Moving Toward the Clonal Man

Geneticist James Watson's 1971 piece put forward the real possibility of human cloning and called for social control of the practice

James Watson, credited with the co-discovery of the structure of DNA, is a bombthrower. He loves to cause a stir and make a scene. In his golden years, he's sometimes put that impulse to startlingly off-key effect, such as his comments about race a few years ago. But back in 1971 Watson took a look at the possibilities for human cloning and called on his fellow scientists to step up and come up with a way to deal with its social implications. The subheadline put forward the key question of his Atlantic piece, "Is this what we want?"

The top of this story is a bit of a tough read, peppered with hard nuggets of genetic jargon. But plow through and you'll be rewarded with some deliciously weird stuff about the possibility of the Shah of Iran genetically cloning himself.

Looking back, though, what's most fascinating about Watson's story is that human cloning has not really been an issue. To many people of the time, it seemed damn near inevitable that people would try to clone themselves (or someone). And here we are decades later with a de facto moratorium, despite spotty legal treatment around the globe.

Activation of such eggs to divide to become blastocysts, followed by implantation into suitable uteri, should lead to the development of healthy fetuses, and subsequent normal-appearing babies.

The growing up to adulthood of these first clonal humans could be a very startling event, a fact already appreciated by many magazine editors, one of whom commissioned a cover with multiple copies of Ringo Starr, another of whom gave us overblown multiple likenesses of the current sex goddess, Raquel Welch. It takes little imagination to perceive that different people will have highly different fantasies, some perhaps imagining the existence of countless people with the features of Picasso or Frank Sinatra or Walt Frazier or Doris Day. And would monarchs like the Shah of Iran, knowing they might never be able to have a normal male heir, consider the possibility of having a son whose genetic constitution would be identical to their own?

Clearly, even more bizarre possibilities can be thought of, and so we might have expected that many biologists, particularly those whose work impinges upon this possibility, would seriously ponder its implication, and begin a dialogue which would educated the world's citizens and offer suggestions which our legislative bodies might consider in framing national science policies. On the whole, however, this has not happened. Though a number of scientific papers devoted to the problem of genetic engineering have casually mentioned that clonal reproduction may someday be with us, the discussion to which I am party has been so vague and devoid of meaningful time estimates as to be virtually soporific.

Does this effective silence imply a conspiracy to keep the general public unaware of a potential threat to their basic way of life? Could it be motivated by fear that the general reaction will be a further damning of all science, thereby decreasing even more the limited money available for pure research? Or does it merely tell us that most scientists do live such an ivory-tower existence that they are capable of thinking rationally only about pure science, dismissing most practical matters as subjects for the lawyers, students, clergy, and politicians to face up to?

Read the rest of Watson's "Moving Toward the Clonal Man."

Revisit more pieces from The Atlantic's archives with the Technology Channel.