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Leading article: The science leading to human clones can help mankind

In the debate about cloning human beings which has been sparked by an American scientist's promise to create thousands of digitally copied people, the first point to recognise is that cloning stands as a symbol of a wider unease.

The only reason Richard Seed's crackpot plan became a big story was because it triggered deep-seated collective fears. Creating human beings to order has been a staple of horror at least since the publication of Mary Shelley's classic in 1831. Dr Seed looks like Hollywood's idea of Frankenstein, with a name to match, and insists: "I don't mind being called crazy." So it was that when, in a quiet news period, he repeated his plans for a franchised chain of cloning clinics - outside United States jurisdiction if necessary - all hell broke loose. People queued up to condemn him, with President Bill Clinton at their head.

First, though, two misleading spectres should be disposed of. Both are related to the Frankenstein myth and both have proved durable haunters of the literary imagination. One is of the mass-production of human beings with desired characteristics, of the sort portrayed by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, with its alpha, beta and gamma type people. But this kind of systematic eugenics could be practised without any genetic manipulation. The only contribution of recent science would be in vitro fertilisation, which would reduce the element of coercion required.

The other is of "the clone", a recurrent idea in science fiction but which is seriously misleading in real life. Even if it is possible to create a genetically identical copy of a human being, the two people would be autonomous and would become different as they learned and grew. We know this because nature produces "clones" all the time, called identical twins. Born as exact copies one of the other, they grow into independent and distinct personalities.

Yet such is the power of the clone myth that it still leads to the Mother Teresa Fallacy. Dr Seed said that he wished he had obtained a sample of Mother Teresa's blood from her before she died, from which he could clone a replica. As if a baby with her genetic inheritance born in America in 2010 rather than in Albania in 1910 would automatically become a nun, work for the poor and not believe in contraception.

It is, fortunately, highly unlikely that Dr Seed will ever clone anybody. The real story, as our Health Editor revealed yesterday, is that British scientists, who lead the world in this field, could begin work on human cloning within a year. And, perhaps because the research is led by the eminently sensible and British Ian Wilmut, intellectual parent of Dolly the cloned sheep, the implications seem considerably less frightening.

What really - and justifiably - worries people is genetic manipulation generally. We accept all kinds of intervention in the mechanics of reproduction, pregnancy and birth. But we start to be uneasy when we meddle with the code that determines the physical and mental characteristics of individuals. The possibility of producing a baby who is a genetic copy of another human being is emotive but still remote - and much more complicated than it appears at first sight. It is not yet possible, for example, to envisage an exact clone of a male, because some of the genetic information has to come from the mother's egg.

Meanwhile, the science of genetic manipulation is already hurtling on to cloning human body parts and interfering selectively with the genes of individuals. Only yesterday it was reported that scientists had grown a human blood vessel from human tissue and successfully implanted it in a dog. And, by changing the genetic code in human egg cells it is theoretically possible to eliminate all kinds of inherited diseases.

Already, the law has been left behind. The 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act banned the cloning of human embryos, but now it seems that human clones would not be made that way after all. Dolly the sheep had the nucleus of an adult sheep cell inserted into pre-embryonic egg. So there is an opportunity for scientists, MPs and the public to bring the debate up to date. The Government's scientific advisers are to be congratulated on producing a discussion paper.

It is our view that there should be no restrictions on research in this area, although we should always be alert to people's motives for carrying it out. There is a danger that eccentric rich people will try to clone themselves or their idols - but they will not succeed in their own terms, because they will have fallen victim to the Mother Teresa Fallacy. The children they bring into the world may have to bear the weight of unrealistic expectations. But they will not be the first. And most people will continue to prefer the more rhythmic method of reproduction. Our view is that trying to suppress scientific curiosity is wrong, and that the potential benefits of further research are immense.