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Interviews: "The Life (and Death?) of Cloning"
Kyla Dunn, the author of The Atlantic's June cover story, talks about the state of therapeutic-cloning research and why it should not be banned.



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Attack of the Clones

June 5, 2002
 
he current debate on human cloning hinges upon questions of both moral and practical significance. When does human life begin? When should it be protected by law? And how will embryological research impact the medical field and society in general? In "Cloning Trevor" (June 2002 Atlantic), the former biotech researcher Kyla Dunn explores the world of therapeutic cloning—the development of embryonic stem cells for the treatment of disease—and reports that progress is being hampered by the lack of government funding and political support. In the same issue, the molecular biologist Robert A. Weinberg ("Of Clones and Clowns") argues that what he calls "the cloning circus" of for-profit cloning research and media hype is doing serious damage to the scientific process and threatens the future of biomedical research.

We should have seen it coming. Ever since 1902, when the German biologist Hans Spemann first split a two-celled salamander embryo and discovered that each cell developed into a baby salamander, genetics research has marched slowly but surely into an ethical swamp. By the 1930s, Spemann had pioneered a technique for cell nuclear transfer and had proposed a new kind of reproduction: the fusion of a cell nucleus with an egg whose nucleus had been removed. In the early 1960s, John Gurdon, a zoologist at Oxford University, first used this technique successfully to reproduce a frog. Shortly thereafter the biologist J. B. S. Haldane coined the term "clone" to describe the results of this experiment. Society's hopes and fears regarding these biomedical advances are reflected in two articles from The Atlantic's archive which offer a look back on the evolution of the human-cloning debate.

In "On Living in a Biological Revolution" (February 1969), the Harvard historian Donald Fleming put forth an apprehensive view of the future of genetic engineering. He began by summarizing the important biological discoveries of the day, including the double-helix structure of DNA, the mechanics of DNA replication, and preliminary methods of in vitro fertilization. Fleming then boldly predicted that the next century would witness an explosion of bioengineering technology aimed at "the manufacture of man."
There is a new eugenics in prospect, not the marriage agency kind, but a form of "biological engineering." When this actually comes to pass, chromosomes, segments of chromosomes, and even individual genes will be inserted at will into the genome. Alternatively, germ cells cultured in laboratories will be enucleated and entire tailor-made DNA molecules substituted. Alternatively still, superior genes will be brought into play by hybridization of cells…. [I]t would be a bold man who would dogmatically affirm that none of these possibilities could be brought to bear upon human genetics by the year 2000.
Fleming was concerned with the ethical ramifications of genetic experiments on human embryos and noted the religious detachment of the "biological revolutionaries of today." He went so far as to compare, rather ominously, the status of embryology to that of atomic physics at the turn of the twentieth century. Extrapolating from test-tube babies to "custom-made people," he envisioned a world characterized by rampant genetic and biochemical manipulation of embryos, by organ transplants and replacements at will, and by government-enforced contraception. While most of Fleming’s technological warnings have not come to pass, his prediction about society’s slow but steady acceptance of the new technologies may have been somewhat closer to the mark.
The best forecast would be for general acquiescence, though occasionally sullen, in whatever the Biological Revolution has to offer and gradually adjusting our values to signify that we approve of what we will actually be getting. The will to cooperate in being made biologically perfect is likely to take the place in the hierarchy of values that used to be occupied by being humbly submissive to spiritual counselors chastising the sinner for his own salvation. The new form of spiritual sloth will be not to want to be bodily perfect and genetically improved. The new avarice will be to cherish our miserable hoard of genes and favor the children that resemble us.
In "Moving Toward the Clonal Man" (May 1971), the geneticist and Nobel Laureate James D. Watson, best known for his research on the structure of DNA, foretold much of the current controversy surrounding human cloning. Based on Gurdon’s frog-cloning experiments and the reproductive techniques of in vitro fertilization and surrogate motherhood which were then in development, he predicted that "a human being born of clonal reproduction most likely will appear on the earth within the next twenty to fifty years." Like Fleming, Watson was keenly aware of the sociopolitical dilemma posed by experimental work on human embryos.
Certainly, to many people, particularly those with strong religious backgrounds, our most sensible course of action would be to de-emphasize all those forms of research which would circumvent the normal sexual reproductive process. If this step were taken, experiments on cell fusion might no longer be supported by federal funds or tax-exempt organizations. Prohibition of such research would most certainly put off the day when diploid nuclei could satisfactorily be inserted into enucleated human eggs. Even more effective would be to take steps quickly to make illegal, or to reaffirm the illegality of, any experimental work with human embryos.
But Watson believed that the general public would eventually come to see that the good outweighed the bad. In addition to acquiring knowledge that could help to regulate human reproduction, he argued, scientists might reap a wide range of therapeutic benefits from their research on cloning techniques.
[T]he cell-fusion technique now offers one of the best avenues for understanding the genetic basis of cancer.… In addition, fusion techniques are the basis of many genetic efforts to unravel the biochemistry of diseases like cystic fibrosis or multiple sclerosis. Any attempts now to stop such work using the argument that cloning represents a greater threat than a disease like cancer is likely to be considered irresponsible by virtually anyone able to understand the matter.
Finally, although Watson recognized that the viability of human cloning was still far in the future, he strongly encouraged scientists and politicians to move toward a consensus on the international regulation of embryological research for both reproductive and therapeutic purposes before much more time passed.
I would ... hope that over the next decade wide-reaching discussion would occur, at the informal as well as formal legislative level, about the manifold problems which are bound to arise…. A blanket declaration of the worldwide illegality of human cloning might be one result of a serious effort to ask the world in which direction it wished to move. Admittedly the vast effort required for even the most limited international arrangement will turn off some people—those who believe the matter is of marginal importance now…. But if we do not think about it now, the possibility of our having a free choice will one day suddenly be gone.
Some thirty-one years later these words ring true, as the nation’s scientists await rulings by the Senate on two crucial bills on cloning—and the fate of one of the hottest fields of biomedical research hangs in the balance.

—Greg Huang

"Cloning Trevor" and "Of Clones and Clowns" are available in the print edition of the June 2002 issue. They are also avaible for online purchase in our premium archive.


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Greg Huang was recently a new media intern for The Atlantic.

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