Dolly – the wolf in sheep’s clothing

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
27 December, 2016
Editorial: 60
Fecha de publicación original: 25 febrero, 1997

Date of publication: 25/02/1997. Editorial 60.

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride

“Mythology is replete with hybrid creatures, like the Sphinx, the Minotaur or the Chimera; but the real world is not. It is not populated by organisms the sum of whose parts have been cobbled together from bits and pieces of different species, but from the evolution of a given species which retains its basic identity generation after generation.”

Stanley Cohen, inventor of genetic engineering in 1973 (“The Manipulation of Genes”, Scientific American).

What has 6LL3 got to do with the Internet? A great deal, a very great deal. Internet could become the definitive springboard, in the very near future, to making Huxley’s dreams –literally– (whether the good or bad remains to be seen) come true. 6LL3 is the surname of a new and singular inhabitant of our planet, more commonly known as Dolly, the cloned sheep. The mere mention of this inoffensive quadruped in newspaper headlines has been enough to get our knickers in a twist: Brave New World is upon us, its shelves full of cloned and clonic human beings. The 22 February will mark a before and after in the history of humanity (the day that the first articles about Dolly were published), etc., etc. All this sensation caused by a sheep smacks of extreme cynicism to me, especially when it is accompanied with comments like “from this day on, science has put us on the threshold of a future plagued with nightmarish possibilities”.

No. Not science. We are walking slowly but surely in the direction of the future all by ourselves. Science only helps us attain what we want. And we want, although it weighs heavily on us, cloned human beings, in fact, we are dying to get there and we don’t know how the devil to speed up efforts in the laboratories, so that researchers come up with this chimera, this great chimera. In reality, there is no need for all this anxious pushing and shoving: it won’t be long at all before it is among us –I can almost see the headlines now, it doesn’t take a genius to do so — and imagine the kind of debate which the leaders of our fatherland will bandy around.

Life is full of facts and events the origins of which are easily lost in time. However, it is precisely the origins that are of importance for us to understand the complex mechanisms that have brought us to where we now find ourselves, whether it be in our professional, family, emotional, or political lives etc.. If we say today “beyond this point I will not go”, a quick self-examination would make us see just how many times we have gone beyond that point or around it. And the road back is not an easy one to go down. Something similar has happened with the technology of reproduction and biotechnology (the genetic engineering side). Both have been in the spotlight for more than twenty years and our capacity for seriously discussing them from the point of view of what we are prepared to do with them and under what circumstances, has turned into a circus. One thing is certain though, in this case as in so many others, and that is, whatever science has been able to do, it has done. Legal, ethical or other restrictions (if there are or were any) have not stood in the way of knowledge constantly exploring all its possible limits. When it came to those aspects which were particularly repugnant to society (especially if there were recorded antecedents, such as, for example, in the case of Mengele’s experiments), the legal system assured a firm and steady move towards the same objectives, but within the framework of law and order.

Capitalism, in this sense, is unrelenting: if research opens a market, research goes on. This has been the case since the beginning of the nuclear age (to name as arbitrary a starting point as any other), which began with the destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima and continued with the building up of a nuclear arsenal which we won’t have done with until 300,000 years have passed, and goes right up to the biotechnological era. If we add to this science’s ambivalent discourse (which is not characteristic of it, but of the way we construct our reality): nothing is perverse in itself, it just depends on how we use it, and the upsurge in the research process is overwhelming. Let me take another example: where is the person who dares to challenge artificial reproduction with the argument that millions of children are dying of hunger in the world at the same time as the West invests vast quantities of human, physical and financial resources into supporting fertilisation “in vitro” for sterile couples? The mere suggestion that adoption might be the most “rational” solution comes slap bang up against the idea of the right to motherhood (a right, by the way, which only began to exist in this way from the day Robert Edwards brought the first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, into the world, at the end of the seventies) and deep and powerful social impulses.

So, we set off down the road to Dolly a long time ago. In 1973, twenty years after James Watson and Francis Crick published their discovery of the structure of the double helix (for which they both won the Nobel Prize), something happened which was to make its mark on modern genetics although the media at the time hardly mentioned it (there was no “market” to turn it into front page news at the time): Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen managed to transfer a molecule of recombinant DNA which contained sequences of the DNA of a toad and of a bacteria, into a live bacteria cell. The toad’s foreign DNA copied itself and was expressed in the proteins that followed. Mr Huxley’s shelves, hitherto filled with dusty literary tomes, began to be populated by jovial, real living creatures. Genes from the cells of a relatively advanced species in evolutionary terms, began to dance around in the cells of another species to which it was only very remotely related. The cloning of genes had already become a reality. But not a right yet. For this reason, a moratorium was declared in the US to study the implications of this new technology. There is no need for me to point out the results of that period of spiritual reflection: they can be heard directly from Dolly’s own mouth.

While Clinton and his flunkies tear their garments at the thought of a cloned human being (are they perhaps afraid that someone will get there before they do?), the rest of the world makes up arguments for getting it on the assembly line. Clones+genetic engineering promise us a pharmacy more marvellous than we could ever have dreamed of (the question of solving the problem of hunger thanks to these new biotechnological beings will not be discussed much because it is a thorny issue involving the question of intellectual property rights which will definitely signify dire poverty for millions of farmers all over the Third World and in some parts of the First. Better not to stir up the issue too much, for the moment). Cows, sheep, pigs, cod, chimpanzees, trout, bacteria, etc., will produce pharmaceuticals to improve our health; they will breed with whole human organs which will permit us to prolong our lives; they will become gene, cell and humour factories to help us to side-step the laws of heredity and resolve the serious problem of genetically inherited diseases….. Who would be the first to raise their hand in opposition when such marvellous promises are in the offing? My guess is that we won’t say anything. In the near future, should an anguished couple whose offspring suffers some serious health problem be told that science could provide them with a clone (of the father, mother, or child, depending on the situation) which at a certain point of its development would contain the biological material necessary for a cure, would we reject this obviously “humanitarian” biological solution? Wouldn’t it be a great advance that, as if by magic, we turn it “ipso facto” into an inalienable right for those that could afford it? How far would we be then from an entirely cloned human being?

My impression is that we are not very far away at all. But not just because Dolly is bleating in her Scottish pen. This is just another link in a long chain of events which we have been elaborating with a sufficient pinch of madness so as not to take the consequences into account. I have interviewed James Watson three times. At the time of the first two he was still the big chief of the Human Genome Project in the US. In the course of all three interviews he told me that he would never allow genetic research to include work on the germinal cells of human beings. However, on each occasion the state of things was quite different as new developments came about, the last being the unsuccessful cloning of human embryos presented at a scientific conference a couple of years ago. Then, two weeks ago, Watson said that if homosexuality was detected as a “genetic malformation”, nobody could deny parents the right to abortion should it become known that the foetus carried such a “curse” in its DNA. This, it seems to me, rather than being a sign of evolution in the debate, is more like a mutation –and all this in only three years! And then they praise the Internet for its ability to reinvent itself.

So, to get back to the beginning, what has the Internet got to do with all this? This fascinating world of information technology has reached me at around the age of fifty. And those in the know say that we are only in the neolithic phase of this new history in the making. Oh dear, it is really hard to accept the fact that, no matter how enthusiastic we are, perhaps we won’t even get a peek at the Middle Ages of the Information Society, not to mention the post-modernist era. Meanwhile, one lives alongside all those young people of 10 to 15 who in a few years’ time will find themselves in the midst of what John Perry Barlow calls the Age of Knowledge. So, if cloning means that we might be able to return to this world and join up again with the digital front runners as if one had never fallen by the wayside (the “big fall” that is), one has to view Huxley differently. Science is very subtle when it comes to developing its arguments. And this one, let’s be honest, is very powerful. The chance of becoming any old anonymous Dolly by the middle of the next century….. well, to attain that chimera I know more than one person who would be prepared to be turned not only into a sheep, but into a werewolf.

Translation: Bridget King.