Tall, Slender, Straight and Intelligent

Philip Kitcher

  • Clone: The Road to Dolly and the Path Ahead by Gina Kolata
    Allen Lane, 218 pp, £15.99, November 1997, ISBN 0 7139 9221 2
  • Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World by Lee Silver
    Weidenfeld, 315 pp, £20.00, January 1998, ISBN 0 297 84135 1

From the late seventies to the mid-Nineties, biological orthodoxy insisted that the artificial production of animals with an identical complement of nuclear genes – clones, in the vernacular – could only be achieved by means of the transfer of nuclei from embryonic cells, and then only in non-mammalian species. There were excellent grounds for insisting on the impossibility of cloning from adult cells. For, although virtually all the cells in a mature animal contain the same complement of genes, cellular differentiation, the process by which the cells of different systems and tissues take on their distinctive properties, modifies the nuclear DNA in such a way that some regions are effectively silenced. In consequence, nuclei from adult cells were not supposed to be able to direct normal embryonic growth – which accounted for the disappointing results of transplantation experiments using adult nuclei, i.e. the deaths of embryos at early stages.

There are elements of a great human interest story here: early optimism after the successful transfer of nuclei into frog embryos, repeated failures with mammals and with efforts to clone from adult cells, the conclusion that adult mammals could not be cloned, a journalistic hoax (David Rorvik’s announcement that he had helped a wealthy eccentric clone himself), a brilliant experimentalist (Karl Illmensee) accused of faking results, and, finally, a small band of mavericks working outside the prestigious centres of biotechnology in the earthier world of animal husbandry who eventually defy the naysayers. In one of the two books contained in Clone, the one corresponding to the first half of her subtitle, Gina Kolata tells this story with great clarity and enthusiasm, offering vivid sketches of the people who cleared ‘the road to Dolly’ and a sympathetic account of their struggles. Some of the historical details are not entirely accurate – Hans Driesch’s name is consistently misspelled and Richard Dawkins is awarded a Nobel Prize (in what field?) – but Kolata is particularly good at providing accessible explanations of scientific ideas and achievements, and even those who know very little about contemporary biology should be able to follow her.

Especially successful is her account of the way Ian Wilmut and his co-worker Keith Campbell managed to trick nuclei from differentiated cells into behaving like their embryonic counterparts. The biochemical constitution of a cell varies throughout the cycle, and there is a phase in which the cell rests. Campbell, conjecturing that in this phase all the genes are accessible for expression, wondered whether ‘the same sort of thing happens when the newly fertilised egg reprogrammes the DNA it received from the sperm to mesh with the egg’s own DNA. Perhaps the egg slips into a resting state and rearranges proteins so that its newly combined DNA will be ready to orchestrate embryo development.’ It was this conjecture that allowed Wilmut and Campbell to produce a lamb whose nuclear genetic material was ultimately obtained from the udder of a dead ewe. Yet the enormous interest that Dolly has inspired has much less to do with the ingenuity of Wilmut, Campbell, Steen Willadsen, Neal First and Kolata’s other heroes, than with the sense that scientists are trespassing on new, possibly forbidden, ground.

In the second part of her book – ‘the path ahead’ – Kolata tells us that cloning is one of those rare ‘events that alter our very notion of what it is to be human’; that it ‘pares the questions down to their essence, forcing us to think about what we mean by the self, whether we are our genes’. ‘If a clone is created,’ she asks, ‘how could its soul be different from the soul of the person who is being cloned?’ (This is only a small sample of the many similar passages that frame the central narrative.) Kolata’s fondness for hype, her tendency to present foggy questions and grandiose theses in purple prose, her lack of analytical skill with philosophical and theological questions, and, most remarkable of all, her talent for eliciting fatuous remarks from intelligent people, combine to make her account of the implications of cloning valueless.

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