The sheep that shook the world

Dolly the clone is the story of the decade, maybe even the century. Why? Because she embodies our greatest fears and hopes, says Peter Popham
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This was the week when, thanks to Dolly, the cloned sheep, the United States rediscovered William Blake. "`Little lamb, who made thee? Dost thou know who made thee?'" intoned the editorial column of the Christian Science Monitor solemnly.

In Dolly's case, of course, the answer was Dr Ian Wilmut of Roslin Laboratories near Edinburgh. Dolly's mild, myopic features nosed out of front pages across the world as, not for the first time and certainly not for the last, the whole planet went clone crazy.

Prominent columnists made the most dramatic comparisons. James K Glassman in the Washington Post conducted his own one-man Dutch auction. "Dolly is the biggest story of the year, maybe of the decade, or even of the century," he enthused, thereby echoing the view of Joseph Rotblat, nuclear physicist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, that Dolly's creation was equal in importance to the building of the atom bomb.

It was a lot for a mere sheep to take on board. Along with Blake, innocence and the atom bomb, many of the 20th century's nastier ghosts rose from their tombs and clanked their chains. For although the use of the idea of cloning in sciencefiction goes back only half a century, and only entered popular discourse after the publication of Alvin Toffler's Future Shock in 1970, the idea that man might - or must - control the quality of human breeding, and that human beings might be mass-produced for particular functions just like widgets in a factory, is one of our favourite nightmares.

Wells explored the idea in The Time Machine, Huxley in Brave New World, and large swathes of intellectual opinion in Britain and elsewhere backed the idea of practical eugenics in the 1920s and 1930s. Only after Hitler came to power and began to put the ideas into practice for the creation of a master race did everyone realise that the whole idea stank. Eugenics remains as solemn a taboo as antisemitism, which helps to explain why German reaction to Dolly's advent has on the whole been both bleak and forceful.

"Germans are extremely sensitive to the issue," Peter Benninghoff-Luehl, an expert in genetic engineering at the Konrad Adenauer Institute, said. "Because of our history, there would be near-unanimous outrage here if anyone ever tried to clone a human." Die Welt agreed: "The cloning of human beings would fit precisely into Adolf Hitler's world view ... there is no doubt that he would have used this technology intensively if it had been available at that time. Thank God it wasn't."

The peculiarity about the Dolly bombshell, as the German reaction shows, is the degree to which the world was ready for it. To the great mass of people outside secretive scientific circles, the atomic bomb, even as it burst over Hiroshima, was a profound and terrifying mystery. Besides feeling terror and shock (and gratitude), no-one knew what to think for weeks and months afterwards.

In the case of cloning, however, the first shoe dropped way back in the 1960s, with the cloning of plants. We've had the best part of 40 years to get our responses ready. "It's unbelievable," raved Lee Silver, a biology professor at Princeton University, for whom the announcement came just in time for a rewriting of the first chapter of his forthcoming book. "It basically means there are no limits. It means that all sciencefiction is true. They said it could never be done and now here it is, done before 2000." Scientists were astonished and the rest of us had our joke-books to hand.

The Munich newspaper Abendzeitung, bucking the solemn German response, printed five identical pictures of Chancellor Helmut Kohl over a front- page banner headline reading "Genetics researchers say they could now clone Kohl." Other lucky candidates for cloning swam rapidly into view elsewhere. "Imagine five Michael Jordans playing five other Michael Jordans," invited syndicated Washington DC columnist George F Will. Others soon raised the point that, as the Washington Post editorialised, "The people likeliest to succumb to the temptation are just the people one least wants to have around in perpetuity." In other words, the megalomaniacs, the narcissists, and all those people willing to cough up $120,000 to have themselves frozen throughout eternity on the off-chance of something turning up. If it is these people rather than the meek who are going to inherit the earth, perhaps the German paper Handelsblatt was right to rumble out the warning, "With the cloning of an adult creature, humans can put an end to evolution."

The fantasies about cloning, whether about happy me-clones or awesome Jordan clones or evil slave armies, take us straight to the heart of why this is a topic that has given us delightful frights for a century or more. It is the most solemn belief of our civilisation that every person is born unique; it is also our experience of each other, and the basis for our reliance on such devices as fingerprints and DNA testing.

But for nearly 200 years, we have been teased by the achievements of industrialisation, of the mass production of identical objects. At least since the invention of photography, the idea that identical human beings might also be turned out in some great Xerox machine has teased and titillated us with its horrors and charms.

Just a month ago, the notion was revived in a new form in the Independent on Sunday in an essay by Tom Wolfe introducing the ideas of the American sociobiologist Edward O Wilson, who, attempting to clinch the age-old nature versus nurture argument decisively in favour of nature, has stated that the human being is not born a tabula rasa waiting to be filled by experience but rather as "an exposed negative waiting to be slipped into developer fluid." For example, as Wolfe goes on to expand, quoting identical twin research at the University of Minnesota, "an individual's happiness is largely genetic. Some people are hardwired to be happy and some are not."

Wolfe sees this decisive shift of the debate in favour of the nature tendency gathering force as the millennium approaches. "Today ... barely three years before the end of the millennium, if your appetite for newspapers, magazines and television is big enough, you will quickly get the impression that there is nothing in your life, including the fat content of your body, that is not genetically predetermined."

That is the cultural context into which Dolly, in her flawed innocence, has crash landed. Wolfe sees a culture bracing itself for the imminent announcement not only that the soul is dead, but that it never existed. "Exposed negatives waiting to be slipped into the developing fluid of experience" is all we have a right to imagine ourselves to be. Scientists will in time reproduce us as readily as chocolate bars, and the resulting clones will have as little connection as a chocolate to anything beyond the contingencies of existence. All the illusions which have nurtured our civilisation will by then have burned away (leaving us, Wolfe implies, hopelessly floundering).

Perhaps this hysterical juncture is a proper moment to stop and assess - for once again, the apocalyptic and the vapidly optimistic have hitched themselves to our wagon and are dragging us deep into a sci-fi horror future.

For one thing, the intensely loaded word "clone" might usefully be replaced by the phrase "identical twin". As a correspondent to the Independent pointed out, identical twins, like clones, share all their DNA; and identical twins (but not clones like Dolly) also share nine months of incomparable intimacy inside the womb. Identical twins can of course be hard to tell apart; but no-one doubts the distinctive humanity of each twin, despite their twin-ness. The words carbon-copy or Xerox are never applied to twins, not because they are insulting but because they are plain wrong.

As for the correctness or wrongness of the "exposed negative" metaphor, one of the long-range benefits of the Dolly breakthrough may be that, if and when human beings are successfully cloned, scientists will finally have the wherewithal to lay the nature/nurture debate to rest. One way or the other, we will know for sure whether and to what extent we are born or made. Until then, the jury remains out.

Accept, at least for the sake of argument, that all the talk of slave armies and eugenics and master races and brain-dead organ factories is so much titillating nonsense, passed around gleefully as our ancestors passed around tales of ghosts and witches. Does that mean that Dolly should hold no terrors for us? Instead of alarming ourselves, should we be toasting a (theoretical) way to end to the extinction of all endangered species?

Not altogether. The real cause for anxiety about human cloning, surely, concerns the psychological predicament of the cloned individual. This is not a predicament unique to cloning, but is also raised by many of the new possibilities created by advances in embryology, whereby, for example, babies can be born to long-dead parents.

The creation of Dolly raises this anxiety anew, and with special intensity. As George Will wrote in the Washington Post, "Connections with parents, siblings and ancestors are integral to being human ..." How will an individual fare when shorn of all such connections? Do we not risk bringing into being a uniquely profound form of existential loneliness? Arguably, it is only in a society such as ours where family relationships are already far more attenuated than elsewhere, that such a step could be contemplated without horror. In our insensitivity, we could produce children who have good reason to hate their (non-)parents with a special passion.

The good news is that, outside of murder, they probably won't be able to do much about it. The Americans have thought this through already. Sue Goetinck, life sciences writer of the Dallas Morning News, quotes John Robertson, professor of law and ethics at the University of Texas at Austin, who is very clear on this point. "Any person born through cloning would have no right to sue for damages," she writes before quoting Professor Robertson: "`Texas and most states don't recognize claims that I have been wronged by being born in that way."

Well, not yet they don't.