The Things That Shaped Our Year: Dolly The Sheep

From the death of Diana to the birth of Dolly, and from the rise of Bridget Jones to the fall of the Spice Girls - our writers choose the 10 people and events which made 1997 so special
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The Independent Culture
A Good year for the moral masturbators. The cloning of Dolly, that poor misunderstood sheep, gave them a heaven-sent opportunity to frighten us with the dangers of modern science, and to titillate our fantasies about meddling with nature in a way of which Mary Shelley would have been proud. In their view, cloning seemed almost indistinguishable from Dr Frankenstein's monster.

Even normally sensible people fear that cloning would result in some scientist - rich and mad, of course - cloning a whole race of obedient militants. When asked who the mothers would be and where they would go to school, they are puzzled. Mothers, what has cloning to do with mothers? They do not understand that the "cloned" embryo has to be implanted in a woman's womb. Cloning is like in vitro fertilisation but is essentially asexual since, instead of the sperm and egg each contributing half the genetic information to the embryo, it all comes from the genes of the individual being cloned.

In the USA, the author and environmental activist Jeremy Rifkin demanded that cloning should carry a penalty "on a par with rape, child abuse and murder". But what is so terrible about it? Identical twins are clones so what new ethical issues are there? Claims that cloning is an affront to human dignity are no more than an expression of the "yuk factor" - not a reliable basis for making judgements. It is quite amusing to observe those moralists who denied that genes have an important effect on behaviour now saying that a cloned individual's behaviour will be entirely determined by their genetic make-up. Though genes control the development of the embryo, the billions of nerves in the brain do not connect up in an identical manner even when the genetic instructions are identical.

At present, the risk of human cloning failing or leading to abnormalities is very high and no mother would be so unwise as to be involved. It took 277 eggs to get Dolly, and the nature of the cell that provided the genetic material is still obscure. The experiment has proved hard to repeat.

The new result is nevertheless a technical advance. It could be valuable in producing identical farm animals, and as a research tool. Its use in creating spare parts for organ replacement is a long way off but may in the long run seem less repulsive to those in need. At considerable expense one may be able to clone one's beloved pet dog, or even a racehorse, but it could be more hype than hope.

Given the terrible things humans do to one another, human cloning should take a very low priority in our list of anxieties. Having a child raises real ethical problems - as it is parents who play God, not scientists. Ironically the real clone in 1997 has been the media, blindly and unthinkingly following each other with the same story.

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