientific experts on cloning. Referring to cows, he says: "they should command a premium at each step of the way because the feedlot operator would know: a) that this clonal line performs best on this ration; b) that this clonal line will be ready for slaughter after X number of days in the feedlot; and c) that the packing plant will pay a premium for these animals because they are assured of a known uniform product. In the end the consumer will benefit with a more uniform product."

This gives us a clue to what is really disturbing about cloning: the relentless search for uniformity, efficiency and control. Do we really want our farming to go further in the direction of industrial efficiency; a direction that has already given us BSE and the horrors of the factory farm? For the key thing about Dolly is that she is a product of industry. (Thankfully, it is as yet only a cottage industry.) The replacement of sexual reproduction by asexual epitomises the industrial/scientific mind: sex creates inconvenient diversity and as a result, inefficiency.

We are now faced with the possibility of the application of the same industrial logic to our own reproduction. The likelihood of creation of flocks of human clones is a fairly remote possibility, at least in democratic societies. But this is not the real issue. Much more likely, as with IVF and genetic engineering, human cloning will be justified by individual medical/humanitarian "needs", such as replacing a dead baby. What disturbs me most about such a prospect is the subjection of human reproduction, which is central to the human condition, to total direction and control.

In cloning a human being, the doctor would take total control of his or her genetic essence. Such a person would be a product of medical technology. The human input would be in the supply of raw material. As a technological product, the paramount consideration would be a precisely specified outcome. Am I alone in feeling that an element of chance in our origins is essential to what it is to be human? Are there no aspects of the human condition which should be allowed to escape technological quality control?

The Dolly story exemplifies a central problem with the management of science in our society, the lack of prior discussion of the goals of research, except among tiny groups of scientists behind closed doors. In response to the general furore, the "you-can't-stop-science brigade" has had a field day, spouting on as if the supposed unstoppability of science was some kind of law of nature.

This is, of course, idealist nonsense. Science, like everything else, costs money. Pet projects are turned down every day by the funding bodies. In a small step forward, the Medical Research Council is consulting the public over the degree to which it should fund research in another controversial area, behavioural genetics. Why were the taxpayers, who paid for the research, never asked whether they wanted to have to deal with the possibility of human cloning?

There is an irony in arguments that "moral panics" should not be allowed to stop the supposed medical benefits of cloning: if anyone had been consulted, public outrage would be much less likely. The worldwide concern at the possibility of human clones shows that we have to find a better way to manage science: otherwise we will always end up being led by the nose by scientists.

David King is editor of GenEthics News.

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