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Isn't every sheep a clone?

March 12, 1997: Excitement over the reported cloning of a sheep seems hard to understand.1 Who can tell one sheep from another, anyhow. Had the boffins in Scotland taken an old toe nail clipping and cloned, say, Bertrand Russell or some other unique specimen of the English aristocracy, that would have been remarkable. Useful even. But to go to the trouble of cloning a sheep artificially, when a ram will do the job just as well, is hard for the layman to understand. The men in white coats talked about milk and other products, as though everybody wants to drink designer milk. But to the ordinary person, the agitation remains perplexing.

The significance of the event is clear enough to the intellectuals, though. A professor at Princeton, who had to recall his book from the printers because it asserted that mammals will never be cloned, said “if this is true, then all of science fiction is true.” Or to put it in more formal logical terms: “cloning a mammal is impossible; a sheep which is a mammal, has been cloned; therefore, whatever is impossible is possible.” An ethicist at McGill said that, in cloning a sheep, scientists may have done something “fundamentally wrong;” while in Hollywood, a screenwriter didn’t sleep for 50 hours after hearing the news. He’d spent the previous two months working on the script for a thriller about cloning only to find that “even the scenes in my head are being played out on TV all over the world.” Well a lot of movies have a weak plot, but a James Bond movie about cloning sheep would surely be a bummer. And in London, the Ministry of Agriculture terminated funding for cloning research, fearing, presumably, that people would link the outbreak of mad scientist disease with the government’s handling of mad cow disease.

A lot of people seem to think that unscrupulous doctors in some Latin American republic must already be taking orders to clone undesirable people with a ready supply of used greenbacks. But how likely is it that your typical mafioso or international arms dealer will think it macho to opt for vegetative reproduction? It's also being said that those who can afford it will want a clone of themselves as a handy source of immune-system compatible spare parts. That’s an interesting concept in favor of which it must be said that, if you’re going to murder someone for their liver and lights, by all means murder your clone rather than a total stranger. As for powerful megalomaniacs duplicating themselves, there’s no real cause for alarm. People would be onto them the second or third time around. They’d have to keep a low profile and do something useful for a living. Just don’t be surprised if some day you come across a yellow pages listing for A. Hitler and Clones, House Painters and Decorators, or if on Radio Canada International you hear a talk about the geopolitical implications of Québec separatism from Cambridge University's Regius professor of history, Napoleon I, the Fifth.

(1) Nature 385:810-813, 1997.


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naturalSCIENCE ISSN 1206-940X Copyright © 1997/2003, Heron Publishing, Victoria, Canada