Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

Review of After Dolly: The Uses and Misuses of Human Cloning

by Ian Wilmut and Roger Highfield

(Norton, 336 pages, $24.95, June, 2006)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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If you enjoy reading speculation about future uses and abuses of science and technology, discover the Science Shelf column that reviews coverThe Next 50 Years: Science in the First Half of the Twenty-first Century and coverRedesigning Humans: Our Inevitible Genetic Future.

Like it or not, human cloning is on the horizon. Laboratories around the world are in a race to be the first to create a human embryo that is the genetic duplicate of an adult--the human equivalent of the early ball of cells that became Dolly, the famous cloned sheep. The purpose is not to create a living person but rather to develop medical treatments based on embryonic stem cells.

Some opponents of that research make a Boys From Brazil argument, envisioning mad scientists who intend to create babies with the DNA of famous or infamous people, or even their own. This suggestion leaves researchers, like Ian Wilmut, leader of the team that created Dolly, beside themselves (pun intended) with incredulity.

With the approach of the tenth anniversary of Dolly's birth on July 5, 1996, Dr. Wilmut, in collaboration with noted British science writer Roger Highfield, has written After Dolly: The Uses and Misuses of Human Cloning to address not only that extreme criticism but also the political controversy that surrounds the creation and use of human embryonic stem cells in research.

Though fame and fortune motivate everyone to some extent, Dr. Wilmut argues that scientists generally have a different and higher motive: curing devastating, debilitating, or degenerative diseases such as Parkinson's, ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), or diabetes.

He admits that the research is and will be controversial because it raises ethical and religious questions. But he argues that society will come to accept it just as it has accepted other technological interventions in human reproduction, such as in-vitro fertilization (IVF).

Furthermore, Wilmut contends that scientists do not pursue their goals single-mindedly, driven by curiosity alone. Rather, they are aware of their humanity and respond to their consciences as well as their intellects. To make that case, he devotes the first three-fourths of the book to a history of cloning with a strong autobiographical flavor, barely hinting at the issues promised in the subtitle.

The research that led to Dolly, he writes, was motivated by old-fashioned goals of improving animal stocks and producing better pharmaceuticals. The techniques, however, were revolutionary. Before Dolly came Megan and Morag, two cloned ewes produced by the transfer of cell nuclei derived from an embryo (rather than an adult) into a denucleated sheep egg. And before those two came Tracy, a genetically engineered sheep whose milk contained a human protein useful in treating cystic fibrosis and emphysema.

"She was a living drug factory,..." Wilmut writes, "and that is why I helped to create Dolly. Many people think that I was motivated primarily by cloning for its own sake, to take a superior animal and make identical copies of it.... I am not concerned primarily with making multiples of elite livestock..., and still less do I want to clone human beings. This has never been on my agenda. It was what other people, and the media, thought important. Cloning for me has always been a tool of science--finding out how cells work--and a means to improve the technology of the genetic transformation of animals."

Wilmut is sincere in such statements. Even when describing earlier controversial technologies, he acknowledges that moral and religious questions have a legitimate role in a culture's or society's decision about what research ought to be carried out and how it should be funded and supervised.

The history includes the recent scandal over South Korean fabricated research that claimed to have produced the first embryonic stem cells derived from adult human donors. Though that turned out to be a disappointment, Wilmut and other scientists remain confident that the feat can and soon will be achieved.

Despite the subtitle, the book is primarily about the science of cloning rather than the political, moral, and religious arguments. If it never got to "the uses and misuses of human cloning," it would still serve as a valuable overview of the science and history that underlie Wilmut's scientific speculation of what is to come "After Dolly."

In fact, one might argue that Wilmut should have stopped writing at that point. Though he may have given the questions more thought than the average person, he is not trained in bioethics, political science, or religion. Given his prominence in the field, his opinions deserve some weight, but his closing argument suffers from biases that are conferred by his experiences and produce serious distortions in his crystal ball.

In chapter 7, he asks, "Is a Blastocyst a Person?" and concludes it is not but notes it is worthy of respect. Chapter 8 makes a strong case for "Why We Should Not Clone Babies." In these, he is certainly in the social mainstream.

Unfortunately he follows with a chapter that advocates creation of "Designer Babies"--not clones of adult humans but rather the result of IVF plus pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) followed by genetic modification (GM)--to cure conditions due to problems with single genes, such as sickle-cell disease and Huntingdon's disease.

The issue with that technology is, as Wilmut points out, where to draw the line. Unfortunately, his advocacy of IVF + PGD + GM adds up to an argument for the ends justifying the means. If we develop the potential to produce genetically modified humans for such clearly beneficial reasons, will parents want to use it to enhance advantageous traits in their offspring?

Even though Wilmut trusts democratic processes to prevent science from stepping onto a slippery slope to "Brave New World" or from abusing the technology, can he be equally confident that totalitarian societies will do the same? His brief final remarks on the steps "Beyond Human Cloning" end with this optimistic view: "For me the widespread use of genetic and reproductive technologies is not a step backwards into darkness but a step forwards into the light."

It may not be The Boys From Brazil, but many reading those words will hear echoes of an all-too-human Dr. Frankenstein failing to foresee the full consequences of his beneficial ideas.

Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of 15 science books for young readers and a prolific reviewer of science books for adults.