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Humans Too Woolly For Good Cloning

I’m glad they started with sheep. Individuality was never the ewes’ strong point. Sheep don’t march to the bleat of a different drummer. Aside from the occasional black sheep, they’re a pretty uniform and docile flock.

What are they bred for anyway? Lamb chops? Wool? Nursery rhymes? You might call them sheepish, if you weren’t trying desperately by now to block this metaphor.

Nevertheless, what a great public din followed the announcement that Dr. Ian Wilmut had a little lamb. The Scottish embryologist created the first clone of an adult mammal. He named her Dolly and then proceeded to make five more carbon copies, although we don’t yet know what they were named. (Molly, Polly, Lolly, Holly and, surely, Folly?)

The bulletin about Dolly and The Five Xeroxes - is this beginning to sound like a rock group? - received the same public whine of outrage that follows other great scientific surprises which blindside us with anxiety.

“But YOU SAID … that we wouldn’t be cloning big mammals for eons.” “YOU SAID that ‘Jurassic Park’ was sci-fi and ‘Multiplicity’ was silly-fi.” And now you are saying “Hello, Dolly.”

Of course many scientists still insist we won’t be able to clone people any day soon. But the man who owns the patent for this little procedure acknowledges that “There is no reason in principle why you couldn’t do it.” He just adds quickly, “All of us would find that offensive.”

Offensive? Call that Scottish understatement. Creepy is a better word, not to mention ethically appalling. For openers, Wilmut had to use 300 embryos to get his Dolly. He had a number of deformed offspring who died along the way.

Beyond that, it doesn’t take Hollywood to imagine all sorts of ghoulish new scenarios. Cloning organ donors? Ensuring “spares” for family heirs? Buying genetic immortality?

Today bioethicists may describe self-cloning as the most narcissistic act imaginable. But before Dolly, there was some pretty strong competition for that title. Remember Robert Klark Graham who died just last week? He was the fellow who set up the so-called Nobel sperm bank in California. As many as 218 children were born with sperm from those little narcissus bulbs.

There’s also a growing private market in reproductive biology. Americans are already saving thousands of extra embryos in freezers. They’re selling eggs and renting wombs. They’re leaving sperm behind when they go to war. And that’s not counting the cryogenics customers.

If I am allowed to find any good news in the Valley of the Dollys, maybe the cloning controversy will help us to get a grip on the current argument about nature vs. nurture.

Of late, it seems that our fascination with the biological basis of everything has led to a belief that DNA is destiny. In a perverse way, Dolly may force us to remember that people are not just conceived; we are raised. We are the products of our environments as well as our genes.

Despite all the Master Race fantasies, cloning would be a rather inefficient and dicey operation.

Clones are essentially identical - though delayed - twins. Same DNA, different people.

Imagine if we’d cloned Albert Einstein, everyone’s favorite genius. In late 20th-century America, however, Al the Second might stay home with the kids so his Mileva could finally get her Ph.D. Or, everything being relative, he might find modern physics dull.

Imagine cloning Tiger Woods. Since you cannot also clone his entire upbringing, the Tiger Cub might take all of his golf potential and become a second-rate flutist.

As for the narcissist raising his or her real inner child? This you-clone won’t have your parents, your fourth-grade teacher or the thousands of accidental experiences that made you who you are. What you might get, as a clone-parent, is an adolescent rebellion of mythic proportions.

The point is that we can clone biological potential but not real people. At 7 months, Dolly is all done. At 7 months, we’ve just begun.

One of the things that may or may not be built into the human DNA, but distinguishes us, is a unique sense of self. It’s this very understanding that sends out warning bells at the very possibility of a Xeroxed “me.” It’s the quite proper instinct that now demands a universal NO. Humans are not for cloning.

Science leads, but we don’t have to follow. At a time when geneticists look at us as programmed bits of DNA, this flock is a reminder that we are, after all, the shepherds, not the sheep.

xxxx



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