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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 a physicist who published an updated version of Berkeley’s Astronomical Theory of Life would be laughed out of court. Biologists are still willing to take the risk.

As is true for the force of gravity, DNA can tell people the probable date of their demise. Genetic engineering is useful and there is plenty of gene-based discrimination around—ask any black American. Does this mean that Watson and Crick have much more to say about human affairs than Newton? Somehow, I doubt it.

It took philosophers a while to wake up to their new excuse, but there is now a deluge of books on genes and society. Some are simple accounts of the latest advances, but more are in that weary penumbra of science inhabited by sociologists. They wander like children in a toyshop, playing with devices they scarcely understand—see what this one does, and that!—and enter a fantasy world in which, at last, they have some power. Biochemistry has become a branch of the social sciences and life will be explained in genetic terms. Some welcome the idea, some are filled with horror, but few pause to consider what, if anything, it means.

The books under review are a very assorted introduction to the physics and metaphysics of the genes. They vary from the outrageously gloomy to the unduly sanguine, taking in Dolly the Sheep on the way. Each has great, but quite different, expectations of what DNA might say about the human condition.

Gina Kolata’s Clone: The Road to Dolly and the Path Ahead and Jeremy Rifkin’s The Biotech Century: Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the World both deal with the practice and the moral implications (such as they are) of genetic engineering. For me, the high point of the science so far has been a mouse with luminous ears (made by deft manipulation of firefly genes). There are, though, plenty of promises, some of which are even coming true. Scorpion toxins have been put into viruses to kill caterpillars, and crops engineered to resist herbicides (which is convenient for the companies who create them, because they sell the chemicals too). Tomatoes no longer freeze, because they possess a gene from Antarctic fish; and vanilla is grown in vats rather than tropical fields. Although gene therapy for inborn disease remains a resolutely dead duck, drugs can be targeted at genetic changes in cancer cells. And someday soon, pig hearts may be altered to make them acceptable for transplant to humans.

There is also, of course, Dolly, who is generally believed to have been made without sex by taking the genes from an adult and inserting them into an egg. She is an ovine Dr. Faustus, born with a young body but old genes. Clone tells her story. It is the most straightforward of these books. As an eminent science journalist, Gina Kolata is well qualified to recount the tale of Megan and Morag, Dolly and Polly, the sexless quarter of the Scottish Borders.

It is an engaging tale, for—in the words of the Messiah—we like sheep. Cloned rats would not have had half the impact. Dolly, apparently, is aware of her star status and, unlike her fellows (but like too many of today’s biologists), rushes to the front of her pen when visitors arrive, bleating loudly. As do certain other prima donnas of the genetical world, she asserts herself to her flock by turning over her trough when she has finished eating and planting her feet on it.

Gina Kolata’s story makes it clear that Ian Wilmut, Dolly’s intellectual father (she has no other), is not in the trough-turning class. He emerges as modest and able, astonished by all the publicity. Wilmut failed to open the champagne on the night his honorary offspring was born because, to him—as to every other biologist—her existence was just another step in mapping the long road from gene to adult. One reason why genetics made so little progress in the nineteenth century was that the mechanism of inheritance seemed dull. Instead there was a less tractable problem. How does a single cell—an egg—grow into an organism of astonishing complexity? Eggs of an elephant or an eel look much the same but make quite different creatures. Early workers made progress (including a sort of cloning) by dividing embryos or switching nuclei, but the idea that the genes of an adult mammal could be persuaded to make a young one seemed impossible—until last year.

Kolata tells the tale well, with plenty of history, but less success with the local color. Early in the opera Lucia di Lammermoor, set close to Dolly’s birthplace, the prima donna sings by a fountain in the open air. Gina Kolata, too, is a fan of Scotland’s “soft summer evenings” and “long golden days.” But Donizetti and Kolata each get it wrong: ten years in Edinburgh tell me that a Scottish summer is distinguished from winter mainly by the absence of darkness. Gina Kolata also misses some of the anecdotes. The Dolly issue of Nature marked her birth by cloning a photograph. Instead of comparing her cells with those of her parent there were, by mistake, two copies of the same image. In addition, Nature imitated Art Monthly when the graphics people improved Dolly’s picture by making one leg black (and different from her genetic mother).

Dolly is an important figure in genetical history. Here she is served up with rather too much mint sauce—does this particular lamb really outdo relativity, penicillin, and the structure of DNA? All Dolly has done, after all, is to bypass sex. However, Alan Weisbard of the University of Wisconsin, quoted by Kolata, sees within Dolly analogies to Copernicus, to Darwin, and to Freud, and who is to argue with the wooly thoughts of a Professor of Law and Medical Ethics? In general, though, the mood is optimistic. Even if Frankenstein appears on page 4 with Prometheus facing him, the Nazis have to wait until page 38 and there is no sign of Dr. Moreau, the Golem, or The Portrait of Dorian Gray until the book is almost half over. Clone is more about science than its implications, and gains from that fact.

The Biotech Century is a sheep of a different color. Jeremy Rifkin knows a lot about genetics, much of it up to date, and puts the story across with real passion. For him, biology is about to change everything: “Our way of life is likely to be more fundamentally transformed in the next twenty-five years than in the previous two hundred” (really?). Cloned sheep are bit players in this tale of the genetic nightmare to come. Whatever astonishing discovery is discussed, Rifkin’s mood is one of relentless pessimism. No scientist stays unbesmirched: all are driven by greed, arrogance, or an insane desire to interfere.

The 1970s moratorium on gene manipulation? It had, he claims, nothing to do with concerned scientists: instead a lawyer told them to slow down or be sued. Prenatal diagnosis of inherited disease? An immoral disaster which means that parents will abort a fetus that is not blond and beautiful. Gene therapy? Obviously, it is an excuse for designing musical geniuses who can play basketball. Eugenic sterilization was practiced in the 1930s (although castration for Missouri chicken thieves was news to me), and the shears will be ready for anyone who fails tomorrow’s genetical test. And engineered crops, in page after page of Rifkin’s polemic, are a plot by agribusiness to force farmers out, to monopolize the sale of food, and to produce new weeds that will drive the globe to starvation. Worst of all is the danger that pig genes might secretly be transferred into nominally kosher food.

Type Jeremy Rifkin’s name into the Web, and one of the words that comes up is “Luddite.” Reading these pages it is hard to suppress the image of a hand-loom weaver wringing his gnarled fingers over Kay’s Flying Shuttle and the catastrophes—pollution, slums, television even—that will emerge unless that technology is abandoned at once.

One of the great unwritten science books is the story of the genetic engineering rush of the 1930s. Why are the names of Edward East and Donald Jones not on every American’s lips? They caused an economic revolution by showing that a cross between inbred lines of corn was far more productive than either parent. Hybrid corn, new mixtures of genes, led to a sixfold increase in yield. For most farmers it spelled disaster. Instead of using their own seed from a previous year, they had to buy hybrid seed from a supplier. Careful pricing drove them out of business, and there is now a seamless link from the land barons to the seed companies to the fertilizer giants.

A Rifkinian history of the times would paint a gloomy picture. It is, though, hard to deny that—with five hundred million tons of hybrid corn a year feeding the world—on balance East and Jones benefited mankind, even at the cost of destroying a way of life.

Jeremy Rifkin is oddly surprised by the doings of big business. Of course global corporations put shareholders first, exploit the third world, and grind the faces of their workers. That, after all, is what made America great. Capitalism is a nasty affair, but—as Lenin was among the first to notice—it works. Complaining about its tactics is like blaming a shark for attacking swimmers. Big companies are all in the same game—why pick on the genetic entrepreneurs?

Rifkin, now and again, does more than rage against the machine. In places he departs from the purity of his hatred and finds it hard to suppress a sneaking admiration for the amazing ingenuity of science. That, though, is soon quashed and it is back to doom, gloom, and the destruction to come. He destroys much of his case by overstatement. There are certainly threats in genetics and many have been ignored. Fools are rushing in, with the hope of a quick fortune. There have been no real disasters yet (although nature got its revenge in the 1970s with an epidemic that destroyed billions of identical corn plants). There will be other catastrophes, and a Cassandra of the genes is urgently needed. This one, though, is just too shrill for her own good.

E.O. Wilson, in Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, also has respect for genes, but is a considerable antidote to Rifkin. He has himself been active in fighting attempts to ban cloning and is an enthusiast for the importance of biology in human affairs. Wilson might, he says, even have welcomed a dose of gene therapy to sort out his own problem of mild dyslexia. His book has a measured view of the technological future: people will resist meddling with their genes except for medical reasons, because they have no desire to be turned into “protein-based computers.” It is hard to disagree with that.

When it comes to evolution, Wilson is a real crusader. He sees it as a seamless transition from the primeval slime to the Clinton administration (or, one suspects from his last chapter, to the Gingrich government that ought in any reasonable universe to succeed it). There is a unity of knowledge—a “consilience,” a term from William Whewell—that knows no limit. Genes, in the end, are what we are. Wilson’s thesis, in direct intellectual descent from Bishop Berkeley, is that “all tangible phenomena, from the birth of stars to the workings of social institutions, are…ultimately reducible…to the laws of physics.”

Wilson’s book begins with the French revolutionary and philosopher Condorcet. His best-known book was the Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, an evolutionary view of a march toward perfection (in his case, one with a socialist flavor). Two hundred years later, Wilson is engaged in much the same enterprise, although the center of gravity of his own universe lies closer to Harvard Square than to the Tuileries.

Wilson, unlike Kolata or Rifkin (or me), is a great scientist. His work on ants is a classic: elegantly done and beautifully written. Any biologist would be proud to have carried out the experiments on insect communication described here. His Sociobiology book of 1975 introduced a new branch of knowledge. Even so, when it comes to human affairs I wish, after reading his latest volume, that I was half as confident of anything as E.O. Wilson appears to be of everything.

The main problem lies in over-explanation; in the relentless application of biology to social issues even when it has nothing much to say (or when what it says is stupefyingly banal). Donizetti did not score notes that could be heard only by a bat, and neither does he have a seventy-year-old heroine pursued by a sixteen-year-old swain. So far, so self-evident. There are good evolutionary reasons behind both constraints. Some of E.O. Wilson’s fans hail such facts—or the discovery that young men are horrible and that mothers love their children—as new revelations in human understanding. They are not. Most human sociobiology is a restatement of the obvious in biological language.

Consilience goes some way beyond that infantile Darwinism. It makes useful points about the illumination of society by science. Taking a camera to New Guinea is enough to prove that cultural determinism—the notion that laughter or tears are learned rather than innate—is mainly nonsense. The quarrel between those who deny the role of genes in human behavior and those who do the same for nurture has reached a compromise (and in the end it seems not to matter much). Wilson’s book also says useful things about science: how rarely it predicts instead of looking back and how nobody in that field is anybody without having discovered something (which is why there are no science critics).

In spite of its insights, the book leaves a feeling that the great consilient integration of human affairs with DNA does not in the end add up to much. E.O. Wilson makes a noble attempt to unite the arts, politics, and religion through the medium of biology. He is not the first to try. Constable, for example, asked whether painting is a science: “Why, then, may not landscape painting be considered a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but experiments?” C.P. Snow, in his oddly unreadable book on the two cultures, was convinced that the arts could not function without science. (His test was to go up to people at parties and ask them to state the second law of thermodynamics; even at Cambridge that was a bit of a conversation-stopper.)

The unanswered question is whether biology and society deal in the same currency: and, if not, whether there is an agreed exchange rate between them. Many dispute that there is free trade between science and human affairs. After all, the sense of beauty depends on five other senses. Each is illuminated by physiology: but it is not possible to express the merits of a work of art in physiology’s language. Although Wilson makes a good case that man is a social animal because he evolved that way, he fails to point out that it is impossible to interpret any particular society in evolutionary terms. Evolution has been an alibi for socialism, for capitalism, and for racism, and, no doubt, would have been seized on by the one hundred thousand systems of belief that Wilson estimates have existed since consciousness began. We evolved, of course; that is why we breathe air and need vitamin C: but everyone is the same in that regard. The interesting question is what makes us different. When it comes to society, biology has precisely nothing to say about that.

As any lawyer knows, a universal excuse is no defense at all. There is a danger in Wilson’s book of accepting all possible patterns of human behavior as evidence for its thesis.

Nowhere is this more clear than in its discussion of religion. When it comes to ants, Wilson is as rigorous as any of his colleagues. Ideas are tested with experiments, some of them classics. As soon as God walks in, though, he becomes strangely flaccid. Rigor disappears in the face of assertion. Culture and religion are, he says, super-organisms—but what does that mean? How do you recognize one when you see it? How many are there? What is the “basic unit of culture” measured in? Is there really a selective advantage for faith, as Wilson writes—even in Northern Ireland? And if all creeds are dominance hierarchies, why does the Bible say “Blessed are the meek?”

Wilson is refreshingly rude about parts of human sociobiology as a science without a theory. Perhaps, though, like theology, it is not a science at all. Consilience makes an eloquent case that, as understanding increases, what seemed mysterious can more and more be construed in biological terms. If that is true (and it is), need there be a limit to what biology can explain?

Well, maybe. Certainly, religious ecstasy has a neurobiological cause; but so does the impotent rage that emerges when you pour scalding coffee onto your lap. It all goes back to what science is able to say. Bishop Berkeley was right; people are attracted to what is close at hand—but that has nothing to do with gravity. A city is like an antheap—but that is not much help in town planning. We may indeed have evolved to live in a savannah, but in spite of his eloquence about our “biophilia,” E.O. Wilson prefers Lexington, Massachusetts, and I choose to live in Islington.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a regular attendee at the lectures on chemistry given by the Royal Institution in London. Asked why he put himself through such torment, he replied: “To improve my stock of metaphors.” That is the danger for those who try to read into nature the affairs of men; to be so seduced by the outward parallels between the two as to mistake analogy for shared descent. Although it contains much of value, Consilience falls too readily into that trap.

Still—retournons à nos moutons—what of Dolly? She gave the public (and the Congress) a reminder that, pace the followers of E.O. Wilson, the ancient questions of sex, age, and death remain unanswered, and that, thanks to Rifkin and his clan, the law may be forced to interfere with the advance of science. Gina Kolata comes up with a good quote from Dostoevsky: “Man gets used to everything—the beast.” That is what will happen to genetics. It will become just another science, and as such of no interest to most of those who gain from it. That day is closer than most of us realize.

Each of these books has its strengths, but each is a martyr to its own hyperbole. Does Rifkin really believe that mothers will soon be fined for not engineering the genes of their children, Kolata that in Dolly “all of science fiction is true,” or Wilson that people have nightmares about snakes because they used to kill our ancestors? (Who, after all, dreams of stinking meat?) All three write clearly, know their subject, and understand how biology works. Is it really necessary to present the biological prospect in such terms of apocalyptic simplicity? Lord Salisbury once said that: “You should never trust experts. If you believe the doctors, nothing is wholesome; if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent; if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe. They all require to have their strong wine diluted by a very large admixture of insipid common sense.” Science writers, please note.

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