In the Genetic Toyshop

Clone: The Road to Dolly and the Path Ahead

by Gina Kolata
Morrow, 276 pp., $23.00

The Biotech Century: Harnessing the Gene and remaking the World

by Jeremy Rifkin
Tarcher/Putnam, 271 pp., $24.95

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

by Edward O. Wilson
Knopf, 332 pp., $26.00

I write as a clone, the son of a clone, and one of the few British citizens legally entitled to commit incest. A clone, of course: we are all one of those, for the billions of cells that we contain are—each one of them—copies of the fertilized egg that made us, reproduced without benefit of sex. My mother, as it happens, is an identical twin, so that another person shares all her genes. Her twin, in turn, has a daughter who is legally my cousin, but in genetic terms a half sister. Sadly, last time I hinted (and it was thirty-five years ago) that perhaps we should forget the ethics and try the biology, I was soundly rebuffed.

Most people share her attitude. I was mystified by it then and feel more or less the same today. My mother and aunt are different persons: so why the fear of genes? How can so many otherwise sensible people be obsessed with what biology might say about society? Do they really believe that DNA is a molecule with morals?

Genetics is, in the public mind, rather like Christianity. It is a matter of faith; a curse or a salvation, promising or threatening its believers according to taste. In fact, genetics has achieved little and told us almost nothing about human affairs that we did not know before. It is, though, strong on threats and promises. That has given rise to many works of exegesis offering eternal life in molecular paradise or (choose your church) everlasting damnation for those who follow the broad path down a double helix to Hell.

The books under review set out the options. Each expects a lot from the genes: doom or salvation, depending on which is opened first. I suspect that, twenty years from now, all will appear decidedly quaint, not for their contents (obsolete though they may become) but for their attitudes toward science.

Bishop Berkeley (he of the Existence of God being Proved by the Tree in the Quad fame) was among the first to treat science as a branch of theology. In 1713—soon after Newton’s Principia—he argued that society can be interpreted as a “parallel case” of the universe. Life could be explained in terms of gravitation, of a universal Law of Moral Force that acts between its elements. It is the “principle of attraction” in the “Spirits or Minds of men” that draws them into “communities, clubs, families, friendships, and all the various species of society.” Just as for planets, there is an inverse square rule of civilization: distant objects are less attractive than those close at hand.

That seems reasonable. Humans are under the control of gravity—jump off a cliff and I will tell you exactly when you will die. Gravitational engineering—elevators and airplanes—has transformed our lives, and the gravitationally challenged are much discriminated against. If men are governed by the earth’s attraction, why should society not so be? I suspect, though, that …

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