Galileo, Copernicus - and now Dolly!

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In the past few days, we have lived through a change in the human condition as momentous as the Copernican revolution or the splitting of the atom. In the sheepish gaze of Dolly from Edinburgh, awesome possibilities glitter. We can imagine, just a little, how it must have felt to be a Tuscan Jesuit reading Galileo's Dialogue on astronomy, or a pious Londoner settling down 250 years later with a first edition of Origin of Species.

Ian Wilmut, the whisky-sipping, hill-walking embryologist who led the team at Edinburgh's Roslin Institute which created Dolly by cloning, has downplayed the implications. You could clone humans, he admits - ``but all of us would find that offensive''.

No doubt. But humans will be cloned, and probably soon. Not here - the making of Dolly was a great achievement for British science, but the UK is also one of a handful of countries with thought-through legislation which bans human cloning.

Yet if it can be done, it will be done. The human instinct to experiment and explore cannot and will not be reined in by legislators, commissions or priests. (Ask Galileo.)

There are serious difficulties still. But now that Dr Wilmut and his colleagues have destroyed the assumption that cells could only be used to grow the organs from which they came (so that liver cells produced only the proteins and cells needed for livers, and so on, with the rest of the genes switched off), the main barrier to cloning a human adult has suddenly fallen. There is no way to say this nicely. But biologically - not intellectually - there is little difference between Dolly and the average Independent reader.

We must therefore work on the assumption that cloned humans will be created within a few years and start to think through the consequences. It is not simply that cloning throws up the possibility of strange meetings - of genetically identical humans separated by 20 or 40 years - or of the reproduction of particularly talented human animals, as if in a delicate factory.

Cloning seems to challenge the deep ideas of self, identity and soul on which human society has relied throughout history. Some deny this - this week, a Jesuit priest and geneticist, Dr Kevin FitzGerald, was quoted by the New York Times arguing that because humans are the result of their environment, as well as their genes, clones would have unique souls.

Yet we are only just beginning to absorb the knowledge of just how much of our personalities, choices and behaviour are genetically programmed. In our Sunday paper, Tom Wolfe recalled the image of Edward O Wilson, the founder of sociobiology, who described the human brain as an exposed negative waiting to be slipped into developer liquid: ``The print is the individual's genetic history, over thousands of years of evolution and there is not much anybody can do about it.'' Many of our moral ``choices'' are already printed on the hypothalamus and limbic regions of the brain.

This is the intellectual context surrounding the Edinburgh breakthrough in cloning. And cloning is ``like'' the Copernican-Galilean revolution, or Darwin's discovery of evolution, in that it radically humbles mankind. In religious terminology, we are both blessed and damned: we have the brilliance, the biological specialness, to understand our own ordinariness.

It is a glorious paradox. Like sociobiology and evolution, cloning is both a human triumph and an undignified moment of biological self-recognition. As a species, we come from apes. As individual members of it, we are heavily pre-programmed by genes.

Now we can reproduce ourselves without sex, with a piece of our own skin, or hair. And why? Partly because our history is written in DNA, which is not unique to humans - we share important genes not simply with sheep, but with yeast, for goodness sake. So much for the godly relative of angels, suspended above mere nature.

The question is, will it change us? Will it release amoral, barbaric behaviour?

In the hostile camp we can find both religious fundamentalists and open- eyed liberals, who point to this century's hideous dabblings with eugenics. President Clinton has ordered a commission to investigate the Edinburgh discovery and, as US corporations scrabble to find ways of investing in it, pronounces himself ``deeply troubled''.

In Britain, David Shapiro, executive chairman of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, argues that eugenics and embryo research is open to abuse - something, he points out, he himself might feel particularly strongly as a Jew born in 1934. ``There is a deep-seated feeling, which I myself share, that one's whole notion of individuality of human beings might be lost, with quite unpredictable consequences: if you can bank human material, would you cease to value human life?''

In a world where the possibility of aborting foetuses with gay genes, legal euthanasia and screening for genetic criminality are openly discussed, Shapiro has a point. The cloning of specially gifted or wealthy people could be seen as the other side of a looming Dark Age for post-Enlightenment man. It is one thing for anonymous nature to decide the survival of the fittest. It is quite another for banks or political leaders to do so.

This line of thinking will lead, in time, to calls for a worldwide ban on human cloning and the withdrawal of funds from all such research. But, as I have already suggested, this will be futile. So perhaps, instead, we will have to learn to live with it, as we have with the nuclear bomb. And there is a positive pro-cloning argument, quite apart from the use to medicine of drug-producing animals. The novelist Fay Weldon, whose book The Cloning of Joanna May confronted some of the issues, thinks of it as an escape from fate.

``I don't see that nature has done such a good job that we can't improve on it ... I think it is rather primitive of us to be so fearful of ourselves.'' She suggests, only half-jokingly, that one day, instead of rewarding great achievers with peerages, the government will give them cloning certificates.

Certainly, the history of science gives little cause for optimism among those who would use political authority to ban new thinking, or new research. Tom Wilkie, the Independent writer who has moved to the Wellcome Trust as senior policy analyst, points out that the ``yuk factor'' tends to dominate early reactions to biological advance - but then moral attitudes evolve. For instance, until 1950 it was considered immoral and was illegal to use the corneas of dead people to save the sight of the living. (The law was changed after a campaign by the then science editor of the Daily Mirror.) Now it is considered almost as immoral not to carry a donor card.

In the end, I find it difficult to believe that we cannot live with our own growing skill. Moral codes can depend as well on an understanding of own origins, wiring and organic connection with the rest of the living world, as on older, fiercely contested beliefs about divinity and fate. Science can make you humble as well as arrogant; religion can make you arrogant as well as humble.

Galileo, after all, was considered a heretical menace to faith and morality - the sentence passed by the Inquisition was only finally retracted in October 1992. And Charles Darwin was thought to be a herald of the death of human dignity.

But we have somehow survived even our own growing understanding. Soon, the first human created from a piece of skin will be born. And the world will seem to shudder a little, and spin on. And we will find the world a little more extraordinary than it seemed the day before, and carry on too, mixing our genes with the help of music, alcohol and eye-contact, rather than needles and petri-dishes.