the modern age of Frankenstein.
In 1818, whilst secluded away in the Swiss mountains, surrounded by the cold and the wet, a nineteen year old girl wrote of the first genetically engineered human being brought to life; Frankenstein’s monster.
Like google and the Internet, genetic engineering has been around for much longer than Dolly the Sheep – much longer than many of us would care to admit. The story of Frankenstein famously came to the young Mary Shelley in a dream after a competition had been announced between Byron, Shelley and herself as to who could write the best ghost story. Her visions had terrified her so much, they were burned into her brain the next morning, and her solution was to write them, and create what became known as one of the best novels of the nineteenth century. Little did the readers of her novel, sat in London’s society parlours, and in the courts of Europe imagine that this was more than mere fiction, more even than a distant possibility; Mary Shelley’s novel was little more than what would become a startlingly close reality.
Thankfully, so far the arena of actual achievements in genetic engineering have generally been limited to food and animals, the biggest and most documented being the birth of Dolly the Sheep, the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell. She was “created” by English embryologist Ian Wilmut working at the Roslin Institute, Scotland, and his team of scientists. Originally, she was simply labelled 6LL3, but then was named Dolly (after Dolly Parton – it was a mammary cell they transplanted into the embryo) by the team who helped deliver her – she already has an improvement on the monster then. Dolly the sheep became more of a person than the monster ever is in the novel, simply because she was given a name.
Another improvement is that instead of taking pieces of already dead sheep and tying them together with piece of string as Frankenstein does, Wilmut transferred just one cell – the previously mentioned mammary cell – to create the complete embryo, which was then implanted into the ‘mother’ sheep. The technique they used was called “somatic cell nuclear transfer”; in everyday English therefore, they removed a nucleus from a somatic, normal cell (not a sperm cell or and egg cell), and placed it inside an egg cell, which had also had its nucleus removed, and in this case, discarded. The egg cell therefore then has pairs of chromosomes instead of just a single strand, which usually is completed upon fertilisation. Hence, a clone is “conceived”, and eventually born. This transferral of only one cell to create the clone is crucial in the scientists attempting to calm the fears of those who see genetic engineering, and in particular, cloning as going “a step too far”.
Not be be outdone however, shortly after the birth of Dolly, American physicist, Richard Seed announced his intention to create the first human clone. Even Ian Wilmut had conceded to limits that should be, and were in most countries, inflicted upon cloning development, saying that in creating Dolly he had only been intending to find a way of increasing the productivity of farm animals. Cloning should not, he said, extend to humans – we are only mortal beings, after all.
Richard Seed begs to differ. Cloning humans for “commercial” purposes is, he says, the “first step towards becoming one with God”. He is unavailable for interview, and therefore his response to the question what does “commercial” imply is left ominously unanswered. This is perhaps for the best.
It would seem useless to deny however that now the technology has been put in motion by Wilmut, that it is only a matter of time before the first cloned human is born; undeniably, “the age of Frankenstein has arrived”.
There are many who fear genetic engineering, fear cloning and its implications; their questions are endless – “it can kill”, we don’t know what we’re doing, it goes against the natural order. We are not God.
Not unsurprisingly, one of the biggest groups of people who object to genetic engineering are the Christian denominations around the world, who feel that cloning is simply blasphemous, and no more than presumptuous scientists attempting to “play God” by “performing tasks that are reserved for God and God alone” (Dr. Ray Bohlin Genetic Engineering, 2003). They argue, fairly understandably, that by pretending to “play God” we are tempting fate, morally, technologically, medically and spiritually. We all have to face the day of Judgement and answer for our actions, we all must suffer for the crimes we commit. But not only, argue the people with more extreme objections, will the scientist, the “manufacturer” suffer for what he has done, but so will the “product”, the clone – the child. We all must suffer for the sins of our fathers;
“I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me” (Exodus, 20: 4–6).
Mary Shelley understood this; the creature in her novel becomes a “monster” principally because of the crimes his “father”, his creator committed in making him, or even really, in simply the intention of making him, let alone in carrying out the act itself. In playing God, in piecing together pieces of already dead human bodies and shocking it into life, Frankstein was creating something – a monster – outside of the natural order of life, therefore dooming his creation (to all intents and purposes his child) to a live of loneliness, ignorance, and exclusion. Ian Wilmut, in a move Seed would probably never make, is keen to voice his concerns on this problem, one that he feels “often gets missed out”. He points out the problems of cloning a child from one of their parents, therefore effectively committing them to re–living another person’s life, with the mysteries of their physical appearance, and with the pressures of making certain life choices. He gives the example in an interview of what this would mean in his own family – “say that we decided to copy me. Now, it so happens that we [Wilmut and his wife] met at high school, so the child is 17, 18 years old, he's going to have a substantial physical resemblance to the young man that my wife fell in love with a long time ago. How's that going to work? How am I going to cope with living with somebody who is very much like me?” How is the child going to cope with the feeling that he is only repeating something that has already occurred? What will be the fate of these children in the Christian world, will the “iniquity of the fathers” indeed be inflicted upon them?
Seed brushes off these concerns with a brisk “I am a very serious Methodist. The Bible says that God made man in his own image. The Bible also says that man will become one with God.” He explains, “When God intends to meet Man with himself, is that in spirit or in body? I choose the interpretation that it includes spirit and body both.” Everything’s above board then, and once he’s perfected cloning the human body, no doubt he’ll start on the spirit, and not long after he’ll be announcing to the world he’s created God Junior. What a day that will be.
However, the thing that’s disturbing about this argument, is not Seed’s extremely selective understanding of the Bible, but his lack of understanding that surely, if we are cloning human beings the children born must cease to be made in God’s image? If we cast our minds forward down the generations, we can see the emergence of clones whose genes, although still of course human, are so far from being the result of natural selection, that the uniqueness, the genius of our race is completely lost.
This loss that will inevitably occur if human cloning is achieved and continues to whatever degree is a thought that, for anyone (let alone the particularly scientifically minded) is very worrying. Right now, each person is made up of two sets of genes, one from their father and one from their mother, and these combine to create a unique cocktail of characteristics, half of which are then passed onto their children, who, in turn are wholly unique. The extensiveness of the human gene pool means there is a huge range of DNA and biotechnology which can be used to help manufacture medicines, to help combat disease, and to create a greater knowledge of how the human body works. Through dramatically reducing this gene pool by the introduction of human cloning, we are reducing our chances of combating fatal diseases – such as cancer – created by an understanding and manipulation of human DNA. Cloning halves the amount of different DNA there is in the human race – it halves our options, halves our chances, and halves our uniqueness. Surely therefore, the price of cloning is too high?
But, as ever, there is a flip side, as Seed is eager to point out to us. The technology required to create a human clone will, in itself, open up whole new fields in biotechnology and embryology which will mean that scientists are able to have a much deeper understanding of what human somatic cells are capable of, and fight disease in this way. Also, Seed claims that he can use the techniques introduced by Wilmut in his creation of Dolly to, in time, defeat cancer:
“The Scottish cloning experiments proved that you can reprogram the DNA in cells back to division zero – back to undifferentiated cells… What if we took a cancerous cell of the same type used in Scotland – a mammary–gland epithelial cell. That's the type most susceptible to breast cancer in humans. What if we took that differentiated, cancerous cell and, after making copies of it, tried maybe hundreds of different DNA manipulations of it? Isn't it possible that we could turn that cell back to its earliest divisions? To the beginning of its life, before it became cancerous? With the technique they worked out in Scotland, you can set the cells back to division zero. If we succeeded in doing that, we'd have a cure for cancer right now. Maybe this won't work, but you don't even think about these concepts until you seriously start thinking about the science of human cloning.”
Amidst all the “what ifs” and “maybes” of his argument there’s probably a good point. The thing is, it seems to be that when he gets down to explaining his opinion, Seed gets somehow lost, unable to articulate his arguments coherently. Therefore, can we really trust someone who cannot sustain an understandable argument, with the future of the human race?
He has a qualifying point, however: “I can't see any side effects from this, certainly when compared with chemotherapy.” But surely, to be able to see something, you need to have performed it, and this kind of technology is still, as yet, a complete unknown. He cannot, he does not have the sufficient knowledge to make the prediction that there may not be the kind of side effects presently suffered by the admittedly unpredictable, but proven, present methods of controlling cancer.
This is the other major objection the public have to genetic engineering and cloning, the fact that we just don’t know enough about it to be steamrollering ahead into something that is still so unpredictable. This fear, bordering on paranoia in some, was increased greatly in 1989 when a genetically engineered version of the L–Tryptophan antidepressant drug caused the deaths of thirty seven people and a further one thousand five hundred people were permanently disabled. L–Tryptophan is used as a supplement against depression, which increases the serotonin (“a molecule of happiness”) synthesis in the central nervous system, therefore helping to regulate mood, appetite and sleep. However, in order to cut costs on the production of L–Tryptophan, the cultures had been genetically engineered in order to increase production, but to do this they had to cut out the purification stage in the production of the drug, therefore making it toxic. As a result, there was an outbreak of Eosinophilia – myalgia syndrome (a flu like neurological disease), and the sale of L–Tryptophan was banned in the United States and many other countries.
The case of L–Tryptophan was, and still is, a highly documented case of “how genetic engineering went wrong” and, naturally, causes people to panic; if nearly two thousand people are seriously damaged for life by a mistake with a fairly straight forward antidepressant, what could go wrong when someone like Seed – who isn’t even a trained biotechnologist or embryologist, he’s a physicist – tries to clone a human baby? Ah yes, he “can't see any side effects from this”. Surely though, it’s understandable that the public have some fears over the issue.
Once again, however, it is blown up into a bigger affair by the fear that an extended knowledge of biotechnology may lead to the either accidental or intended creation of a “super bug” which would have a huge effect upon biological warfare, especially in this age of paranoia and terrorism. Fear has increased greatly in recent years with the speculation that HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, was created, and spread intentionally in the late 1970s through the Hepatitis B vaccination in San Francisco, of gay males, as a way of either creating the before mentioned super bug, or “as a means to rid society of ‘undesirables’ ”, as claims T. R. Keske, an American scientific writer. HIV has, of course, spread and caused world–wide deaths and epidemics, and whether this was simply a matter of scientific course with no particular or suspicious beginning, or whether it was a “covert experimentation” procedure, it has clearly caused people to panic. Will delving into the unknown realms of cloning and advanced genetic engineering therefore release something even worse than HIV onto the human race?
It is however, undeniably true that often people’s objections to genetic engineering are highly sentimentalised; “as a mother”, “as a Christian”, “as a humanist”, “as a human being”, “as an individual”… But it is this very sentimentalising of a situation that makes us human, that makes us able to make moral and ethical decisions; it is this sentimentalising that we risk loosing altogether with the destruction of our individuality through the advancement of human cloning.
But, it reaches a point where debate is futile. It is nearly two hundred years since the birth of Frankenstein’s monster, and nearly ten years since the birth of Dolly. Advanced genetic engineering has been experimented with, and as we’ve seen through the work of Ian Wilmut, it has succeeded; Dolly led a fruitful, comfortable, normal (albeit a slightly short) life, and she, as an “experiment” was a success. Now, as the President of the Christian organisation “Probe Ministries”, Dr. Ray Bohlin says, “we cannot put the genie back in the bottle. Therefore, we must engage the discussion as to how this technology can be used to cure disease and not become another snare to degrade and dehumanise people’s lives”. Of course, if Richard Seed is to achieve his aims and create a ‘pain–free’ cure for cancer, without creating a ‘super bug’ at the same time, then the whole world will owe him a huge debt. All we can do is hope that this doesn’t lead to us all looking around a crowded room in a hundred years time and seeing nothing but real life copies of the thing we all treasure the most – ourselves.