Why weren't we ready for Dolly? Leading Article

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The Independent Online
The cloning of an adult mammal has been foreseeable for a decade but has apparently taken Britain and the United States by surprise. This, not the estimable Dolly the lamb, is what is so shocking. Technology is the most potent agent of change in any society - economies and ideologies adapt to technologies, not the other way around - and most innovation is eminently predictable. Yet we always seem to be startled by it. Thus, David Alton, MP, asks for research to be suspended pending ethical assessment, while President Clinton orders a "full inquiry". What are these assessments and inquiries supposed to do? Pronounce that we're not ready for this advance and ask it to come back in a few decades' time? Better, maybe, to set up a committee that asks why we approach the 21st century so ill- equipped to handle the rapid pace of technological change.

Even politicians who are content to remain scientifically illiterate would be well-advised to learn one important scientific distinction: some things are impossible while others are merely difficult. It is important to know the difference. The suggestion in a national newspaper in 1993 by one of Britain's best-known embryologists that human cloning is "almost as unlikely as building a time machine" shows that not everybody has. Time machines are impossible because they would break what the late Sir Peter Medawar called "the bedrock laws of physics", which are simply not for bending. The cloning of humans breaks no such laws and was always possible in principle - and might be achieved within a few years or even months from now. In decades it could be routine, providing new insights on how genes are turned on and off, and from thence to knowledge of how to prolong life indefinitely. Resurrection of dinosaurs, as in Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park, is similarly theoretically possible if dinosaur DNA survived intact, but it apparently does not. Mammoths, though, might well be reconstructed one day from frozen flesh. None of this should take us by surprise. We should already be pondering societies in which nobody has to die. Our children and grandchildren may live in one.

With that in mind, an ad hoc ethical committee seems a woefully inadequate response. As we have seen too often, the ethical pronouncements of such bodies, delivered with the gravity of eternal truth, stand only until the might of commerce or the next childless couple click the ratchet of acceptability to the next notch. More importantly, should we be content for the great and good to decide such life and death issues for the ignorant masses? As a democracy we tend to believe - in a broad kind of way - that radical changes should have the assent of the people. Yet, few of us have any effective means of influencing the uses or direction of that most potent agent of change: technology. It is handed from above like sweeties at a children's party - Porsches, videos, personal stereos - and, until some extravagance of civil or biological engineering shocks us, we remain happy in our ignorance. We rely upon technology but we do not have a technological culture; we use technology but we don't think about it. The task for the 21st century - which advanced societies have yet to address - is to involve people in the decisions that matter.

Democracy cannot operate if people are ignorant. "Public understanding of science" is a ponderous phrase that has given rise to some pompous gesturing in the past few years, yet nothing matters more. It can be done. Science is not that difficult, although some scientists would like us to think it is; physics can be hard, but in the area where public understanding and involvement really counts at present - biology - there is little that anybody need find conceptually beyond them. Dr Ian Wilmut himself these past few days has described his cloning work with admirable clarity and frankness. More of this and we can get there - or at least make a start. Knowledge will increase: that is the condition and the fate of humanity acknowledged in both roots of western culture - in the Judaeo-Christian tradition through Adam and Eve, and the Greeks through Prometheus. The question for a democracy must be how many of us will have access to this knowledge and be able to use it to determine the course of the future.